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.