When many Americans think of Greyhound buses, they think of several things: long, time-consuming journeys, malt liquor-scented seat companions eager to discuss the terms of their parole, dreary stations on the edge of town. “Romantic” is not necessarily a word that comes to mind. If you share this view, you may be surprised (and entertained) by this BBC feature story about Greyhound’s more glamorous image abroad. This story reminded me of the strong relationship between transportation and culture, and of the importance of being mindful of that relationship as we explore smart transportation options for the future.
Last week, the first Greyhound buses began operating in the U.K. The company initiated service on two routes, London-Portsmouth and London-Southampton. The brand is renowned in Britain for its iconic roles in films (including “It Happened One Night,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Midnight Cowboy”) and music (in songs by Simon and Garfunkel, John Mellencamp and Billy Joel.) It has a place in the British imagination as a cultural symbol of adventure, the open road, and epic journeys of self-discovery. The Greyhound is seen as the vehicle of the American dream, taking farm boys to the big city to make something of themselves. (Check out The Guardian’s slideshow of images that fueled these romantic notions.)
Though critics question Greyhound’s ability to translate its iconic status across the Atlantic, the brand’s celebrity in British minds has brought some buzz to the launch. At the same time, the Brits are busy making the service their own. Its new coaches are nothing like their American cousins, with wi-fi, electrical outlets in each row, complimentary newspapers, reclining leather seats and extra legroom. Television coverage of the first run shows passengers boarding the bus to the sounds of a jazz band, champagne in hand. However, in homage to the company’s U.S. roots, each coach is named after a woman in a well-known American song (i.e. Peggy Sue, Sweet Caroline, etc.).
Ironically, back in its country of origin, the allure of the Greyhound has been lost on us modern Americans. To us, it represents a slow, gritty and unattractive travel option. In fact, Greyhound’s more recent New York-DC line, Bolt Bus, has an entirely independent brand and image.
Maybe FirstGroup, the company that now owns Greyhound, has the right idea. They built on the iconic qualities of the brand, but added the amenities demanded by today’s commuters. Bus service providers in the U.S. must show similar cultural awareness. Not to be unsentimental, but perhaps the Greyhound name carries unwanted baggage in our country. Starting with a clean slate – with new, sleeker brands and images – might be the best hope for those hoping to promote bus transportation in America. Time will tell if Bolt Bus, a first stab at this, is successful in the long term.
Meanwhile, anyone out there got any friends in the film or music industry that want to do some public transit product placement?