Nov
07

On Greyhound and connecting transit modalities

By · Published in 2011

The Greyhound Bus Terminal on 33rd and 34th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues shown here in 1936. (Photo via the New York Public Library)

Whenever New Yorkers grow nostalgic over Penn Station, it is by and large on aesthetic grounds. The current Penn Station is a far cry from a Great Public Building. There are no iconic images of light spilling into a grand hall. Rather, it is a dank, cramped, dirty and smelly station that doesn’t inspire kind feelings.

In addition to their looks, though, railroad stations serve functional roles as well. They need to have capacity to shuttle commuters into and out of the central business district of their host cites and should allow for intermodal connections as well. To a certain extent, both Penn Station and Grand Central realize that goal as New York’s two main rail depots offer easy connections to numerous subway lines. But what of the buses?

In an ideal world, bus terminals and rail stations would go hand-in-hand. In Boston and Washington, DC, for example, Greyhound delivers its riders to the main rail station. South Station serves as the terminus for Amtrak and the rides to Boston while DC’s Union Station features a Greyhound stop around back. In New York, the main bus depot at Port Authority is a subway ride away from the Amtrak stop at Penn Station and a subway ride away from Grand Central. It may offer up subway connections, but it leads to some convoluted rides.

It wasn’t always like this. In The Times this weekend, Christopher Gray delves into the history of a forgotten Greyhound depot that used to live where One Penn Plaza is now. In 1963, the terminal was torn down after Greyhound and Port Authority spent years fighting over the building. The PA wanted Greyhound to move to its then-new terminal at 42nd St. while Greyhound wanted to maintain its spot above Penn Station. Gray writes:

Greyhound was a consortium of different lines, including Pennsylvania Greyhound, half owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1935 the railroad cleared a through-block site just north of the station, from 33rd to 34th, for the new Pennsylvania Greyhound Bus Terminal….

In 1945, the Port Authority proposed its own single consolidated bus terminal, at Eighth Avenue and 40th Street, saying that intercity bus traffic jammed the streets. Part of the plan was a rooftop landing strip, 500 feet long, for what the authority called “the flying bus of the future.”

By this time the modernistic Greyhound terminal was not just a stop for travelers, but the haunt of vagrants, delinquents and petty criminals. In 1947 a police inspector called it the worst spot in Midtown. Five years later two escapees from the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane waiting for a bus to Baltimore were caught by police officers with drawn guns. Nonetheless, Greyhound resisted the Port Authority plan. It liked its central location just fine, and had no need to help small operators gain the advantage of a union terminal. The city retaliated by prohibiting any bus terminal expansion in Midtown. The Port Authority completed its big, bland terminal in 1950, counting on Greyhound’s eventual capitulation — it was the biggest dog by far among the carriers.

The Port Authority’s bus terminal is located with direct access to the Lincoln Tunnel and out of the way of surface streets. Today, though, buses have made a resounding return to the Penn Station area as many of the discount offerings such as Bolt Bus provide pick-up service on the streets near 34th St. in order to avoid paying the PA’s gate fees.

As Gray notes, no one in New York expresses much nostalgia over the fate of the art moderne terminal. It didn’t spark debates over historic preservation as tearing down Penn Station did. But its place in history serves as a reminder of a time when, by design, ownership and economics, the city’s bus terminal offered up something more than a subway ride as a connection with the commuter and long-distance rail hub. It was a more sensible approach toward intermodal transit connections.



18 Responses to “On Greyhound and connecting transit modalities”

  1. Adam E says:

    How much are the PA’s gate fees?

    It would be fantastic to have a separate indoor terminal, free of the sketchiness usually found in Greyhound terminals, for BoltBus and MegaBus riders to board.

    • The PA’s materials, which are far less forthcoming with revenue breakdowns than the MTA, say overall annual revenue from the PABT in 2010 was around $34 million. I have no idea how much of that came from gate fees/bus company rentals an how much from other uses, but that’s a pretty good ballpark figure to work with. I’ll try to see if I can find a more granular breakdown per gate and/or bus company. If not, I’ll send them another FOIL request.

    • So the latest info I can find is from a PA Board meeting from March 2008. Here was the proposed bus carrier fee breakdown:
      $40 per departure
      $6,500 per year for platform positions
      $13,000 per year for standard gates
      $16,200 per year for preferred gates
      $19,500 per year for best gates

      Those figures were to increase annually on Jan. 1 to correspond with regional CPI.

