The Most Horrifically Wonderful Mode of Transportation in the United States

I saw it on the local news: a giant double-decker bus plastered with the drawings of its bubble-gum-blowing cartoon mascot, covered with a layer of dirt, and packed full of human beings. There it was, tipped over on the highway. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. The science of this bus—clearly too tall to be driving in a windy state or on a slick road—was all wrong. One little swerve to avoid another car and there it would be on its side. Megabus was the mid-2010’s Boeing.

Not only were they falling over, Megabuses were also catching fire. In 2016, passengers aboard a Megabus bound for Milwaukee were greeted not by the regular odor of the indoor bathroom (which is terrible), but by the frightening scent of smoke (which is horrifying). Alarmed, the passengers alerted the driver who was advised by the company to turn around. To no one’s surprise, turning around did not solve the problem, and the bus, which the driver emptied after another smell of smoke, caught fire in the emergency lane. No passengers were harmed, but their belongings were burned as the fire tore through the bus. The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler witnessed the whole ordeal.

And after that, an even more unfortunate incident–a collision that resulted in the death of four individuals. In 2015, the company was involved in four crashes over a six-month period in Indiana alone, and the previous two years saw nine incidents. This left many questioning the safety of this new company, one that had seemingly become synonymous with danger and tragedy. Yet, and in spite of this widespread concern, the tickets—which were often as low as $1—continued to sell as those looking for cheaper travel options continued to pack in. I was, admittedly, one of those people.

During my freshman year of college in Chicago, as the winter semester began to wrap up, it became time to find a way home for the holidays. Home was Clarksville, Indiana, just outside of Louisville, Kentucky, and only five and a half hours away. But, without a car, it might as well have been on the other side of the country. Being a jobless 18-year-old, my parents agreed to pay my way. Flights were at least $100, the closest Amtrak train stop was hours away, and then there was the Megabus.  

It called to my mom and dad with the allure of a $25 roundtrip ticket.

“Well if we’re buying the ticket, this is what you’re getting,” they told me. “Make sure to buckle up!”

So, on a cold November morning (and right after numerous accidents) I found myself, suitcase in hand, huddled with a group of strangers on the side of Clinton Street across from the Pink Monkey, a classic Chicago strip club, waiting for what we all feared would be our end. The stop itself showed no promise. There was no building, no sign, not even an address for me to type into Uber–all we were given was an intersection and a time of departure. A half-address is OK if you’re describing to your friend where a party’s at; it is not OK for people trying to board a bus home who, though they paid a low rate, still participated in a monetary transaction. With no sign, you’re instead left to look for a group of neck-pillow-clad individuals as a marker.

Based on the multiple follow-up experiences aboard Megabus, I’m sure that it arrived to pick us up somewhere between 10 minutes and four hours late. And, though I can’t recall the exact take-off time now, what I do remember is that, to everyone’s surprise, the trip went completely fine. We left Chicago, we stopped once at a Pilot gas station for a refill and snacks, and then less than an hour later I got off at a corner in Louisville (also unlabeled).

Relatives were shocked that my parents would put their eldest on a death trap and the Megabus became the topic of conversation that Thanksgiving; fewer, “how was your first semester of college?” questions and more, “you came home on what?!” While I’m sure my grandmother thought I was playing it quite cool in telling her about my easy trip, the reality is that it was seamless for me, far surpassing my expectations of fire and collision. My trip was so startlingly different from those I’d read about that I flippantly called it pleasant.

Now almost six years later and with numerous bus trips under my belt (feel free to call me an expert), my tune has changed ever-so-slightly, and I will simply describe the Megabus as unlike any other–and you can trust me, because I tried others. After taking the comparable Greyhound a few times, a bus with far less drama, fewer characters, and usually a longer commute (why there is a two-hour layover in Indianapolis I will never know), I knew it wasn’t for me. Megabus carries with it: speed (sometimes you accept the risk if it means getting there quicker), a story to tell your friends, and always a little mystery of “Will this bus break down or will it not? And if it does, is there a mechanic on duty at this time of night?”

 

I only ever experienced a break down once–something rumored to happen quite often–and, lucky for me, it happened only 20 miles outside of Louisville. The driver pulled over to a gas station where we sat, and then kept sitting. Eventually a group of Nashville-bound bridesmaids asked the hard-hitting question of what was happening, and that’s when the driver revealed the bus was broken (“broken” is the descriptor you never want to hear when talking about the thing you are on in that very moment).

