Boarding the long-distance bus out of Jacksonville, North Carolina at 5:30AM, still feeling punk and badly geared up for the 32 hours it will take to reach Texas, I pondered that question.
In China, in Europe... in most countries, there are many transportation options that are clean, affordable and fast, if not comfortable and even luxurious. In America, not so much!
Consider this: Europe has Eurail, a train system that covers most of the continent, and China has bullet trains as well as slower trains. In fact, the whole country is gridded with rails, making it easy to get virtually anywhere. Trains are punctual, safe and efficient, with several runs per day to major cities.
America has no train system to speak of. The eastern seaboard and west coast have fairly regular train runs, and there is rail service across the northwest, with a hub in Chicago. However, nearly 100 major cities in America, such as Las Vegas and Nashville, metropoli of more than a million residents, have no train service at all. South Dakota and Wyoming have never been served by Amtrak, the United States' only passenger train service.
Amtrak is partially government funded, but run as a business. Many lines were discontinued in the last 30 years because they did not generate enough profit to keep them running. Some trains only run every 3 days, so if you have to be somewhere at a certain time, you'd have to plan your schedule carefully. Another factor plaguing those who would want to travel in America by train is that they might have to get off the train and ride a long distance bus to their next train connection. Finally: it is more expensive to train across America than to fly... and just about as aggravating!
Is it aggravating to fly across America? Well, no. Although, the service aboard airlines in America is severely lacking as compared to other countries. While most airlines in the states offer a beverage service and some offer a complimentary snack, if you're hoping for something to eat or an alcoholic beverage, you'd better have a credit card: all food must be bought, and you cannot pay with cash. 'Plane food' is about as expensive as food you would buy at the airport. The menu is limited to sandwiches or a fruit and cheese plate.
What is aggravating about flying anywhere in the states is: going through security. Having to strip down a basic garment layer – sweaters and coats not allowed, having to remove your shoes, belt, and bulky jewelry, cleaning out your pockets, having to go through a body scanner AND get patted down. It takes longer to get through security than to check in to your flight and get to the gate!
Even more frustrating: paying baggage fees. Whereas, globally, only a handful of airlines charge baggage fees, In America, there are only 2 that don't assess a flat rate for luggage. Most airlines charge $25 for your first bag, with Spirit Airlines going as high as $45, according to farecompare.com.
There is no guarantee your bag won't be searched once you surrender it to the airline, even though all bags are put through a scanner. Upon arrival in China I found my secured baggage unsecured and, upon opening it, found this notice from TSA:
This was not the first time I've found such a notice in my suitcase. Somehow I find it violating that, even though non-invasive means of inspection exist, these officials see fit to break into people's luggage and rifle their things, and travelers only find out after the fact. However, if your carry-on bag screening reveals anything suspicious, the agent must wait for you to be present before s/he goes through your bag. What is the difference between looking through carry-ons and checked luggage that demands consent for inspection in one instance but not the other?
Much criticism has been levied at TSA for, among other things, theft. More than five hundred agents have been fired for theft since the agency's creation. For these reasons, inasmuch as possible, I try not to fly around America. With no trains available, the only way I can get around is by long distance bus.
America has a comprehensive bus system: Greyhound. For the longest time that company had a bad reputation but it has put a lot of money into upgrading its fleet and the bus stations are, for the most part, clean, well-lit, organized and safe. They also have free WIFI and electrical outlets on their buses. Even the bathrooms at the back of the bus have been upgraded from the smelly pits they were. The fares are reasonable and the schedules are generous, with several buses to major destinations, every day. The routes are planned so that several cities/towns along the way will have bus service.
I don't mind riding the bus in America. It is affordable. I don't have to strip and nobody body-searches me or ransacks my luggage. I can pay cash: no credit card needed. I've met a lot of interesting people on the bus. The downsides of bus riding are A. they are not comfortable if you're on the road for more than just a few hours, and B. they always seem to have an hour's stop at 2AM! Even if you're sleeping, you have to get off the bus and wait around until time to board again.
In China, some long-distance buses are outfitted with cots. Should you be on the road for more than, say, 6 hours, you will be supine rather than upright (of course, you can always sit up in your bunk, if that's your choice). Chinese buses stop every 2 hours – at least, that's been my experience, so that nicotine-depriveds can get their fix (and other needs can be attended to). The downside to Chinese buses is getting robbed. Hasn't happened to me, but it is not unheard of, and the driver is just as vulnerable as the passengers.
Not so on Greyhound: they have very strict rules! No drugs or drink on the bus, a safety enclosure for the driver – who doesn't stop until s/he reaches the next scheduled stop. Messing with Greyhound is a federal offense. I don't think anyone would risk it for so little potential reward: the driver carries no money and, for the most part, the riders comprise of the lowest ranks of society.
So: with virtually no trains, the aggravation and expense of flying and buses being the lowest form of transportation, how does mainstream America travel?
By car, according to statistics. Most Americans prefer taking to the open road in the comfort of their own vehicle. If not their own vehicle, rentals are abundantly available for those with a credit card.
With the choices available, who could blame them?