CLEVELAND — In the dead of a frigid winter night, the crowded confines of the art deco Greyhound station here have the feel of a triage unit. Dazed-looking passengers slump over their possessions trying to catch some winks under the glaring lights. The restless line up to vie for a seat on the next bus out. Others sit listlessly, waiting, complaining. Optimism is a rare quality at 4 a.m. in the bus station in Cleveland. So perhaps it's understandable if the bleary-eyed fail to recognize the finer points of what Greyhound Lines is touting as a $60 million, three-year makeover. After 90-odd years on the road, the bus company identified by the iconic racing canine was getting a bit long in the jowls and deemed ready for a face lift.
The changes come at a time when intercity bus travel is on the rise, thanks in part to the entry of new, smaller bus lines. And so with a pack of those younger, regional carriers nipping at the heels of the only national intercity bus line, Greyhound has spruced up its fleet and many of its terminals.
Improvements onboard include reclining seats with lumbar support, footrests and carpeted ceilings for sound-proofing. At 125 stations, new signage has been installed along with better lighting, restroom renovations, and in some stations, flat-screen TVs. Employees have undergone a "rigorous" customer-service training program and drivers wear spiffy new uniforms.
Many of these changes are evident in the pre-dawn hours in Cleveland. An X-Files rerun glows from an elevated flat-screen TV, the bathroom smells of disinfectant and the floors are debris-free. A friendly cook throws burgers on the grill. And chilled passengers can warm themselves with fleece blankets for sale at the gift kiosk.
But at the moment, these niceties are lost on some customers. "When we got here, I went out and smoked a cigarette and I saw they got buses. They got drivers. They got gas. So why aren't we goin' anywhere?" ponders Lisa McLain.
Her departure from Sandusky, Ohio, this evening was three hours late, and now the 37-year-old, who describes her job as helping a friend repossess cars, has been sitting in Cleveland for 3½ hours. At this rate, she estimates she'll arrive in Chapel Hill, N.C., eight hours behind schedule. Still, she's more resigned than angry. "It cramps your style, but what are you gonna do? You get upset, it's not gonna make you get there faster."
Indeed, taking the bus requires the luxury of time. But then, many riders can't afford the luxury of speed. In a country where car culture reigns even as fuel prices soar, travelers with their own wheels haven't been prone to leaving the driving to Greyhound. Moreover, in the years following airline deregulation, which brought greater competition and lower fares, air travel became more widely available to the masses (and gave rise to the pejorative characterization of the airlines as "Greyhounds of the sky"). Consequently, in past decades, intercity bus ridership sharply declined. Between 1960 and 1980, scheduled service between U.S. cities dropped by almost a third, and from 1980 to 2005, service declined another 60%, according to a new DePaul University study. But the study notes a recent resurgence in the industry, with a 13% increase in departures between February 2006 and late last year.
The major reasons more people are climbing on board: high gas prices, traffic congestion and the hassles of air travel, particularly on shorter flights. Moreover, says Joseph Schwieterman, the DePaul professor who did the study, "the stigma of bus travel is slowly fading away. Young people don't have the same memories of the bad old days of bus travel."
Or some don't, anyway.
"I've been taking Greyhound for the past seven years, and I've never been impressed with the service," says Warren Beck, 22, who is homeless. He and his fiancée, Heather Applegate, 21, are sitting on the floor of the Cleveland station, eating pistachios washed down with Mountain Dew as they await a 4:30 a.m. bus to transport them to a new life in Columbus.
"I'm always more than grateful to get off the bus. It's overpacked," Beck says. "On the one we got off tonight, there was a lady who smelled like a dead fish."
To be fair, legions of air travelers endure cramped conditions, annoying, and yes, even smelly seatmates. Riding a crowded Greyhound is no less comfortable than flying in a full coach compartment. But bus travel is an easy target. Witness the headline: "30 Miserable Lives Lost In Greyhound Bus Crash," in a recent issue of the satirical publication TheOnion.
Schwieterman, himself a fan of bus travel who says he has never had a bad experience taking the bus, notes, "Service was never as bad as it was alleged to be. But perception is reality."
Indeed, the stereotype of drug-addled, recently paroled or otherwise wretched members of society's underbelly taking the bus because they have no alternative dies hard. But that's changing.
The No. 1 demographic on Megabus, a Chicago-based express line serving 16 Midwest and six Western locales, for instance, is 30- to 55-year-old women. Second are 18- to 30-year-old "young professionals" and students. Dale Moser, head of Coach USA, which operates the 1½-year-old line, acknowledges that the negative image is one of the "biggest hurdles" to building business. Regardless, Megabus ridership has grown 118% in the past year, with 750,000 passengers since the line rolled out in April 2006.
Besides touting low fares, Megabus peddles an environmental message. More than half its riders have said they took the bus instead of driving, "so we're getting a modal shift out of the car and into the bus," Moser says.
The online ticket agent GotoBus.com, which sells tickets for 50 or so regional or point-to-point lines, has experienced annual double-digit increases, with more than 1 million ticket sales since it launched in 2002. The service caters to a youthful clientele, says its president, Jimmy Chen. And fierce competition among fledgling lines to attract those riders is sparking innovations such as mobile Wi-Fi access.
Greyhound, with an annual ridership of 19.3 million in 2006, also is targeting younger riders. It instituted e-ticketing for some major cities in 2006 and added priority seating for about 50 city pairs. In November, the company kicked off an ad campaign targeting urban 18- to 34-year-olds such as Christopher Moore, 21, a student at George Mason University in Virginia. He has ridden the so-called Chinatown buses — cut-rate lines that got their start catering to Asian communities — between Washington, D.C., and New York. But when Greyhound lowered its fares on that route, he went with the national carrier.
"The buses are cleaner, nicer," he says, adding it's worth the $5 or so more that Greyhound charges on that route.
But his impressions differ from those of Chanik Son, a South Korean student traveling with three friends on a month-long bus odyssey that has taken them from Florida to D.C. to New York and now, Chicago. At $522 for a month-long pass, the price is right, but "the buses are dirty," Son says.
Economics also has propelled L.J. Johnson onto the bus. He is on a 24-hour journey from his home in New Jersey to his grandmother's funeral in Saginaw, Mich., and the cost of a last-minute ticket — $1,500 by air vs. $250 by bus — made Greyhound the obvious choice.
Clad in a dark-brown suit, Johnson cuts a dapper figure in the gloomy Pittsburgh bus station. In contrast to other gussied-up stations, Greyhound's temporary digs next to the county jail are depressing. The acrid smell of urine permeates the restroom, and the prepackaged sandwiches at the grab-and-go kiosk are dated Monday. It's Thursday.
Clifton Nellum, 62, a retired Greyhound driver from San Antonio and frequent bus rider in transit to Elkhart, Ind., takes the conditions in stride. "Some places are clean. Some aren't," he says with a shrug as he sips coffee at a rest stop.
In 30 years driving for the line, Nellum witnessed plenty of humanity through his rearview mirror. Here's one observation: The only difference between bus people and airline people is that airline people dress up more.
Any travel tips for either group?
"Yeah," he says. "Take the train."