This trip, where the driver finally admitted that the mechanic was an estimated four hours out, could have tainted my entire experience with Megabus, but luckily my Dad was nice enough to just drive the 20 minutes to come get me. For me, it was at most a nuisance, a small quirk I told my friends and family about–and perhaps “quirky” is really the best way to describe the Megabus.

As you put your luggage in storage below and board the bus, you should know to expect an eccentric driver. There are few forms of transportation where the person in charge ought to give earnest and unsolicited advice over the intercom, and the Megabus is no exception, but sometimes you’ll get a driver who, in going above and beyond, does it anyway.

Once before a holiday, our bus driver turned on his microphone to let us know that, if we were dating someone and not spending that time with them, it was because we were a secret and they had another family. The floor was then opened up to questions.

In addition to giving advice over the speakers, the drivers also threaten passengers. At a rest stop? The threat is always, “If you are not back on this bus in 30 minutes I will leave you behind. I do not know you personally and will have no trouble doing so.” I have no idea if they carry through with this threat because everyone is far too scared of being stranded without their luggage at a Pilot gas station in the middle of nowhere Indiana. You have got to give credit where credit is due, and these no-nonsense bus drivers know how to strike fear into just about any heart.

Another common threat is that the driver will crash. This commonly occurs whenever someone tells the driver that the WiFi isn’t working. (Pro tip: the WiFi has never worked and it never will work.) While you might imagine a normal driver would respond with either the WiFi password or an “I’m sorry, I do know that was promised, but we don’t have WiFi,” a Megabus driver will instead blast the harsh sound of static over the intercom, tell everyone that someone is distracting her, and then proclaim, “If I crash the bus, it’s on this guy who needs WiFi and is distracting me.” Now look, this response was probably unwarranted, but what was she supposed to do, pull the car over and call Comcast? I personally heard this interaction one night and, it must be said, that was not the only threat of collision during that journey. The driver came over the intercom at 1 a.m., waking everyone from their sleep, to announce that the car coming over in her lane was also going to make her crash. This type of behavior was shocking to my boyfriend who was a Megabus first-timer, but as someone familiar with the ins-and-outs of the bus, this sort of candid announcement didn’t stray too far from the norm. The headphones went right back in.

And then you have the passengers, all of whom can fall into three categories: pleasant, unobtrusive, and the worst. I fall into unobtrusive. The man sitting next to me who got a little high at the rest stop and as a result bought too many snacks that he then offered to share with me, he falls into pleasant. The worst passengers are those who forget that, though Megabus is a much more relaxed and lenient form of transportation than a plane, there are still other people on board.

Things an unpleasant passenger might do: take their shoes off, forget their headphones but pull up YouTube anyway, claim two seats, bring Taco Bell onto the bus where the smell will then be stuck for many hours, and carry on a loud phone call for over 10 minutes (though this last one I can make an exception for if the call is even a little gossipy and I am close enough to hear the drama). If these actions are avoided then the passenger is unobtrusive, and if the passenger offers anything even a little nicer than unobtrusive (like asks you if you prefer window or aisle), then they are, without a doubt, a pleasant passenger.

For the most part, you will run into unobtrusive and pleasant passengers who will, for the duration of the trip, become your kind-of-sort-of friend. There is a sense of partnership that comes when you enter into a Megabus, an understanding that you are all going through it together. When that bus driver came over the intercom to give us relationship advice, everyone felt included in the joke and laughed together; when he threatened abandonment, we knew we had to rely on one another to get us back on that bus before it was too late. We were comrades in arms, and our fight was to make it to the other end of the ride.

Having never ridden a Megabus before the accidents, I can’t say whether or not it’s changed, but one can only imagine it has. Now, all who enter do so knowing the risks and the horror stories–but I believe those horror stories, crashes, and general annoyances make us riders more compassionate and understanding to each other—we’re all aware of everyone’s trepidation and frustration as they walk up the stairs to the top deck. The Megabus turns a group of strangers into a community. Where else can you join your fellow passengers, as I have, when they began to riot, threatening to leave the emergency roof exit if they’ve made us sit idly at the bus stop for any longer? You endure what the Megabus throws at you, for better or worse, and really, what is a community other than a group of people with shared experiences?

For those who find that Megabus is their only option, I recommend viewing it through these rose-colored glasses, though a little smudged, that I am supplying you with, that I myself wore for four years. Rather than dwelling on the potential risk that this bus poses, whether that be spontaneously catching fire or crashing, consider the people you meet and the stories you can tell. Sometimes the only way to get through a hard time is to divert your attention elsewhere–and I recommend doing so through the colorfully worded phone call happening in the row behind you.

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