I love traveling across New York State using Amtrak. And when I want to travel for day trips from my home of Rochester to cities East of me, like Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Schenectady and Albany, the train schedules allow for early morning departures and late night return trips.
But if I want to spend a day in Buffalo and return late in the evening to maximize my time in Upstate’s largest city without paying out the nose for lodging, the Amtrak schedules simply don’t jive. The earliest train from Rochester heading West departs The Flower City at 2:10pm, while latest train leaves Buffalo’s new downtown Exchange Street Station over an hour earlier.
Greyhound bus, however, has a much wider variety of Buffalo/Rochester departures, accommodating day trips that allow time for plenty of adventure before returning home. But even for a hearty public transit rider like myself, Greyhound’s cramped seating conditions and often full buses can be a little uncomfortable on longer trips. In contrast, Amtrak’s ample legroom, larger seats, cafe car, as well as business class and sleeper car options give passengers a great deal more flexibility and comfort choice. Sometimes after walking around a city for 10-12 hours, I just like a little more space on the ride home to relax, unwind and get some shut eye instead of being squished between another passenger and the window for hours.
While it hasn’t gotten much media attention (because let’s face it, do we know if Greyhound actually has a marketing budget?), but recently I discovered that the U.S. bus giant is now assigning seats for all travel. If the traveler chooses to pay the base ride fare, they will be randomly assigned a seat and directed by the bus operator which seat to occupy upon boarding.
However, travelers booking tickets now have the option of choosing which seat they would like when purchasing their ride. For an up-charge of just a few dollars, the rider can ensure they have a window seat for the entire trip. And if the rider wants to guarantee they will have space to sprawl, they can choose Greyhound’s new “Neighbor-Free” option and reserve two seats next to one another for the price of one seat plus about 55% of the other.
For example, if I want to travel from Rochester, New York to New York City (about a 7 hour ride) the cost is approximately $45 when I book in advance. If I want to choose my own seat, the fee is an additional $5.99, and if I want to travel neighbor-free, it’s an additional $24.99. So for $70 each way, I can travel Greyhound and sleep across 2 seats for the entire round trip if I choose. If I want to make the same trip on Amtrak, the ride is longer, and while coach costs $17 less each way, there is no guarantee that I will have two seats to myself the whole way. Virtually the only way to ensure a less “cramped” journey on Amtrak is to ride business class, which, for this particular trip, costs over $140 one way.
Encouraged by this scaleable rider option, I booked a Greyhound bus home from Buffalo to Rochester last week. I admit, when I chose the “neighbor-free” option at checkout, I was skeptical of how it would play out. Would the operator remind passengers of their seat assignments? Would riders adhere to the new policy or simply sit where they pleased?
From my experience, when people are accustomed to riding public transit a certain way and are suddenly given new instructions, folks will often do what they’ve always done in the spirit of defiance and routine. Much to my delight, this was not the case on my trip. When scanning each ticket, the bus operator told each passenger their seat assignment and to my knowledge, everyone adhered to the assignment. No one was in my seat when I boarded, or tried to sit next to me before we departed or during the trip. At least for my “test run” of the new policy, everything seemed to go off without a hitch.
Forgive the sidebar, but right now I can feel the boiling blood of the public transit purist who might think that buying adjacent seats to avoid human contact negates a key component of the shared mobility experience. For the record I don’t disagree. I have had scores of the most amazing human connections while riding public transportation, from college students to Amish farmers, baseball scouts to amateur porn actors (you can’t make this stuff up). But I am also a very extroverted person who is deeply motivated by human connection. If we really want to make public transit more attractive to a broader population, we must consider that a large percentage Americans identify as introverts. A great many people struggle with crowded spaces and close contact with strangers for extended periods of time. Providing scaleable comfort options at an affordable price on public transportation could be the variable that inspires someone to choose the bus instead of the car. In the end, isn’t that part of the bigger picture of blending sustainable mobility with inclusion?
And to this point, I’ll share my own confession. Maybe it’s post-COVID, or maybe it’s just getting older, but I don’t have the energy for human contact that I used to. More and more I turn to a good book instead of a night out with friends. I space out my activities and enjoy quiet nights on the couch watching TV with my wonderful wife. I’m still obsessed with the spirit of community and the importance of the shared human experience, both with regard to where we live and how we move about. But to be honest, these days I need a little more space than I used to and I find myself occasionally seeking options that allow for that space.
For these reasons, I am very much encouraged that Greyhound has introduced the aforementioned options. When we provide approachable public transit options, we have a better chance of catering to a wider audience. At the end of the day, this should always be our goal.