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Megabus Hell

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Now a full-fledged Megabus veteran, I’ve had plenty to gripe about. My customary 500 trip is rarely smooth, and it’s sometimes nightmarish.

A driver misinterprets a detour sign as saying I-66 leading out of Washington, DC is closed and makes an impromptu deviation through Richmond, adding many hours to the trip. What’s worse than heading west on I-66? Heading south on I-95.

On one trip, the AC must be turned on/off manually, so passengers are either freezing or boiling. After awhile, the driver forgets to turn it on at all. When I periodically feel the bus braking, even at 60 mph, I ask the bus driver. He describes some sort of governor that kicks in when something gets too hot. On another summer trip, I’m so cold (meaning everyone else is surely an icicle) I break down and buy a sweatshirt, choosing a Hokies logo instead of a trucker’s special. Next time I’m prepared with a fleece, but still have to buy a throw. Of course, the air gets turned down and I don’t even use it. (Thankfully, this is a regular stop so I’m able to return it on the way back.)

A pair of certified ball-busting drivers make one round trip particularly memorable. Outbound, the power drunk female takes special delight in pointing out that anyone drinking or using drugs will be summarily discharged on the spot. No one ever mentioned this before - not surprising since I’ve never, ever seen anyone even remotely engaged in this behavior. Then she circuits the bus demanding that we all keep the seats next to us completely clear. I am chastised for crossing my legs, which cause one foot to brush the edge of the bench. After being instructed to keep all our bags on the floor (so they will get well-coated with trip-scunge, or better yet, suddenly roll under someone’s feet and cause a fall), one woman is told she can not rest her purse on the next seat, even briefly. The reason? “You didn’t pay for that seat!”

Almost halfway through comes the woman driver’s turn at the wheel. Apparently the bus’s transmission balks at a certain speed (though it hasn’t been a problem for the male driver), causing us to thunk-thunk-thunk along. Instead of speeding up or slowing down slightly, the woman holds to this precise speed. Shortly we arrive in Christiansburg, the only boarding stop on the trip. The male driver, somehow tasked with reporting the equipment problem, can’t be more equivocal. He suggests proceeding to the usual rest stop (about 30 miles further) and monitoring the situation. When asked, “What if the bus doesn’t make it?” he replies, “I’ll do whatever you tell me to.”

So we sit in the barren Virginia Tech parking lot for over two hours while another bus is sent. No one even attempts to get off, maybe because they hear the female driver deny me permission to disembark for a five minute smoke break. (Ordinarily, I’m outside smoking and chatting with the drivers.) After moving to the replacement bus, we are told that because of the breakdown, the customary rest stop will be skipped. A few hours later, once the contents of everyone’s bladder has been transferred to the sewage storage tank via the onboard toilet, the female driver pulls into an interstate rest area and stops in a verboten zone. She races to the restroom, leaving the male driver scratching his head. After some grumbling from passengers, he announces we will have a brief stop so people who need to take medication can get food/drinks to go with it. The rest stop turns out to be a McDonald’s. Eventually we arrive at our destination, three hours late.

With the same pair of clowns as drivers, the return trip is almost as bad. The bus is packed to the gills, and freezing cold. When a slew of passengers complain, they’re told to get some coffee. Trading stories with the outraged customers, I hear about drivers who refuse to load luggage, telling passengers to climb in the hold and place their bags themselves (so much for insurance regulations) because of the driver’s “bad back”. I offer my tale of a driver who made me check everything but my tiny handbag, then placed his own triple-X duffle bag across two seats. The thing reminded me of the shoplifters of yesteryear. One passenger says she can’t wait to get home and go on Facebook, claiming her last driver told passengers that’s how to get  complaints noticed.

Apparently us cracking on the drivers doesn’t go unnoticed. After an “all aboard”, both of them race into the bus as a bevy queues up at the back door. I’m barely inside when the door slams behind me, leaving five or six passengers pounding on the door - a far cry from the first trips I made, when drivers fastidiously counted heads before pulling out, every time. The icing on the cake: the AC gets turned off completely. Like airplane cabins, the bus upholstery is saturated with stale people-odor. Even minus the rotten onion smell of human perspiration, the air is revolting.

On one recent trip, one besotted couple lounging in the grass has to sprint for the bus. The trip after that, a fellow I’ve been chatting with gets left at an interstate rest area. My repeated attempts to alert the driver are ignored because the individual I describe resembles another passenger. “His wife just met him and picked him up,” the driver insists. “That’s odd,” I say, “because his bad and his cell phone are on his seat.” Finally convinced, the driver turns around at the next exit. Then, because the misplaced passenger is at a rest area that cannot be accessed from the northbound lanes, we have to backtrack even further. The retrieved passenger takes this minor mishap in stride, relieved to see the bus pull in just as he’s about to climb into some southbound long-hauler’s rig. Later, I ask a clerk at a regular rest stop how often passengers get left behind. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she answers.

The bus stations themselves are no picnic. In DC, we are called to board people behind me in line skirt around and end up near the front. After standing at the head of the line for two hours in Knoxville, I am shoved aside by rowdy throngs shoving their tickets at the driver and scampering aboard ahead of me. Retrieving my bags in DC, a security guard tries to shoo me away before I can get my luggage strap secured. Apparently she thinks I am about to start unpacking my bags while other passengers bustle about demanding their stowed items.

