Carfree trip, Austin TX to Hattiesburg MS
I'm making a trip from my home in Austin, Texas to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I'm doing a bit of research at the manuscript archives at the university here. This is a long post that takes a look at what I think are some fundamental issues of medium distance ground travel. The air & rental car mode is also carfree of course, and I have done plenty of that in the past. Ground travel calls lots of carfree skills into play and it's interesting to look at from an enthusiast point of view.
Both Austin and Hattiesburg are on Amtrak lines. I've been on the lookout for an opportunity to travel on Amtrak. The last time I did serious Amtrak travelling was in 1976. There has been an improvement in frequency of service in Austin since 30 years ago. However the Amtrak lines Austin and Hattiesburg are on do not connect in any convenient way.
I played around with all kinds of bus-train scenarios. One of the things that drove me mad was that you have to do a city by city analysis of how the train, bus, and local transit stations relate to each other. No one seems to pay much attention to the detailed mechanics of intermodal ground travel. There is a lot of opportunity for improvement. Some cities do have union terminals that connect train, bus and local transit. I think most do not.
With long distance ground travel, it's often good to try to accomplish more than one thing on a single trip. I think the principles are exactly the same as for local carfree errand running. Bearing that in mind, I did come up with a reasonably efficient idea for direct bus from Austin to New Orleans, stopping over in NO to see sights and have a refreshing night of sleep, then catching the Amtrak to Hattiesburg. The thing that makes this feasible is that NO has very nice intermodal connections with notel accommodations nearby.
Ground trips are tricky because there are so many important details to get right. For medium distance bus travel, the optimum for me is to leave late one day, travel overnight, then arrive at the destination the next day in time for hotel checkin and a refreshing night's sleep. Medium distance train travel I think allows the additional opportunity for combining comfortable sleeping and eating with the trip itself.
I chose the bus-only trip. Traveling overnight on a bus is a skill that takes some practice to develop. It falls into the category of you can eventually get used to anything if you work at it. There were three main legs to the bus trip. The trickiest connection was at 3 AM in Dallas, but Dallas ground transit connections are something I have experience with.
(As an aside, I'd say that medium distance bus traveling is a good skill to cultivate if you want to travel cheap in Mexico. Air/car is hundreds of dollars there, Mexican bus is higher quality than Greyhound and costs hundreds of pesos --> a factor of ten difference.)
Planning the hotel/motel is a key in carfree travel. Google is the greatest thing to happen in travel planning in a long time. But it's still not easy. For my trip, the Hattiesburg bus station is close to where I wanted to be in terms of miles, but between the station and my destination is a big intersection of two busy highways. I just couldn't figure out from maps, satellite photos, and the web postings of local cyclists how hard it would be to cross that monster on bike or on foot. Also, the exact mapping of street numbers to maps and photos still leaves a lot to be desired.
All this factored into two decisions, which were choosing the hotel and deciding whether to take my folding bike. Ultimately, I chose a conveniently located motel whose reviews were unanimously bad, and I decided to not take my folding bike.
The motel decision was based on intuition. The large number of negative reviews seemed to relate to maintenance issues caused first by Katrina and second by hard use of the motel by Katrina refugees. The critical point to me was that a few reviewers mentioned that the staff made extra efforts to resolve problems as far as they could. So as they say I paid my money & took my choice.
I had a harder time with deciding whether to take my folding bike. Hattiesburg is the anchor end of the fabled Longleaf Trace, and I'm interested in taking a look at that as well as doing my research project. The basic problem I had is that my KHS folder doesn't quite solve the intermodal transportation problem. It folds up too big to be carryon luggage, and if you check it as baggage you either have (1) the problem that a canvas bag doesn't protect the bike or carry it well, or (2) a hard case or box leaves you with the problems of how to get it to the departure point and what to do with a hard case at the arrival point. Bike Friday's idea of a case that converts to a trailer is one innovative idea, but my KHS is not a BF. I decided to not take my folding bike. The main reason was that while traveling it became a large piece of clumsy luggage. When going somewhere I've never been before, I travel as light as possible to minimize the number of things that can go wrong.
