Grey Is the ?New Green

Posted inID Mag

By: Phil Patton | November 12, 2009

Greyhound’s redesign comes just as long-distance bus travel is beginning to look more appealing again—for environmental as well as economic reasons. —- Click here to view a timeline of the Greyhound bus and logo design from the 1920’s to today. —-

In his 1937 song “Me and the Devil Blues,” Robert Johnson imagined his ghost on a Greyhound. “You can bury me down by the highway,” he sang. “Let my old evil spirit take a Greyhound bus and ride.”

In Johnson’s time, buses were emblems of speed, adventure, and escape. But a few generations later, most Americans wouldn’t be caught dead on a long-distance bus. From 1960 to the current decade, intercity bus travel saw steady declines. With the rise of car ownership and affordable airfare, buses came to be seen as slow and down-market, the province of post-traumatic vets and single moms with noisy infants. And bus stations became synonyms for seedy, dangerous urban spaces.

But now, astonishingly, long-distance bus travel is showing signs of a comeback. Of course, it never really went away: Greyhound alone makes some 13,000 daily ?departures in North America, carrying 25 million passengers a year to more than 2,300 destinations, many too small or out-of-the-way for air or rail. Total intercity bus ridership rose by 9.8 percent last year in the U.S., according to a DePaul University study, after a 7.6 percent increase in 2007, suggesting that the trend is about more than just the recession.

Bus travel is getting a second look not only because it’s affordable and has fewer hassles than air, but also because it’s green. Like other mundane activities such as inflating your tires or changing your lightbulbs, taking the bus can help the environment. Thanks to modern computer-controlled turbodiesel engines and today’s low-sulfur diesel fuel, long-distance bus travel creates the least pollution per passenger mile of any means of transportation short of bicycle or boot. At about 0.2 pounds of carbon per passenger mile, intercity buses beat even the Prius. “Greener than a hybrid” could be Greyhound’s motto.

High-speed rail has its place, but it requires vast capital outlays and development of new infrastructure. We already have a huge asphalt infrastructure to support bus travel. And buses are more flexible than rail in following the shifting geographic patterns of travel.

The revival of bus travel began with the unbelievably cheap Chinatown-based bus services that popped up on the East Coast around the turn of the century. Then, in 2006, the British company Stagecoach adapted the formula to a wider market by introducing its inexpensive, no-frills Megabus brand to the U.S. The following year, FirstGroup, one of Stagecoach’s rivals in the U.K., bought Greyhound. FirstGroup saw the brand not as the “dirty dog” but as an “icon of American life,” in the words of chief executive Moir Lockhead (an icon that the company imported to the U.K. in September).

After the acquisition, Greyhound formed BoltBus in partnership with the East Coast carrier Peter Pan and, like Megabus, instituted the variable-pricing structure that JetBlue and other low-cost carriers had implemented in the airline industry—“Bolt for a buck.” Now Greyhound itself has begun emphasizing low-cost teaser rates that depend on early booking and cheap package deals, appealing to young people’s age-old willingness to endure hardship for cheap adventure.

Still, smoothing the ride with smart ?design and a few modern amenities helps. This spring in the Northeast, Greyhound rolled out the first 102 of its new Prevost ?X3-45 buses, which will eventually form its entire fleet. The coaches offer wi-fi and power outlets, and five seats have been removed to increase legroom. There are even seat belts! There’s also a new blue-and-silver graphic scheme by the Bay Area advertising agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. Neal Zimmermann, the design director for the project, explains that his team carefully studied Greyhound’s design history, including the work of Raymond Loewy, who oversaw the brand for decades. Seeking to “elevate the new Greyhound to a more premium level,” they gave the classic canine logo a more streamlined, chrome-plated ?appearance to emphasize speed.

Design made Greyhound a success in the first place. Founded in 1914 by an out-of-work miner in Hibbing, Minnesota, Greyhound reinvented itself in 1933 when it hired Loewy, who replaced the original logo—he called it the “fat mongrel”—with a sleeker livery. The makeover paid off: In 1939, Greyhound was the official carrier of the World’s Fair. In 1947, Loewy designed 1,500 new aluminum, air-conditioned buses, prompting Time to trumpet, “New Day for the Hound.” In 1954, he designed the iconic split-level Scenicruiser, a totem of the golden age of bus travel.

While that commitment to design waned over the ensuing half-century, Greyhound’s current ownership is clearly aware that cheap fares and environmental credentials alone won’t attract passengers—it has to address the brand’s image, too. Besides the new buses, the company has also been primping up its stations, and has renovated 125 since 2003. These changes can help Greyhound continue to draw new riders turned off by the inefficiency of rail and the frustrations of air. Its return offers a lesson: Looking at old systems in new ways can be its own form of innovation. ??

A contributing editor at I.D., Phil Patton teaches in SVA’s design criticism program and writes for The New York Times.

Photo credits: Tim Kent / Monaco Reps