Bus Ride From Toronto to NYC Epitomizes the Sad State of Ground Transportation

CC BY 2.0. andresmh

Or, how my attempt at reduced-emission travel fell flat on its face.

Taking a bus from Toronto to New York City was supposed to be a good idea. The trip would last 10 hours, leaving at night and arriving at 7 a.m. the next morning. The Megabus company boasted comfortable reclining seats, air conditioning, WiFi, and electrical outlets, all of which made it sound like a moving hotel room for the low price of $75 each way. Fewer emissions combined with a good night’s sleep sounded like a perfect combination.

My friend and I boarded the bus on a Thursday night in May, when the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius (86 F); the cool interior of the bus felt very pleasant. It was after 9 p.m. when we pulled out and I struggled to stay awake. I figured, once we passed the border at Buffalo, I’d be able to fall into a deep slumber.

Alas, it did not go as planned. We pulled into the border and had to wait for two other buses to unload passengers and baggage and go through customs before we could disembark. The driver turned off the engine (an action of which I approve in theory), but it meant the A/C turned off in the upper level, where most people were seated, and the windows did not open. The result was a rapid, suffocating increase in heat. We sat for nearly two hours, with no further communication as to what was happening.

We got back onto our bus by 12:30 a.m., then stopped at the Buffalo bus station. There, all the lights came on and the driver shouted an update into the microphone. It turns out he’d lost the code to restart the bus, so we were forced to wait an hour for someone to fix the problem.

A couple hours later, there was another rest stop when all the lights came on and the driver hollered loudly enough to wake the dead. I attempted to ignore it, armed with earplugs and a face mask. At 7:30 a.m., we stopped yet again for a bleary-eyed breakfast break. New York was still three hours away.

I set foot on Manhattan pavement by 11 o’clock. By that time, I’d been traveling for 14 hours on the bus, plus an additional four hours by car to get to the bus station from my rural home. It had been a long day, to say the least, made far worse by the fact that I’d barely slept. And then I had to do it all over again to get home.

This whole unpleasant experience has been a source of fascination to me, mainly because it proves a sad point – that nobody wants to take ground transportation because it’s so crummy. No wonder people fly.

I don’t think lack of time is as big an issue as it’s made out to be. Look at Lloyd’s recent example of Cabin’s comfy sleeper bus now traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If conditions are right, the journey can be as much a part of the experience as the destination. That’s what I was hoping for with Megabus, but it fell short.

The most aggravating part was not just the delays – that’s normal when crossing borders – but more the driver’s seeming determination that we sleep as little as possible. I’m being slightly facetious, but I do think the system is flawed. An overnight bus should strive to be conducive to sleep, should it not?

Someone might say, “That’s what you get for paying $75.” It’s true that I could have taken the train, but it cost $500 when I priced it out -- two hundred more than an airfare, which, ironically, is far worse from an environmental standpoint. It makes me frustrated that making a conscious choice to reduce my carbon footprint meant choosing between something exorbitantly expensive and awfully unpleasant.

In an ideal world, those travelers making the most environmentally destructive choices for the sake of convenience should have the most unpleasant traveling experiences, while those striving to minimize their impact, and likely spending more time while doing it, could be rewarded by comfort and ease. (This is why I don’t have a problem with the unpleasantness of flying these days; I don’t think it should be ‘smooth sailing’ if we ever hope to reduce the number of flights.)

Decent ground transportation networks exist elsewhere; I've ridden buses in Europe, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and Brazil. I know it can work. But how do we get there? I felt like buying that bus ticket would be a green vote of sorts, a tiny voice of support for an alternative way of moving around, but instead it felt like a big fat failure that wasted two of my workdays and left me horribly sleep-deprived and stressed. It was hardly worth it.

I don’t know how I’ll get to New York City next time. Maybe I’ll wait for a fabulous train seat sale. Maybe I’ll carpool with four other people. Most likely I’ll just stay home for a while.