This is how my decisions worked out. I departed from Austin on Greyhound at 10:15 PM Sunday night. I arrived in Hattiesburg at 4 PM the next day. There were not enough seats on the Dallas to Jackson MS leg of the trip for everyone who showed up. Not having to fool with checked baggage possibly made me nimble enough to get one of the available seats on the next bus out. When I arrived in Hattiesburg I saw that my concerns about the possible impassability of the big highway intersection were overblown. On the Google map, the bus station and the motel looked like they were very close together, but in fact they are about a mile apart due to the street numbers going all the way from 6500 to something like 6595 in the block I was interested in.
The wireless internet at the motel didn't work in the room I originally reserved. (It called for a password, and the hotel insisted there was no password.) The clerk at the desk was not in any way a computer expert, but following her ideas and suggestions it became clear that the access point that served my room was misconfigured. She let me sniff around with my laptop outside the doors to find a room where everything worked. Behind the door where my stuff worked best was was a Jacuzzi Suite with lots of nice amenities, so she upgraded me to that room for free. Very nice. I note for future reference that a jacuzzi works okay as a washer for light polyester drip dry travel clothes.
The only problem is that I'm bikeless for now. I haven't yet figured out what to do about that. I hate to be caught without a bike. Maybe the solution is to get a better folder. Right now I don't know the answer.
I'm off to find the library. Carfree in a town you don't know has extra challenges.
Did you look into shipping your folder by mail? Last year my wife and I moved to Calgary from Toronto Car-Free, and we moved those effects that we really wanted by mail. Our bikes were not folders and we brought them with us on the plane, but our other stuff we packed in boxes and shipped by mail.
Sounds like a great trip, and your pre-trip research had a lot to do with that. Unfortunately, within the US carfree interurban travel is difficult, inconvenient and even uncomfortable. This will have to change before significant numbers of people will become carfree. I agree with your findings that Greyhound and other interurban bus lines are usually the best option in many regions of this country, especially between two smaller cities. They serve more destinations, at about half the cost of trains and planes. Planes would be another good option in many cases--especially if one or both of the cities is a large one. Unfortunately, Amtrack is not a good choice, IMO, in many parts of the country. They are only a little more comfortable than busses, and much more expensive. Destinations are limited and they are quite expensive.
Kudos to Moore's Bicycle Shop in Hattiesburg for getting me wheels!
When I explained the situation, the person at the shop, suggested I could buy one of their used bikes which comes with a warranty and a six month buyback at half price (less damages, repairs, helmet, modifications, etc). I chose an inexpensive used bike priced at $179 and a low priced helmet. The bike was in excellent repair and I like it a lot. I got local route advice at no charge.
Actually, my first idea was to head to the pawnshop district and pick up the cheapest bike I could ride away on. What I saw there was depressing. But next door was Moore's Bicycle Shop.
Advance planning is half the solution for travel. The other half is taking advantage of whatever opportunities come along.
Rajman, the idea of mailing the bike beforehand is a very good one. Too bad I didn't think of it! That's a good addition to the bag of tricks.
Roody, I think your evaluations are correct. This trip is purely experimental. I wanted to improve my carfree skills and try out some ideas that are new to me.
I'm enjoying this trip so much that I extended my stay until Monday morning.
The evening desk clerk gave me a super deal by charging the additional days at the original pre-upgrade rate, basically half price. Which brings up another general principle of low budget "backpack traveling". It helps to make friends in low places. The people on the front lines of the travel and retail industries don't get much notice, but they often have it within their discretion to make your travel experience either miserable or wonderful, as they see fit. The currency of the realm is person to person respect.
The weather here in south Mississippi is hot and humid. Being from Austin I thought I was used to hot and humid, but not so, July in Mississippi is a big challenge. I discovered that I needed two shirts a day, one to ride with and another to change into after reaching my destination. So I had to buy another lightweight shirt that I can hand wash and drip dry overnight. And a box of wet wipes to carry in my pack.
The first thing you notice cycling in an unfamiliar city is that you have no local route knowledge and you don't know any shortcuts. I guess I knew that in a theoretical sense. You have to rebuild local know how from scratch, one wrong turn at a time.
Take Your Lane
Great job on the travel.
I think you got over most of the problems before you started, when you saw it as an adventure instead of an inconvenience.
