Bus and train

Back from a very short trip to New York to celebrate the bris of my new nephew.  If we hadn’t just come back from a week away, I probably would have taken tomorrow off as well and made a long weekend of it, but since I had, I went up after work yesterday and came back this evening.  Even so, I was a bit nervous about walking into my boss’ office on Monday and saying, yes, I know I just started this job a month ago, and I know I just took six days off (with pay) to go to Spain, but I also need to take this Thursday off.  But she didn’t blink or suggest in any way that I shouldn’t go, which makes feel good about having taken the job.  One of my coworkers even rescheduled a doctor’s appointment so we could have the meeting scheduled for this morning tomorrow instead.

An economist will tell you that adding an option to the market always improves utility.  Either it’s better than the existing options, so you take it, and you’re happier than you would have been, or it’s worse, so you ignore it, and it doesn’t affect your utility at all.  I’m not convinced that’s true.

Today’s case in point is the ultra-cheap buses from Washington DC to New York (often generically referred to as the Chinatown buses, although there are now ones that run to different neighborhoods).  They typically charge $20 each way, $35 round trip, versus $84 for Amtrak.  (It’s a lot more for the high speed Acela, slightly cheaper if you can travel off-peak).   They’re slower than the trains — and can be much slower if you get stuck in traffic — and the seats give you a lot less room to spread out.  But if money is your top priority, they’re a great deal.

My problem, is that before these buses existed, I’d just take the train and accept the cost as non-negotiable.  (Yes, I could have taken Greyhound, but that offered all the inconveniences of the low-cost buses, but much smaller savings v. Amtrak — a clearly inferior option.)  Now, if I take the train, I feel like I’m being spendthrift, since I could suck it up and take the bus.  So, I’m less happy paying the same price for the train than I was several years ago.  And if I take the bus, I’m much less comfortable than I was taking the train.

This is a nice example of one of the points that Barry Schwartz makes in The Paradox of Choice.  He argues that you compare your real options to an imagined alternative that combines the best features of both — a ride as fast and comfortable as the train, but as cheap as the bus — and they always fall short.  And that reduces your pleasure in the real options.

So what did I do?  I took the bus up last night (which was a drag — an accident closed a section of the NJ turnpike) but the train back today.

6 Responses to “Bus and train”

  1. jackie Says:

    Oh, the allure of the sketchy Chinatown buses. I don’t know if I’ll ever take one again, after the return-trip experience I had last time, but damn, they are cheap. I recently took the train to NYC and it was so lovely, I don’t think I’ll go back to the buses, but they are so cheap!!

  2. jackie Says:

    Oh, the allure of the sketchy Chinatown buses. I don’t know if I’ll ever take one again, after the return-trip experience I had last time, but damn, they are cheap. I recently took the train to NYC and it was so lovely, I don’t think I’ll go back to the buses, but they are so cheap!!

  3. jen Says:

    Chicago’s got a new thing called Megabus. I see them picking up college students, etc., in front of the commuter train station by my office. They run to the standard places in the midwest; Minneapolis, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland. These are typically 6 to 8 hour drives, and there is no real train service, so it’s a big boon to those without cars. A ticket from Chicago to St. Louis costs $30.
    What I love about this is that it’s helping to break the stranglehold that car travel has on all of us in the Midwest. You can actually get home from college if you have no car! Imagine!
    I somehow avoided the “it’s not on sale so I can’t buy it” parsimonious gene the rest of my family seems to have. I didn’t feel particularly bad when I booked four airline seats for my family, to avoid making my giant 2-year-old a (screaming) lap child. Not sure why I managed to dodge that guilt, since I typically, er, embrace guilt quite easily.

  4. Genevieve Says:

    The Post had a long article on safety issues with those Chinatown buses — seems like they’re cheap because they don’t spend much on maintenance and such. Does that make you feel better not taking them?

  5. Mieke Says:

    My attitude about these things is “time is money” so I would take the train. I can spread out, do work, get there faster – plus I love love love the train.

  6. chip Says:

    apart from cost, there’s no comparison, I love taking the train. Unfortunately the last passenger train to run through my town stopped running about 100 years ago or so…
    I do think that spending some extra money is worth it, especially since one of the great things about train is you don’t have to worry about how bad traffic is.

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