Get Outta Town?
For the past year the State of New York has embarked on an advertising campaign to encourage the growing number of young New York City residents, many newly-arrived from other states and countries and unfamiliar with the rest of the state (unlike those of us who grew up here back when they actually taught state history in the schools), to visit Upstate New York. One sees signs on the subway, for example, and occasionally advertisements on television.
In one sense it is a fine idea. Upstate New York (and the New Jersey Shore) declined as tourist destinations in the Generation Greed era, since that generation took advantage of airline transportation and soaring consumer debt to travel further to more expensive destinations. Younger generations are poorer, any might be inclined to give their great grandparents’ vacation spots a chance if they knew about them. It would be a step up from a “staycation.” But there are some problems. Most of these young New Yorkers don’t have their own cars. Many don’t even have driver’s licenses. And most of the Upstate destinations they might choose to visit are not anywhere near an MTA transit line. So more than an advertising campaign will be required to connect New York City’s growing population of young adults with Upstate New York.
All this raises the question of now NYC residents used to visit Upstate New York destinations in the pre-automobile era. The answer is they used to travel by railroad, on routes now served by the revitalized (and, in rural areas probably subsidized) intercity bus industry. The railroads actively promoted travel to the countryside in order to increase their revenues. This post is in fact inspired by tourist-promotion railroad maps in a book I have at home, Railroad Maps of North America: the First 100 Years.
Among the highlights: a 1909 map of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, which included a colored pictorial and tourist map of the Lake Champlain area, encouraging tourists to visit the area for the 300th anniversary of Champlain’s discovery of the lake.
An 1893 tourist map of the New York Central network, advertising passage to “The Health and Pleasure Resorts of New York and New England.” The resorts were shown in pictures on the reverse side of the map (not show in the book), but the map features the Adirondacks, Catskills, Finger Lakes, Thousand Islands, Niagara Falls and Chautauqua Lake.
And an 1883 “Topographical Map of Summer Resort Regions Reached by the Erie Railroad,” basically the upper Delaware River Valley and Sullivan County. The map shows all the fish that could be caught and other game that could be killed there, along with the health restoring benefits of the pure air and water. “The Erie is peculiarly fortunate in the ANTI-MALARIAL CHARACTER OF THE COUNTRY THROUGH WHICH IT PASSES” the map claims. “The pure air, rapid waters and high elevations of the RAMAPO, DELWARE, and NEVERSINK valleys, and the back regions of ULSTER, SULLIVAN, ORANGE, PIKE, WAYNE and DELAWARE counties, are persistent foes to the diseases that have become all to prevalent in other parts of the country.”
As it happens I’ve spent quite a bit of time on buses to and from Upstate New York in the past couple of years. We let our daughters have our car up at college, but I wanted to make sure they could make the long drive safely by themselves before I allowed them to do it on their own. So I’d ride up with them and take the bus back, or take the bus up and drive back with them. Since they had the car, a visit to the kids at the campus meant more bus rides if I were traveling alone, given the cost of renting a car in Brooklyn. A recent trip to see an in-law with a health problem, and drive him back to Brooklyn in his car, meant another bus ride. (I’ve been renting cars frequently as well).
So I’ve spent the past couple of years in circumstances very much like those young New York City residents would face if they wanted to go Upstate. Rental cars were OK for my wife and I if two of us were going, but then I have a license and have been driving for 36 years, and we are fairly well off. The cost of renting a car in Brooklyn is ridiculous. We took a vacation to the Bay Area in California last summer, and the cost of renting a car in that area – the one part of the country that is more expensive than metro New York in general – is far lower. People had been told that car rental would become cheaper if New York’s “vicarious” liability law, which held the car rental company liable for anything the renter did with it (use it as a getaway car in an armed robbery for example), were repealed. That law was struck down in federal court, but somehow sky-high car rental rates have remained for those living in the very places where those who the “Get Outta Town” campaign was targeting live.
I found the bus rides to be perfectly pleasant, but it does not seem that the bus companies are promoting tourism the way the railroad companies once did. With regard to small town Upstate New York, they seem to have settled into a niche of serving college students and those visiting friends and family at upstate institutions other than those of higher learning. Bus travel was cash only until recently, when tickets became available for credit card purchase online.
Of the bus systems I used, Trailways New York has a static route map online, which one can see here.
CoachUSA doesn’t even have a route map.
These companies would like travelers to use the bus if they already know where they want to go, but they don’t seem to be in the business of trying to convince anyone to take a trip. As a result many people do not get the idea. Traveling along Route 97 in the Delaware River valley with my daughter last summer (this time in our car), passing the campgrounds and watching all the people out on the river in rented canoes and rafts, I thought to myself that it’s too bad there is no intercity bus service so people could get up there. And as I was thinking this, a CoachUSA bus went by. It turns out there is mass transit service to that area, and fairly frequent service at that. I know a lot about New York State, but I didn’t know that.
As for New York State’s tourism promotion service, it has an extensive online presence but still seems stuck in the AAA era.
You can get travel guides sent to you for every part of the state for free, with maps, attractions, places to stay, places to eat, etc. We’ve used plenty of them over the years while touring the state in our car. Some have driving tour maps. They don’t really serve those traveling by bus.
What I would like to see is an interactive online map of Upstate New York, showing the bus routes and stops of all the major carriers providing scheduled travel between those areas and New York City. Interactive in that not only would the map provide links to the bus carriers for the purchase of tickets, but also clicking on an individual stop would bring up a page with the sort of information provided by New York State in its tourism guides – attractions, places to stay, places to eat, things to do. Perhaps a local map showing these things as well.