Thanks, MaxBender. I guess I'm trying to figure out how carfree skills can enrich the travel experience. Adventure travel could be a context where carfree is empowering and liberating instead of just a poor substitute for driving.
I'm building up some local route know how.
The first thing was, I finally figured out that the Google Maps location of my motel is even more wrong than I thought, enough to put it on the wrong intersecting street of a main highway. No wonder I had trouble figuring out the ground truth from maps.
The other thing is, I was able to scout out the Hattiesburg end of the Longleaf Trace this morning before I went to the archive. It's a gorgeous 40 mile rail to trail conversion. It doesn't show up on any city street maps, and the trail maps are quite useless for figuring out how to connect with the trail except by car using major highways. As it turned out there is a sidewalk type connection to the Longleaf Trace from the north, just past the dead end marker at the south end of 31st Street. It's hard to see and described nowhere. This lets you go straight from the motel district to the university, avoiding deadly narrow arterial streets.
You have to give credit to the recreational riders for making the Longleaf Trace happen. With just a little bit of extra effort it could, in combination with 25th Street, form the backbone of a nice bike commuter system.
From a peak oiler point of view, one could visualize a version of the Longleaf Trace that one day connects with the Natchez Trace. The old railroad towns nearest Hattiesburg and Jackson might some day be revived and recycled as bicycle suburbs and tourist destinations.
I got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm without rain gear. That's the the breaks. The good news is that it made me seek shelter under a bridge on the Longleaf Trail. It was while I was waiting there that I noticed the undocumented connection to 31st Street.
It sure is fun to explore like that, especially in a new location. I'm always looking for new routes, even in my own city. I just moved a short distance, and I'm already exploring a forested area near my house. There SHOULD be a trail there that's a short cut over to the west side of the city. I just have to find it!
Very true, Roody. Carfree life is so much better with shortcuts.
I'm changing my trip plan again. Tomorrow I'm catching the Amtrak Crescent out of Hattiesburg. It should be a two hour hop to NOLA. That's two hours after the train arrives here, that is.
It works because I can check out of the motel, ride the bike to Moore's Bike Shop, return it (or more precisely sell it back), then proceed on foot another mile or so to the train station.
You can't buy a ticket at the Hattiesburg station. No ticket counter. You have to call Amtrak on the phone, make a reservation, and get the ticket once you're on the train. Credit cards not accepted on the train, by the way. Also, carry-on luggage only if you board or get off at Hattiesburg. Whatever magic they need to check luggage in or out doesn't exist here.
The Sunset Limited only runs MWF out of NOLA, so I'll spend two nights there. This works for me as a leisure traveler. I think I'll take a look at the Lower Garden District, which has been described as one of the world's great neighborhoods for carfree living.
You're having a great trip, it sounds like. For you, I think part of the fun is dealing with the challenges and coming up with creative solutions. I very much commend that spirit.
However, you know this really shouldn't be necessary. The US should have convenient and reliable public ground transportation between all points. What we have now is a shameful mess, and it is clearly one of the major reasons that we don't have more carfree people in this country. Our governments will spend billions to subsidize the highway system and barely a dime on alternative interurban transit.
I'm certainly getting some ideas of how things could be improved! We'll get decent public transit when enough people want it.
Originally Posted by Roody
I thought I outfoxed myself this evening. I'd returned the bike and checked out of the motel. The train was more than two hours late and I was alone in a post apocalyptic part of town. I had earlier received a shouted taunt from a car, from persons of an opposite race, on my way to the train station. Nothing personal, just a bit of free floating aggression like most cyclists encounter from time to time.
As the sun set, more persons of an opposite race arrived in cars on the other side of the parking lot and began joking loudly with each other. I figured the train was maybe cancelled. I lost it and started to bail out. About half a mile away I calmed down and returned to the station.
As it turned out, I was once more lacking in local know how. As I now know, the train is always around three hours late in Hattiesburg. The people on the other side of the parking lot who were joking with each other were locals catching the train to NOLA. I suspect they gathered away from the station because they were wary of me.
Once on board, I found Amtrak to be unbelievably luxurious and relaxed compared to airlines and Greyhound.
