Bus service: Two different looks

With Megabus’ discount connections expanding in the Southeast, we offer a critical look at the new route serving Atlanta and New Orleans. A colleague who recently tried Megabus for the first time writes of her experience taking it to the Jazz Fest.  Paired with that is an essay by a former MARTA rider who writes about the lessons in tolerance she learned while riding the intown bus.

Riding Megabus: New route to Big Easy

By Colleen McMillar

For most people, the allure of Megabus is as simple as this promo from the company’s website: “The first, low-cost, express bus service to offer city-to-city travel for as low as $1 via the Internet.”

Excuse me, did you say as low as $1?

The super-cheap Megabus began operating out of Atlanta last November with routes to 11 cities. Recently, the company added daily departures to Athens and New Orleans.

It was the latter that grabbed my attention: French Quarter Festival. Jazz Fest. Essence Music Festival. Satchmo SummerFest. Voodoo Fest. My friend Alessia’s birthday. There’s always an occasion to go to the Big Easy.

But rarely do I drive there. The last time I drove to New Orleans, in March, the seven-hour trip cost roughly $200 in gas. Usually, I fly. But getting a good price requires constant diligence on discount websites. And sometimes, there are no specials out there.

I occasionally take Amtrak. For the money (usually under $150 roundtrip), the train is a great deal and it’s very comfortable. But the journey takes nearly 12 hours — if all goes right. And it’s rare, at least on my trips, that all goes right. Because of freight traffic, it often takes closer to 14 hours. By the time I arrive, I find myself swearing that I’ll never take the train again.

As soon as I heard about Megabus, I knew I would try it. A friend had given it rave reviews, taking it to Florida and Tennessee several times. He likes to talk about the free Wi-Fi and outlets that let you plug in your laptop or reader at your seat. But I know it’s mostly about the price. The most he’s ever paid one way? $49.

I decided last month to take the midnight bus down to New Orleans on a Wednesday, arriving at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, which, of course, is 8:30 a.m. eastern time. The bus would make two stops — one in Montgomery, another in Mobile. The cost was $18.50 one-way — not $1, but still pretty good.

Megabus leaves from the MARTA Civic Center stop on West Peachtree Street. Dozens of riders were waiting on the sidewalk when I got there — probably more than usual due to Jazz Fest. When the double-decker bus pulled up, it stopped about eight yards from where the lines were formed and, immediately, all order disintegrated. We proceeded to get on the bus every-man-for-himself style, with those who “checked” bags in the luggage compartment ending up at a decisive disadvantage to those who just rushed for the door.

Checking bags, by the way, is not what happens. You receive no receipt for your bag, and those removing bags are not required to show a receipt. You depend on good will and a sharp eye to keep your bags from disappearing.

Still, there were so many “checked” bags that the woman next to me kept her suitcase in her lap. She couldn’t find anyone to tell her what to do with the bag, either — which brings us to another thing about Megabus: No one seems to be in charge. The bus drivers are there, but they weren’t really answering questions or making announcements. At some stops, new passengers couldn’t find seats, and the best the bus drivers could do was to say keep looking. Several savvy Megabus riders bought two seats, one just for their luggage.

My seatmate and I crammed her suitcase into the space on the floor between us. Given that the leg room isn’t overly generous to begin with, this made the ride very uncomfortable. She held her oversized purse in her lap all the way to Mobile.

We arrived in New Orleans on time. The drop-off spot was convenient, just off a main street in the French Quarter. It was a decent-enough trip, made a bit surreal by the overnight hours.

I didn’t use the Wi-Fi once. And I never plugged into an outlet. But I did eat a couple of good meals in New Orleans with the money I saved by traveling on Megabus.

Colleen McMillar is an assignment editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On the bus and moved to get along

By Sylvia Krebs

Twenty years have passed since the Los Angeles riots and Rodney King’s plea: “Can we all get along?” Since then, we’ve made progress in “getting along,” but the question, spotlighted by Trayvon Martin’s recent death, remains, how can we “get along?”

Since the lives of many whites and blacks rarely intersect, too many people know “others” only through television. Years ago, I regularly rode a MARTA bus, from Avondale to DeKalb College (now Georgia Perimeter College), after taking the train from Hamilton E. Holmes station. Usually I was the only white person, always one of a small minority. That situation was not new for me. I’ve taught in China where white skin, blue eyes and blond hair leave no doubt about my identity. The bus experience was different, though, because it happened where I am usually part of the majority. Since other passengers sometimes referred to me as “the white woman,” I often thought about what it means to be part of a minority group.