The map would be produced by a third party, not the bus companies, so it would show the state’s bus (and Amtrak) network as a whole, not just the routes served by one carrier. The way the Seamans Bank for Savings produced a map of the entire New York City subway system before unification, at a time when the IRT, BMT and IND would only produce maps of their own systems.
Such an interactive bus map could be produced by New York State, but having worked for the government and found out just how hard it is for government agencies to accomplish anything, perhaps someone could just go ahead a do it as an advertising-driven business.
Once people decided to “Get Outta Town” without cars, however, they would soon run into other problems. For example, the resort or state park one wished to visit would probably be some distance from the bus stop. Is taxi or van service available? No usually. Are rental cars available cheap enough to make up for the cost of the bus ticket? Even a convertible to ride around Upstate in the summertime? Probably not.
Let’s say you wanted to camp and swim near the waterfall at Robert Treman State Park. That’s five miles from the bus station in Ithaca. Bring and ride your own bike? CoachUSA will let you, but it provides nothing to lock it to and says customers bring bicycles at their own risk. Which to someone from New York means it ain’t gonna be there when you arrive. Trailways wants the bicycle to be no more than 32 inches high, which requires disassembly, and stored in a box. Rent bikes when you get there? Are they available, and at what cost? “Statiebikes?”
Visiting the scenic attractions, mostly in state parks, hiking, swimming, and engaging in “agrotourism” are some of the best reasons to visit rural Upstate New York. I don’t think a lot of NYC residents will be looking to vacation in the city of Rochester. But after 60 years of auto-orientation, these places are no longer set up to be accessible to those without their own automobile – even if they had been 100 years ago.
And there is another problem: with regard to lodging, Upstate New York sells out. After 60 years of decline since the advent of widespread air travel, its hospitality infrastructure is atrophied, and since most of those who travel there now do so on the weekends, there is often no room at the inn. And not just in one-horse towns, either. In the past three years I’ve had to drive to Ithaca and pay up for Cornell’s hotel school hotel while trying to stay in Binghamton, because there was nothing closer and cheaper. And drive to Norwich while trying to stay in Oneonta. College graduation in Hamilton, NY? Thank God the University made dorms available for rent. Staying in Cooperstown when my wife (for some reason) wanted to watch dogs chase sheep down a hill? I think we got the last room on Otsego Lake – a drive out of town. Arriving by bus, we might have been stranded.
So why don’t people invest and expand the Upstate NY lodging industry? Perhaps because it would be hard to afford to build something decent if it would only be rented two nights a week 20 weeks a year. So expanding the tourist industry would require attracting more people for a week at a time.
Nowhere in Upstate New York, however, is worth a week by itself. A weekend in the Irish Alps, when the Saw Doctors were playing at an Irish music festival? Great. A week in the Irish Alps when you can only go to places you can reach on foot? Not as great. Travel by car and you can tour, stay in state parks, visit any number of them, as my family has over the years. Arrive by bus and you are stuck in one place, under current arrangements.
In 2000 my family took a grand tour of Upstate New York beyond the Hudson Valley, Adirondacks, and Catskills, where he had often traveled before. I remember it was the year 2000 because we got stuck behind Hillary Clinton’s “listening tour” in Skaneateles. Camping in Watkins Glen State park we hiked and used the pool there, hiked and swam by the waterfall at Treman State Park, hiked Taughannock Falls State Park, visited Corning Glass and some Finger Lake wineries. We then headed west to Letchworth State Park, staying in the Glen Iris Inn, and visiting Perry, a town a college classmate described as the best in the universe but which seemed dead by the time we got there. Then onto Niagara Falls, the road along Lake Ontario, etc.
Could you do that on a bus?
I’m reminded of a vacation I was told about by an oldtimer I met on traveling cross-country on Amtrak in the early 1980s. In the 1950s or 1960s he and his wife got a one-month pass on Greyhound, and traveled across the country. They’d chat up the bus driver and get off, stay and eat wherever he suggested, in small towns across the country. They met people all over America, and had a great time. For such a trip to be possible around New York State, there would have to be a monthly ticket that was good on all the intercity bus lines that serve Upstate New York. Along with a mechanism to track its use to apportion the resulting revenue. With carriers that only just started offering online ticketing in the past few years.
As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. Because given how hard it’s getting to park, when our 17-year-old Saturn Wagon wears out I’m not anxious to replace it. I’ve been tracking how much it has and (when our car is available down here) would have cost us just to rent cars, use car services, and use Zipcars, and it is more than one would expect, though still less than the cost of ownership. We taught our kids to drive, but the cost and time was huge, particularly the bump up in insurance. Many of their friends still do not know how to drive, and I’m not sure how they are going to learn. The city is no place for a car, but it is hard to travel around Upstate New York without one.
But Upstate New York is worth going to. There is this nice little town off Route 17 in the Catskills we never knew about until one of our daughters was a camper, then a volunteer, then a staff member at a New York Environmental Camp (that New York State has environmental camps is something else NYC residents don’t know about, but my wife attended as a child). The town has a little main street, and a park with a swimming hole in a river. At one point I thought we could take a bus up and stay in town someday, since there is a bus that goes there. There was this great restaurant/pub we loved to stop at, until it blew up.
The manager is now working at a new place on a lake nearby, and the food is good there. I hade never been impressed with the southern Catskills, because Route 17 is not a pretty road – hardly a “parkway.” Later I found out the good stuff, like this lake, is a distance away. CoachUSA can take you by bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Roscoe NY for $72 round trip, or $58 if you travel on a weekday. But it’s another five miles to get to Tennanah Lake from there. It’s a little out of the way if you have your own car. It’s not going to be easy to get to at all if you arrive by bus and don’t have your bike.