Thursday, August 13, 2009

The story that must be told!

I keep promising a review of my New York trip, and I keep stalling on it. I think I realized that I don't have enough material for the next segment of the trip, the Maryland MTA, and that keeps me from talking about what I really want to talk about, the Chinatown bus lines and NYC MTA. Sorry Baltimore, you are therefore getting short shrift.

As I mentioned in the last installment of this series, I flew in to Baltimore-Washington International because it was cheap. I remember sitting at LAX and seeing at least three flights departing for somewhere in the New York area, and being insanely jealous. But those folks also paid full fare for their tickets...

So, once I got on the east coast, I had to get to New York. Thanks to the aircraft's on-board wireless internet, I had a plan. It involved a light rail, a bus line, and a Chinatown intercity bus.

First off, let me say that Google Transit is fantastic. You know this, but if you multiply the awesomeness by an unfamiliar city and a transit line you've never taken, it becomes a lifeline. To find out that my bus to New York picks up on the "O'Donnell Street Cutoff", and to be able to get satellite and street view photos and a step-by-step transit itinerary there, was very helpful.

The MTA light rail is, well, a light rail. Clean, comfortable, quiet and quick, as you'd expect. The cars are very reminiscent of the Sacramento RTD's newer CAF cars... or at least would be if the RT cars had seen 5 or 10 years of use. One annoyance? The airport spur of the line runs every half hour... all day long... regardless of whether it's peak hours or not. On the return trip, I watched four trains pass on the other line before an airport train showed up.

Maryland MTA's day passes are a screaming deal. Their base fare is $1.60, but their day passes are $3.50. I was only riding two vehicles, but I paid the extra $0.30 just in case. Really, why wouldn't you?

The bus ride was crowded, but quick and efficient. The bus stop could have been a touch better-lit... I don't really recommend transferring in downtown Baltimore at 9pm. It feels quite a bit like downtown Riverside at 9pm... deserted and lonely.

And finally, we get to something I want to talk about- the Chinatown bus.

One major difference between our transit system here and the system on the east coast is the ubiquity and ease of intercity transport. There are about a thousand different ways to get up and down the I-95 corridor, from DC to Boston. There's frequent Amtrak service (including service directly from the BWI airport), several types of commuter railroads (like MARC, which plies the rails from DC to Baltimore, or VRE, which connects DC to Fredericksburg, VA, with express bus service to Richmond, or NJ Transit, which connects New Jersey to New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington, DE), frequent and well-connected Greyhound service, and my personal favourite, the Chinatown bus lines.

Imagine, if you will, a bus line that provided service from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Fransisco, with stops in downtown Bakersfield and downtown San Jose, for around $40 each way. Now imagine that, because of multiple operators plying the route, there's service every two hours 'round the clock, and you never need worry about making reservations. There's no chance you'll get left in the terminal, or shunted on a roundabout connecting route. It's really quite pleasant.

That's the Chinatown bus lines on the east coast. They're ridiculously cheap, comfortable, and frequent. I mean it when I say every two hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. $20 bought me a ride from Baltimore to New York, a trip of a little over 3 hours. Our bus left at 10pm, but there was also a midnight trip and a two am trip. The bus was indeed well-traveled, but for the price, you really can't beat the service. We were on time or early every time I rode the thing, and that includes the return-trip traffic on I-95 into Baltimore.

There was but one snag in the Chinatown bus system. I bought my tickets online, through the excellent Not until I purchased them did the e-ticket screen appear and say "Print this ticket and sign it." Great if you're at home. Not so great when you're at 40,000 feet. I didn't manage to get the ticket printed, so I had to fork over $20 cash on board. Still worth it. For comparison's sake, a flight along that route would run at least $175, and a train ride $64-$110.

By the way, a few Chinatown lines do ply their trade in SoCal, but because service is much less frequent advance reservations are suggested. LA-SF runs once daily, for $50 each way from Monterey Park. Santa Monica and Hollywood runs are also available at similar prices.

Anyway, I heartily recommend the Chinatown bus lines, with one caveat. Use the web site to plan your trip, but if you can't print your ticket, just bring cash.

New York MTA review to come.

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