Was intercity bus travel once pleasant as pictured in ads and promotional material?

If you look through old magazines, particularly National Geographic from about 1950 to 1970, you find lots of ads from Greyhound and Continental Trailways, with illustrations showing happy passengers relaxing in clean, comfortable bus interiors. Particularly, the ones that show Greyhound’s exclusive and iconic “Scenicruisers” appear to be in accord with the spirit of the late 50s, when everything was supposedly getting bigger and more comfortable. Over at the Prelinger Archive you can see a couple of Greyhound’s promotional films, in one of which, a big city bus terminal rings to the well-shod feet of well dressed men and women, and appears as squeaky clean and bright as a new airport at the beginning of the jet age. And anyone about 45 or more should remember the commercials featuring Fred MacMurray. (A movie star taking the bus? He probably did. He was a notorious skinflint.)

But now, with the exception of notable efforts to re-image it, like Megabus and BoltBus (actually a division of Greyhound Corp), bus travel is despised and avoided if at all possible. The actual buses themselves are reported to be pretty horrible in the UNited States, and the ones in Mexico are said to be better. The stations are notoriously seedy and scary, and one of the innovations in the new model is to eliminate stations entirely in favor of curbside pickup. Greyhound, the only company offering standard intercity bus transportation throughout the country, rarely advertises in print anymore, and in any case any pictures of buses or their interiors, as well as any attempts to describe the experience as relaxing or pleasant are absent.

Was it ever better? Would a prosperous businessman in downtown Los Angeles, needing to make a quick run to Santa Barbara or San Diego, and for some reason bereft of his car, ever have taken a taxi over to Fifth and Main and hopped aboard a Greyhound to make such a journey?

This isn’t the answer you are looking for, but there has been train service from L.A. to San Diego since 1938 (and probably much much earlier, as the San Diego Union Station was built in 1887) and from L.A. to Santa Barbara for a pretty long time. I seem to recall that the railroad was built in 1878, but I could be off by a long shot. The current Santa Barbara train station was built in 1902.

I’m a train fanatic and I’d probably have taken the train over Greyhound even in the 1950’s. Sorry about the hijack.

For the people I knew in California, the bus was the alternative right above hitch-hiking. (For some people, including me, it was below hitchhiking.)

I did take a couple of bus rides, in high school before I could drive, because it was the only way to get where I was going. It was pretty miserable. Took forever. I was going to a place without a bus terminal–it had one, once–but basically I was dropped at the side of the road. I had to stand in that same place at five in the morning two days later for the return trip. Now, this was in a town that wasn’t very big at all, so not much opportunity for a bad neighborhood, yet the father of the girl I was visiting felt it necessary to stand out there with me until he saw me safely on the bus. I wasn’t a little kid–I was 15–but that made me feel like one.

In the second case (I was still 15) my friend and I decided to run away to California (I had lots of friends there). We started hitch-hiking in Oklahoma City and were busted in Amarillo. Our parents decided that a bus ride back would serve us right, and they were correct. I don’t know why we didn’t hop off the bus and hitchhike back. The people we’d hitched rides with on the way out seemed infinitely superior to the ones on the bus on the trip back.

In the early '70s I went from Denver to OKC. The trip took 20 hours, with the bus stopping in every single town, wide spot in the road, and crossroad, and in a few cases went several miles out of the way in order to do so. For a good stretch of the way one of the passengers was a woman with twin crying babies. Definitely a horrible experience.

On the other hand, you could take a bus to any podunk town you needed to go to. Nowadays, if you can’t drive there, there’s just no way to get to some of them at all.

In many developing or recently industrialized countries, e.g. in Latin America, intercity coaches are still a very popular form of transport. You usually have several companies competing there on different price and service levels - you have really cheap lines with little reliability and older buses, but also more pricy (but still cheaper than airfare, which is why these businesses are around) companies with really nice new air-conditioned buses and a very reliable service.

I guess it was similar in the U.S., before individual motorization and the decline in airfare made it possible for the middle class to use other forms of transport and basically left the buses to hoi polloi.

No problem don’t mention it. One problem with the train at that point would have been that there weren’t that many in those days. I used to take Amtrak between L.A. and Del Mar (last stop before San Diego) when attending UCSD in the late 70s. There were only three trains in each direction, each day. I’d be surprised if there was more than just the one Coast Starlight to Santa Barbara at that time. Apart from driving, in the late 50s and 60s our hypothetical traveler might well have had no reasonable alternative to the bus. Nowadays the situation is a bit different, and there are trains every hour or two, every day. The trains are much more popular and crowded, too.

Del Mar was another old station from about 1910, but has since been discontinued and demolished. A new station was opened at Solana Beach to replace it. I did take the bus a couple of times, once from San Bernadino and another time from L.A., and it was kind of bleh, but not horrible. The inside of the bus smelled like cigarettes, but I was a smoker myself back then so i didn’t mind it that much.

Also, in many Latin American countries the rail network has been ripped up following privatization, or passenger service has been completely discontinued. I remember reading something somewhere about how in a South American capital a biweekly market day is regularly held on land where the tracks used to fan out to the platforms of the old passenger station. Mexico is a good example of a country discontinuing passenger service; except for the famous Copper Canyon route, they only have freight trains. I think Greyhound Mexico is one of the better bus companies you mention.

When did intercity commercial buses become air-conditioned? Presumably it was pretty miserable before then.

