On Travel in America

September 2, 2007

I took a train, I took a plane/ Ah, who cares you always end up in the city

-The New Pornographers, “Myriad Harbour”

The bus rides between New York & Boston and Boston & New Haven always remind me that miles aren’t the best measure of distance (and neither is the kilometer, a unit of measure invented to make small countries feel better about themselves). The Boston-New Haven bus always takes a circuitous route, frequently involving a transfer in Hartford, or trips to the buffets at the Connecticut casinos. The two-and-a-half hour car ride is at least an hour longer, and usually 90 minutes or more. New York-Boston, on the other hand, is direct, generally non-stop, and half as expensive as the New Haven route, a result of Chinatown operatives striking out for the working class and breaking Greyhound’s monopoly. Boston may be further from New York than it is from New Haven, but New York is a far more accessible place than New Haven. If we think of distance as a reflection of the ability to get from one place to another, then New York is much closer to Boston than New Haven is.

But no cities are closer than those in the midwest and the west coast. Chicago and Ann Arbor are 242 miles apart, a trip Google Maps estimates to take about 4 hours by car. With stops, Greyhound estimates that the trip will take 5.5 hours, and a walk-up fare will run you 35 dollars. The UK import Megabus bases its fares on when the ticket is purchased and when travel is undertaken. For example, a ticket from Chicago to Ann Arbor purchased two days in advance will run you $24 for a morning bus, and $20 for a bus that gets in late at night. But those same tickets purchased six weeks in advance will run you $15 and $8 respectively. Of course, Ann Arbor is still nowhere near as accessible as Cleveland; buying a ticket today for travel 10/16 will only run you $1, no matter what time of day you want to travel. Now that Megabus runs in the west coast as well, travel between LA and Vegas can be as cheap as a go at a slot machine, or half as much as the trip from Harvard Square to Charles MGH or from 86th and Broadway to Union Square.

Distance is really some sort of bizarre combination of mileage, purchasing time, length of travel, and money. Just think the next time you’re stuck on the 4/5/6: I could have taken a round-trip journey to scenic Cleveland for that money.

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