Learning about America on the Boston-New York bus

A low-cost bus ride on the East Coast provides blogger Steve Kelman with a unique view of the country.

Over the weekend, I went to visit my mom, who is almost 90, living in our old home town on Long Island, whom I try to visit every several weeks. As I usually do, I took the Bolt Bus, which charges about $15 each way -- less than the cost of gas and tolls for driving a car.

The development in of inexpensive and popular bus lines on the east coast -- between Washington and New York, and Boston and New York, plus a few other routes -- is a very American story. Almost a decade ago, Chinese immigrants in New York pioneered super-cheap buses, originally costing around $10 each way, between the Chinatowns in New York and Boston. The buses didn't use regular bus terminals, but stopped at street corners, which people learned about through word of mouth. They were used mostly by Chinese immigrants, but gradually students, attracted by the bargain-basement prices, started using them. Though amazingly cheap, they had some safety problems, including traffic accidents and occasional bus fires.

At this point, seeing a student market for cheap bus service, the old, tired Greyhound bus company -- the incumbent in the bus world -- entered the fray. Feeling that the Greyhound brand name was inexorably tied in the minds of students with elderly ladies and alcoholics, Greyhound established a new brand, Bolt Bus. Tickets were a few bucks more than the Chinatown buses, but the buses were much nicer, and, to attract students, Greyhound offered free wireless and online ticket sales. Within a short time, the reputation of these buses spread by word of mouth. By the time I started using them (I found out about them from my kids), I would say that the clientele was about 70 percent students, 20 percent foreign tourists, and 10 percent random others such as me -- but no alcoholics or elderly ladies. More recently, the main problem with these buses is that they've become so popular that they are generally full, so you can't get two seats to yourself, as I used to be able generally to do, which means the seats are tight and narrow.

I noticed the latest development on this last trip, which is that Bolt now has significant new competition. Indeed, at the street corner near Penn Station in Manhattan where they drop off passengers from Boston, some other bus brand seemed to arrive to let off and pick up passengers about every 15 minutes! We will see what kind of response that provokes from Bolt.

With this pattern of innovation -- illustrated through this humble, low-tech example -- it is hard to think that the United States doesn't still have a lot of life left in us.

I again noticed something else about the U.S. on the bus out of Manhattan, which passes through Harlem on the way to the Bronx and then New England. The bus goes by the east edge of Morningside Park in Manhattan, whose west side abuts Columbia University. When I was an undergraduate, Columbia students were told not to enter that park under any circumstance; the idea of venturing to its eastern edge would have been inconceivable for students. Now, on a warm Sunday afternoon, the eastern edge of the park was gorgeous -- with flower beds and glimmering ponds -- and filled with carefree people, probably about 90 percent black and 10 percent white. The apartment buildings and brownstones abutting the park looked as glorious as they must have when first built -- renovated, painted, and shining.

As we proceeded northward in Harlem along Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (formerly Seventh Avenue and, like most major streets in Harlem, renamed after a black leader), it looked as if most of the housing, at least south of about 130th Street, was renovated and nice-looking. again, the neighborhood seemed about 90 percent black and 10 percent white. A few days earlier, I had read a wedding announcement in the local weekly in my tony Boston suburb of Concord (which had caught my attention because the groom was from Sweden), and saw the statement that the couple, both with MBAs and working for big corporations, would reside after the wedding in "Harlem, New York." Our country is good at renewing itself.