  2. The Cobalt Devil says:

    So this terminal is where the K-Mart is inside One Penn Plaza? That’s my guess judging by the photo and details in the article.

    Any pics of the B&O Bus Terminal inside the Chanin Building? I didn’t know that existed until I read the article this morning. Was it underneath or part of the lobby where the K&G Clothing store is now? Can’t find any pics online.

  3. Brian says:

    Coincidentally, I noticed a single Greyhound ad in the subway for the first time this weekend. I don’t remember the copy precisely, but it was something related to a waterfall in Georgia that’s 11 subway cars tall. It caught my eye, but I’m not sure it would be something I’d travel to on Greyhound or any other method of transit.

    • I’ve seen it a few times as well, most recently yesterday on the F train. As I said to my girlfriend, I’d rather walk to Atlanta than spend 20+ hours on a bus there. Maybe not the best approach toward advertising. I’d stick with shorter trips first.

      • The Cobalt Devil says:

        Last time I took a Greyhound bus down in Tennessee, the front door flew off in the wind and hit the side of the bus. Think I’ll pass and take the train TYVM.

  4. Larry Littlefield says:

    The big problem with the Port Authority is that it is poorly placed for departures going in the other direction, toward Long Island and New England.

    We had the East Side Airlines Terminal, but it’s gone.

    • John-2 says:

      PABT at least has the advantage of having subway lines in the general area, even with its proximity to the Lincoln Tunnel. When Moses and the TBTA build the East Side Airlines Terminal next to the QMT, thanks to the failure to build a Second Avenue subway nearby, there was no mass transit access, other than the M-15 and the M-16 buses (when the M-16 used to loop around to 37th Street). Not enough people without access to those two bus lines didn’t see the need to take a cab to the bus terminal to take the bus to the airport, and the terminal never attracted the projected ridership.

    • Jerrold says:

      The East Side Airlines Terminal was strategically placed for quick access into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, but the trouble was that it was a nuisance to GET TO.
      On the way BACK from the airport, it was different because the buses would first make a stop by Grand Central.

  5. ajedrez says:

    I found it strange how the bus terminal was called Union Station, and the Amtrak station was just called “South station”. Usually, I think of trains when I think of a Union Station.

    • Jason B. says:

      The stonework on South Station says “Boston Terminal Company”. It looks like it was originally called “South Central Station” (according to Wikipedia). But remember, Boston also has a North Station. In general, routes south go out of South Station, north out of North Station, with only one nearby connection used by Amtrak to service trains and a farmer’s market train; otherwise you can’t go north from south.

    • Jason B. says:

      And apparently North Station was originally called “North Union Station”.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N.....achusetts)

      Looks like it was a beautiful building before it too was demolished, now with a sports arena on top of it. I used to use North Station frequently when I lived in New Hampshire and I have to say it’s a cold static place.

    • Clarke says:

      Union Station is DC’s rail station and bus terminal. South Station is Boston’s rail station and bus terminal.

  6. Motorcyclist says:

    It’d be great to be rid of the sketchy element in terminals….true….but public transportation is for the public, not for the “upscale” public.

    As times get tougher (as they surely will) the economy will dictate the influx of people who need an accomodating terminal, not the other way around. Give them a break…

    • Nathanael says:

      You know, there’s a reason the great old railway stations have really high ceilings.

      There may be two hundred sketchy people at ground level, but you can always look up and everything looks pristine. 🙂

  7. John V says:

    I believe the Greyhound station may have been torn down AFTER 1 Penn Plaza was started, although I could be wrong.

    That tower sits considerably back from Seventh Avenue, and there’s a collection of single-story commercial buildings filled with stores, plus the 34th Street Penn Station entrance–and a walkway behind those buildings that separates them from 1 Penn. Could the bus station have been on that plot?

    Otherwise, perhaps as The Cobalt Devil indicates, it sat where the low wing is, with K-Mart on the ground floor?

    • John V says:

      Hmmmm. Wikipedia says 1 Penn was completed in 1972. That’s a longish construction schedule, but if the bus terminal didn’t come down until after Penn Station (in 1965) then possibly the tower was started before it was demolished.

      That would certainly explain its Eighth-Avenue-oriented footprint, which has always seemed highly odd to me–why not get it as close as possible to Seventh Avenue, which is closer to … well, pretty much everything?

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