Choosing a seat could be fraught with racial implications. If I sat in one seat with my backpack on the seat next to me, would I be perceived as arrogant? If I bypassed two empty seats and sat by a black person, would I appear to be pretending camaraderie?

One morning I was the only white person on the bus when a man I knew got on. He yelled from the front to me, almost at the back, “Hey, are you slumming this morning?” My first, painful thought was that my fellow passengers would lump me with his behavior.

There was another side to this. The things that set me apart from others coexisted with the things we shared. The black passengers were ordinary working people or students who were doing what I was — riding a bus that we hoped would get us where we needed to be on time.

Regardless of race, we grumbled about late buses, broken heating/cooling systems and the occasional rude driver. We exchanged knowing smiles when a neophyte got on the wrong bus and shot angry looks at kids who wouldn’t turn down their boomboxes.

I haven’t ridden a bus in a long time — I left the college in 1994 to spend more time teaching in China, where my husband also worked — but I remember its lessons. I learned what it was like for skin color to be my most important characteristic and that blacks and whites still had much in common.

My final lesson from my MARTA days happened on the train. As I ran down the steps and into the last car, a young black man was exiting. The car was otherwise empty. When he saw me, he stopped and said, “I don’t like to be on one of these by myself.” Perhaps he dreaded a mechanical malfunction that would trap him all alone. Perhaps he thought some gang might get on at the next station. Whatever his fears, for that moment he and I — contrasts in age, gender, and race — were in it together.

The lives of many ordinary people don’t often intersect with those of different races and classes. But it’s at those intersections, contrived or natural, that we can see the commonalities that make it easier for us to “get along.”

Sylvia Krebs is a freelance writer and teacher. She lives in Douglasville.

4 comments Add your comment

Mike Schafer

May 23rd, 2012
7:33 pm

Given the need to travel between major cities — and I should mention that I gave up flying in 1981, for several reasons, including medical — my first choice is train, second is driving, my third choice is not to go, and my last choice is the bus (although I will ride an Amtrak Thruway connector bus), even at half the price offered by Bolt, etc. Heck, I will gladly pay $100 to ride Amtrak’s Acela over $1 for a Bolt Bus between New York and Boston. Comfort and safety (remember all the passengers decapitated on that Megabus accident in Upstate New York?) become greater needs as one gets on in years (I’m 63). And don’t think for a minute that BoltBus and Megabus, etc. aren’t indirectly subsidized; they are. Ask anyone in transportation planning.

atlin83

May 23rd, 2012
3:46 pm

To Ms. Krebs -

Having not ridden a MARTA bus regularly in nearly 20 years, I’d say that your anecdote may well be a bit dated. I’d like offer the following advice to you, and my fellow MARTA riders (whether they are white like me, black, Asian, Hispanic, whatever):

1. Don’t take up more than one seat for any reason. You can hold your stuff in your lap. You can put it under the seat. Trains have luggage areas. Why choose to be rude unnecessarily, especially if it causes you to question whether or not it makes you look racist, or at best, a jerk?
2. Most people will choose two empty seats over having a seatmate in any case where that’s an option. So if you take the empty seat, you shouldn’t worry; that’s what most people do. I say this as a white rider who has both been sat next to and not. It’s not that big a deal.
3. Don’t politely ignore idiots. Check the guy who accused you of “slumming.” Be proud of your decision to be economic, green, whatever your reasons, and call them out.

I’d also like to point out that those of us who live in more urban places do regularly interact with members of other races and classes. So when someone from Douglasville casts those who don’t as “ordinary people,” I’d say you’re also pretty dated in how people interact in modern Atlanta (and that counts for many suburbs, not just the inner city) – maybe you’re not as “ordinary” as you think.

I agree with the sentiment, but you’ve managed to write this in a impressively condescending way to everyone – including many of those who walk the walk you’re describing, unlike yourself.

Cutty

May 22nd, 2012
10:19 pm

Dude, why try and hype a company that you worked for on a blog? Your PR just made me less inclined to ‘test the new Greyhound Express service.’

The stories were pretty cool.

Nicholas Wolaver

May 22nd, 2012
2:40 pm

It’s great that your team tested Megabus. I’m a long time fan of their service, mostly for rides between Chicago and Milwaukee. But as a reader and subscriber of the AJC, I think it would be only fair for your reporters to also test the new Greyhound Express service, which launched in Atlanta weeks before Megabus (reported by your business section at the time, when Greyhound was a PR client of mine). Writing a quarter-page opinion piece on only one of two similar services did not come across as fair to readers or to the bus services in our city. When will Ms. McMillar be riding on Greyhound Express?