I am amazed at what qualifies as baggage. One man brings a huge storage tote. A young woman shows up with a fully loaded two-drawer nightstand: the ultimate in hard-sided luggage. The calm, polite passengers I saw on my early trips have been replaced by folks who crowd the drivers so much that not a square foot of space is left to stack (or more aptly, toss) unloaded baggage. One man, sleeping off his football game binge (he and his buddies talk and laugh loudly throughout the first hour), claims my almost-whispered two minute cell phone conversation disturbs his sleep.

Do I still take Megabus? Yes, I do. Megabus and Ambien are made for each other. As my round-trip ticket price goes from $6 to $9 to $18 to $27 and now to $58 or $68 (and the bus windows get greasier and greasier, apparently because the alleged cleaners almost always overlook the ubiquitous head-smears), it’s still cheaper - and easier - than driving. More importantly, I’ve learned a few tricks. Now that all the buses (all I’ve seen, anyway) are double deckers, location is more important than ever. That’s all I’m going to say though. I have enough competition as it is.

New York Avenue Bridge: ho-hum or fabulous?

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Today I sent this message to the New York Avenue Bridge Project Manager:

I hope, I hope, I hope that you are going replace the opaque metal railings on the bridge with something that doesn’t obstruct the view. This bridge, could - and by all rights, should - have fabulous vistas in both directions. It is all that remains of a grand boulevard, a boulevard which constitutes not only the eastern entrance to a major city, but to the nation’s capital. A distant view of the Capitol itself is only possible from a few locations, and this is one of them.

At the very least, see-through railings would de-uglify this drearily utilitarian stretch of roadway. Moreover, it would make the bridge far more pedestrian friendly and give frustrated drivers who are stuck in traffic a way to take their minds off their miseries (and thereby help reduce road rage). People feel confined and edgy when presented with a view that consists of a few yards of concrete and then stops at a solid wall, no matter what’s on the other side. And in this case, they have reason to believe they’re being deprived of something that is interesting, or even - to many - fascinating.


Eckington’s NoMa West: instant gratification

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

According to a DC MUD post, developers finally broke ground this week on Alexan NoMa West, originally known as Eckington One.

Back in 2006, community members almost unanimously supported the zoning change that was required so that new residences could be built in this spot. For one thing, people opted for houses and condos over the specters of industrial waste dumps that were skilfully conjured up.

A more savvy community would have weighed its options more thoroughly. With NoMa development imminent, industrial concerns were probably priced out, even back then. This large tract of vacant land, practically a stone’s throw from the New York Avenue Metro, was destined to become highly desirable commercial real estate.

But, no, people wanted guaranteed shopping destinations, and soon. When the original PUD specified 15,084 square feet of retail space (about 2.5% of the total), collective tumescence ensued.


NoMa: the fight for retail

Monday, March 14th, 2011

More than anything, the modern gentry lusts for shopping opportunities – specifically, national chains within walking distance. For years our community has been told it doesn’t have enough potential customers to support this kind of retail, that we need a better-heeled, denser population. As a result, otherwise sane people instantly rally in support of every oversized condo block that comes along.

Well, guess what? We’re here. Between the Metro station and all the employers NoMa has (or will have) within its boundaries, it looks like these new dwelling boxes will, before too long, become filled with residents who will sleep far more soundly knowing their trusted brand names are merely an arms-length away.

So please, enough bending over for every “mixed-use” development asking for a zoning change or a taxpayer handout. Current land use plans exist for good reasons, one of them being to provide a transition between NoMa and our little pocket of historical rowhouses.


50 Florida Avenue NE needs to be retail

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

The main reason our neighborhood has been so liveable all these years – and stands to become even more attractive as time goes on and higher density developments inevitably grow up around us – has to do with the modest use of our lots.

Our buildings are as tall as they can possibly be and still allow street trees (and street life) to thrive. That, combined with the mandatory setbacks, also allows us to grow things (and, as one neighbor observed, to capture solar light for aesthetics and energy).

If we allow ourselves to become a terrarium at the bottom of a canyon, we will not only regret it ourselves, we also risk spoiling this area for the generations ahead. Eckington’s layout anchors the whole neighborhood. Years from now, people who come into the area for the first time will hopefully see a graceful transition between NoMa’s modern, most-bang-for-the-buck, early 21st-century taxpayer-subisidized developments and our human-scale rowhouses. What we don’t want is, "Look at that pocket of regular houses! How did that manage to survive under all of this?"


My first Megabus trip

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

The single-digit prices Megabus offers can’t possibly cover gas, let alone drivers’ salaries. Sure, their no-refund policy means they can keep the money from tickets people buy on impulse and never use. But still . . .

Maybe moving people from city to city for practically nothing is just to introduce the service, and Megabus will reap big rewards someday when their fares inevitably rise. Whatever their business model, I am just excited that for now, I can visit my friends and family (and hopefully have them visit me) by spending essentially nothing but time. And if that time involves hours I’d normally be sleeping anyway, so much the better.