With Bolt and other premium lines transforming the face of busing, it's easy to forget just how bad buses used to be. When I was in college, cross-country buses were to transportation what Detroit is to urban planning: overcrowded, malodorous, sticky, and unsanitary. In fact, I still carry dark memories of the first time I took a bus home from college: halfway through the ride, I found myself sitting next to a drunk guy with a seeping, yellowed bandage on his arm. After a few minutes, he fell asleep on my shoulder and started drooling on me. On the bright side, he distracted me from the guy across the aisle who seemed to be kidnapping his son and the woman behind me who was simultaneously hitting on three different men. When I got home, I gulped down a handful of vitamins and barely resisted the urge to skinny dip in a vat of Bactine.
While cross-country buses have massively improved recently, city buses, at least in New York, are still stuck in the last decade. Consistently overcrowded, bumpy, slow, and dirty, they are less efficient and enjoyable than almost any other form of transportation. The sad thing is that the ugliness and boredom are hardly necessary. With very little effort, buses could easily invigorate their image. One of the first things they could do is work on their look: in their heyday, simple touches like chrome, curved corners and pre-printed signage imparted a machine-age feel that, in retrospect, seems both futuristic and old-fashioned. As far as I know, there isn't any rule stating that buses must resemble utilitarian toasters covered in advertisements.
Another thing is that the cloth seats on NYC buses are pretty gross. They absorb smells and stains and have a texture reminiscent of a brillo pad crossed with Kermit's ass. Given the inexorable march of progress, it seems like someone could come up with an attractive, smooth, vinyl-style fabric that would be easy to clean and would resist stains.
Finally, bus companies seem to be forgetting their key advantage over subways: as they are above ground, they can easily provide internet access. Just as the Bolt bus (and its kin) have made free wireless available to their passengers, city buses could attract riders by installing wireless routers. This would make bus rides seem shorter and more productive. In fact, it's not hard to imagine a future in which bus riding would become the public transportation of choice for hip, creative types!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Growing up, he always wanted to see the country from the back of a bus, just like Kerouac. Once he took an actual ride on a Grayhound, he moved on to other dreams...