Note to self. "Room has magnificent view of architectural landmark" is marketing speak for the tallest building in the city is right in front of your window.
I had a round trip ride on what would normally be the St. Charles streetcar line from downtown New Orleans through the garden district. The line is being run with buses right now until the infrastructure gets fixed.
The Garden District is one of the finest carfree capable neighborhoods I have ever seen. Quite a few people were out on bikes, including kids. I passed one little cafe that had I think eight bikes chained up to the patio's rail.
The Gulf may reclaim New Orleans in the long run, but there are many unique things about NOLA that are worth fighting for.
Tomorrow I'll finish my trip by taking Amtrak's Sunset Limited to Houston. Well, what have I accomplished? I've made a significant medium distance trip in what most peope would consider a carfree way. I learned that most of the difficulties in taking carfree trips are attributable to the lack of local know how and experience with specific transit situations. I've improved my carfree skills.
If anyone's interested, there's a very fine adventure travel forum over at BootsNAll . Many of the topics discussed there involve getting around in unfamiliar places without a private car.
Interesting series of posts. I am glad to see that you were able to make the trip work. I have tried several times to make the carfree trips work for my extended commutes between home and job (I work out of town) but between total lack of available transportation, and the time constraints it just won't work. I would love to see a $2 a gallon tax on fuel and the repeal of all tax breaks to big oil, then use the money to repair the mass transit infastructure. I am not sure but I suspect that the mass transit infastructure in Europe is probably goverment subsidized. Please continue to let us know how you make out on these trips.
Thanks, wahoonc. I'll be the first to admit that this kind of traveling in the U.S. is impractical if there is a time constraint. Also, that real money is involved if you try to achieve any level of comfort.
In late breaking news, the Amtrak route I was planning to take today suffered a derailment in Beaumont yesterday. There has not been an announcement of any delay in today's departure, but it's serious cause for concern.
Amtrak has had a very bad week with not only the Beaumont derailment, but also a sideswiping collision with a freight train near Mineola, cancellation of scheduled runs on two other routes, and a case in Portland where after an 11 hour delay they returned all the passengers to the originating station and refunded their fares instead of making alternate arrangements.
Since I plan to rendezvous with someone in Houston, I'm changing my trip again. I'll take Greyhound back. Fortunately, in NOLA the Greyhound and Amtrack share the same union (=intermodal) terminal. The express bus to Houston leaves in less than two hours so I gotta run.
Well if there's anything less reliable than Greyhound, it's Amtrack. I read somewhere that 80 % of the trains are delayed.
I arrived in Houstin and checked in to my motel. I just got the status on the Amtrak I would have taken. It departed on time and so far is predicted to arrive on time.
Originally Posted by Roody
I have a much better understanding now of what the deal is with Amtrak. Amtrak seems to run reliably in the Northeast, where it owns and controls some of its own rails. Everywhere else, Amtrak runs on rails owned and controlled by companies such as Illinois Central or Union Pacific which have come to see themselves as exclusively freight carriers. What we have outside the Northeast is a passenger line that is dispatched by the controlling railroads as if it were just another train carrying coal, sulfuric acid, or plastic furniture from China.
I guess the thinking by passenger rail supporters is that it's important to keep Amtrak alive so that we'll have some base on which to rebuild passenger rail service if the need arises. From what I saw, there are quite a number of passengers who are willing and able to work around the scheduling issues. Amtrak is definitely not the choice for a person who has to work with time constraints. I guess we had a thread discussing Amtrak issues not too long ago.
On a Fla. to DC Amtrak trip I took with my bike, the frieght schedule got out of whack because something came loose from a flatbed car and whacked a passing train. I got the impression that the passenger schedule is used to enhance the freight schedule. Since Amtrak rents the time slots from the track owners, if the owner's schedule gets off they bump Amtrak to get themselves back. It makes it appear to the casual observer that our culture values capital over people. When a crowded airport schedule is disrupted by a thunderstorm or snow do the frieght haulers take precedence over the passenger craft or are they just diverted based on their place in the queue? I speculate that frieght would trump people if the airport were owned by FEDEX or UPS and the passenger haulers were just renting time slots on the runway.
Originally Posted by Platy