I took the bus a few times in the early 80’s (Greyhound in all cases), and I loved it. The buses were generally clean. The trips were comfortable. The time frame, of course, depended upon where you were headed; major city to major city often had express buses you could take, avoiding the podunk stops along the way. One of my more favorite memories was the trip from St. Petersburg to Richmond, via some US highway along the coast in the Carolinas (US 17?). Yes, the clientele was relatively poor (else they had a car and could afford the gas), and yes the trip took “forever.” But it was air-conditioned, it was relaxing (I didn’t have to do the driving), and I enjoyed it very much. AND, you got to see the countryside as you passed it by.

Is that so? I can’t remember seeing a Greyhound ad in the American media, but the “About Greyhound” page on their website features pictures of buses (although no interiors, apparently), and they comment in themselves:

They also seem to be trying to get rid of their lower class association, by stating (on their Facts and Figures page):

I rode Trailways a few times in the late 70’s/early 80’s. it was the only way to get from Salt Lake City to the podunk town my father lived in. The terminals were dirty and scary. The bathrooms reeked of urine and feces. The smaller towns had no stations, we stopped at greasy spoon roadside restaurants. It took forever, as we drove at 50 mph along the old highways and stopped at every little town.

The bus itself was dirty. Everyone on the bus smelled like cigarete smoke. the heater worked as well as you would expect a bus heater to work in the 70’s.

The worst ride was from Killeen Texas to Provo Utah in October. I could have flown from DFW to SLC, but I was just out of the army and very cheap. The bus ride took IIRC, 5 days. 50mph, old highways, stops at every two-horse town. Being just out of the army, I ran to the liquor store at every meal stop and back to the bus. I guess I was one of the seedy bus people then.

The cross-country bus in It Happened One Night (1934) looked pretty danged comfortable, with window curtains and headrest seats. Trains surely lost a lot of ridership to buses during the depression years.

Of course, no a/c or interstate highways yet, and the onboard can was probably a pretty hellish little receptacle.

The last time I took a Greyhound was 1991. It sucked. It was slow, cramped, and stopped a thousand times on my route from Augusta, GA to Detroit, MI. Oh, and the end of the line was Detroit, MI. I had to change busses in Cleveland, OH, which I’d always thought was was nice, clean, conservative place; not at the bus station, though! Yuck!

It was kind of inline with normal city busses, except for 25 hours instead of 20 minutes. I’ll never, ever do it again unless I lose everything and have no choice. I also don’t mean to offend city busses in places where they’re allegedly nice; around here, the only people that take city busses are people that don’t have cars, and even most of the poor and destitute have cars. Oh, the 25 hour route? Only 12 in car.

On the other hand, I had the opportunity to take a Mexican bus on New Year’s day this year. ETN, from Manzanillo to Leon. ETN is a first class bus line, and that really makes the difference. The non-first-class busses are more like Greyhound. The bus trip was 8 hours, which wasn’t bad considering it always take around 6.5 when I drive it. And, it only made a couple of stops. Plus coffee, soft drinks, and lunch. And it was actually a lot cheaper for the two of us than driving normally is, and completely hassle free (God, I detest driving through Guadalajara… when the hell are the Mexicans going to understand the idea of a bypass?).

In short, world of difference.

On an added note, anyone that’s flown most of the major US airlines recently would impressed by the Mexican airlines. In fact, for the last couple of years, I’ve been decrying the “Greyhoundization” of the US airlines, which I used to love so much. For a pittance more, Aeromexico and Aviacsa still have service and treatment that the US carriers used to have. There are others, but I’ve not had the pleasure of flying with them yet.

That’s a great movie. I’m not sure I even knew that “The Man On The Flying Trapeze” was an actual, complete song before I saw it being performed in that movie.

Probably they lost some that way, but not massively. People were already using their own cars in some cases where they would have taken a train before. Still, I don’t think passenger rail travel in the U.S. really declined precipitously until after WWII, no doubt at least because by then both the automobiles and the roads were getting much better. Another reason was that more people were migrating out West where the railroads had always been more sparse to begin with, forcing people to use their cars–or take a bus–more.

Buses didn’t have bathrooms then, you had to wait until you got to a rest stop. Which, based on what I’ve read here and elsewhere, most people probably do today.

Not a great deal of money in many places. In S.F., L.A., or especially NYC, it would hardly keep body and soul together.

To take a Greyhound from Columbus, GA to Tampa, FL takes over 25 hours. That trip in a car takes a little over 5!! And the tickets cost about the same as a plane. I dont understand how they’re still in business.

If they had the comfort and style, why would they advertise it? You advertise what you don’t have, to make people think you have it so you don’t have to spend money to get it. Advertising the things you do have is a waste of money.

Fear of flying and not owning a car, probably. That schedule is apalling at any rate.

All in all it’s odd how terribly awry the business went. Intercity buses have a lot of practical advantages, and it’s not unsual for people briefly exposed to them in the form of well furnished tour coaches, by way of company outings, charter tours, and the like, think "This wouldn’t be such a bad way to travel. The buses in this case are always immaculate, attractively decorated, and reasonably comfortable, and there aren’t any strange smells.

Greyhound/Rural South/1980s.

The damn thing smelled like a toilet.

Passengers worried me at best, flatly creeped me out in many cases.

A lousy experience.

RE: Intercity busses in Brazil: they are really good! Clean, and they run express busses (so it doesn’t take forever to get somewhere). The relly good ones have stewardess service and serve hot meals. I agree, bus service in the USA is pretty poor-but that is because it is primarily patronized by the poor. My question: there would be a big market for express buss service from NYC to Miami-what hasn’t that emerged?

No, there is rail service to Florida.