The National Catholic Review

Greyhound, the bus of necessity rather than of choice for many low-income travelers around the country, provides its tickets more cheaply for those who buy them online. That transaction, though, assumes you have a credit card and internet access for online purchasing. Low income people who do not have credit cards and computers must go to their local Greyhound station, stand in line and then pay cash for their tickets. Their tickets will cost them much more than what on line purchasers pay.

The Catholic Workers at Viva House in Baltimore told me this of this inequity on a recent visit. Later one of them went to the Greyhound station there to compare online prices with onsite cash prices. She found that for travel between Baltimore and New York, the cash purchase price at the station itself is $37 each way, with no reduction for round trip fare. Online, however, the cost is $40 round trip, or $20 each way–a considerable saving. Anyone who has ever passed though a Greyhound station and looked around quickly realizes that it is primarily poor people who are there. The old truism, the poor pay more, still holds true. Greyhound has found a way to penalize its low-income travelers. In Baltimore, it has made these travelers still more difficult by relocating their station from its previous easily accessible downtown location, to a part of the city difficult to reach by public transportation. Go Big Dog!

True, Greyhound owns Bolt Bus, which offers lower  fares on its New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington run. But again, you must go online to buy them. Some advocates for the poor say that Bolt Bus is Greyhound’s way of luring back higher income people. I myself favor the Chinatown buses that charge, $35 round trip from New York City to Baltimore and Washington.

George Anderson, S.J.

Comments

Anonymous | 9/28/2009 - 10:33pm
Greyhound is one of many travel and hospitality-related companies that offer online discounts.  Many hotel web sites list "best available price" options that can only be purchased throught the Internet, and of course this doesn't even begin to describe the corporate discounts negotiated by national employers which are invisible to individual travelers.  Airlines like Northwest/Delta explicitly tell their customers that they'll pay less by booking online than by using the labor of one of their reservations operators.  From Greyhound's perspective, online bookings probably improve cash flow (the tickets must be purchased in advance, hit the buyer's credit card immediately, and are generally not refundable).  Advance bookings probably help them plan for capacity on their routes.  Taking out uncertainties reduces costs and the frictions of offering service, which can justify lower prices.  When instantaneous transparent information offered by the Internet drives down market prices from increased competition, a business has to respond in these ways to stay solvent.
If you travel by intercity bus, as I had the opportunity to do recently, you immediately notice that the average passenger appears more distressed and is harder to serve than the average passenger on an airplane.  I overheard a man trying to reclaim luggage that he had lost (no identification on the luggage) after he'd been removed from a station because he was drunk.  There were passengers traveling in all manner of dress/undress and emotional stress.  The kvetching about poor service was angrier and louder, and neither passengers nor drivers had much patience for each other.  This friction of bus travel, and the fact that slower speeds means that the bus company deals with its passengers for a longer time relative to airlines covering the same routes, is part of what makes providing bus service more costly.
So do businesses like Greyhound penalize the poor?  Probably no more than the grocery stores or mass merchandisers still located in poor neighborhoods, who offer less selection at higher prices and still are less profitable than suburban locations because of lower sales per square foot of space, increased security, inventory shrinkage, and bad debt.  They get away with higher prices because the poor are less mobile; they often don't have access to competitors.  But at least these stores are still serving the neighborhood, when other companies simply cut their losses and pull out.  (and don't get me started on the purveyors of sub-prime mortgages!)
The only solutions I see are to ease the stressful culture of poverty through education, training, more available jobs, collective bargaining for low wage workers, more accessible recovery services for addiction, and safety nets like the proposed universal healthcare reform so that it's easier to get a handle on your life and become less poor.  in short, the Catholic social agenda.  Perhaps the corporal works of mercy should be amended to include promoting personal finance and computer knowledge.  But please don't blame Greyhound for doing the best they can to run a sustainable business in the Internet era.
Anonymous | 9/29/2009 - 6:11am
I read this piece with my jaw dropping open, a drop that went further when I read the comments.
Perhaps it was not some dark and draconian act of marketing, finance and pricing people in a conference room that brought forth this particular price difference. That said, it does not mean that it is not wrong.
And I would, after having spent many hours in conference rooms with the aforementioned and having been one of them at another company, that someone was not aware of the implications of this.
True indeed, a company is a company and capitalism is capitalism is what it is.  That said, I am recalling Harvey Cox's 1999 essay, The Market as God.
I am not sure that Father Anderson is suggesting that Greyhound change polcies but perhaps rather what the moral implication of this scenario is. As I read it, I am reminded of the paths of exclusion based on economics and the ghettoes that are created where credit cards and intetnet access are denied.
For a country that at large loves to proclaim itslef as a "Christian nation," a term that I would never use, it seems to love to act in a manner contrary to that.  If we can possibly comprehend that few things are all good or all evil, we might be able to see that boundless charity is not the real "evil" nor is boundless profiterring the real "good."  I am always mystified by the overtating of either position. In the end it bears no real fruit as I see it.
In medio stat virtus - or something to that effect, I am not a Latin scholar, but virtue might be in the moderate more than in the extreme.
Thank you for this thought provoking piece.
Anonymous | 9/28/2009 - 1:07pm

     Do the poor pay more?  Probably not if you figure in that they do not purchase, insure, register, and maintain cars.
  
     Merchants are merchants, not charities, but even so I doubt Greyhound's intent is to take advantage of poor people.  While it might be true that Greyhound is in a position to exploit the poor person's lack of options for transportation, it is equally true that Greyhound provides an option without which poor people would be considerably less mobile. 
 
      As a credit card holder, when I investigated options for long distance travel, I found it hard to justify booking a bus ticket in comparison to an airplane ticket.  The price was not less and the length of the trips was days instead of hours. (my last trip would have taken seven and a half days by bus and cost over $170, while the airplane took five and half hours and cost $130)  For shorter distances, I would use my car or rent one. 
  
     Nevertheless, here is an opportunity for a charitable organization to provide a service to the poor by acting as a go-between for online ticket purchases.  The passanger does not have to be the purchaser.  Furthermore, public transportation routes can be modified to include outlying bus stations.

Anonymous | 9/28/2009 - 1:06pm

I don't think it's correct to say that Greyhound has "found" a way to "penalize" low-income travelers, as though the Greyhound people are evil madmen who wake up every morning gleefully rubbing their hands and saying, "After a long search we have found some new policies we can use to make the poor suffer more! Bwaaaahahaha!"

Buying the tickets online is probably cheaper because it is cheaper for Greyhound to do business that way. The people who go and stand in line are using a bricks and mortar location and buying their ticket from an employee. Real estate and employees cost companies money. When Greyhound sells tickets online they don't have to take into account that overhead and can pass the savings on to the customers who buy on the internet. Not exactly a dark anti-poor conspiracy.
According to the income guidelines I once qualified as poor. I now have a credit card and internet access, but when I did not, I had a debit card and learned to use my public library or the computers at my job. The only way to correct the alleged "inequity" in this situation is for Greyhound to raise its online prices to match its brick and mortar prices. I am sure the Greyhound people wouldn't mind this solution since it would increase their profit margin considerably. For poor people like I was it would kind of stink. Or am I not the kind of poor person the Catholic Workers care about?