Pop up communities

Last week I tried a megabus trip . It was a kind of comparison test with the Greyhound http://www.greyhound.com bus trip that I'd recently been on. There were a number of organizational differences in the outbound experience:

• The Greyhound you pickup a physical ticket from the bus station. The megabus operates from a parking lot with no office so you just take your on-line booking reservation number

• The Greyhound bus station is a building with bay numbers with arrivals/departures information and some sense of organization of passengers by destination. The megabus has none of this. Some buses were parked in the DC parking lot but an attempt to ask the drivers where they were heading for was met by a stinging rebuke 'wait till you are called'. In the absence of any information on departures passengers asked each other.

• Both trips started with the bus leaving roughly on time: Greyhound 15 minutes late, megabus 10 minutes late. The megabus has wi-fi and the Greyhound doesn't.

• The Greyhound was full (a second bus had to be laid on) and the megabus had 5 passengers. (It was a new route which may explain that). Both arrived roughly on time.

The inbound experience was utterly different. The Greyhound showed up, and the megabus didn't. And here's how a pop up community got organized. The bus was due to depart the parking lot at 1:35. It was bitterly cold and when we arrived around 1:15 there were several cars with people in them who we judged to be waiting for the bus. The bus was coming in from Knoxville, Tennessee. 20 minutes after the bus was supposed to have departed there was no sign of it arriving. People started to get out of their cars and tap on each other's windows.

Gradually it transpired that people were each trying to call megabus to get information. Several of us had got through to the ticketing department and had received different information. I had got "call back when the bus is 30 minutes late", someone else had got "it will be there in 15 minutes", a third person had been told "we don't have any advisories on this bus", and a fourth had been told to ring a different number because the ticketing department didn't hold information on bus locations, but the customer service department in each region did.

My second shot at the ticketing department number yielded the same information about the customer service number in the region. I rang that. Looking from my car window I could see most people on their phones too. Discussion revealed that no-one got through to a live agent on the customer service number. (One person held for 40 minutes). We all got the same recorded message that we were highly valued and the next available agent would be with us as soon as possible.

About an hour into the wait people started to emerge from their cars and swap speculations on the non arrival. Possibilities explored were: a) the driver had forgotten that he had to make the new stop and had just gone straight from Tennessee to DC. b) there was a big accident and the bus was delayed in that c) there had been some weather problems en route causing traffic delay d) the driver had pulled in early because there was no traffic delay and he/she had been able to make good time and then decided not to wait to the scheduled departure time but just set off anyway. Someone told the story of one megabus driver doing just that on a different route. e) The bus had never left Tennessee because the driver had faild to report for duty.

About 45 minutes into the wait I was working out my fall back plan. This was to drive to the nearest airport and get a one-way rental car (at vast expense!) I set about finding people who might want to ride up which meant knocking on all the car windows and asking if anyone was interested. Seeing this activity people started to get out of their cars and share reasons why it was/was not imperative for them to have got that bus, and why they were willing or not to wait for it to show up, or wait for the next one at 5:30 p.m. and why they were or were not interested in a one way car rental.

One person was going to Benin and had a plane to catch, two others (plus myself) had to be at work in the morning. Two didn't care when they got to DC so were prepared to wait, etc. etc. in fact they went off for lunch. Long story short, and after several conversations with the various waiting people, and after waiting a full two-hours my friend drove the 30 miles to the nearest airport with me + one of the people waiting for the megabus. Another person was driven by his friend to the airport. (We were wanting two more people to make a car load of 5 but that proved difficult to organize, as the logistics of getting two more people to the airport didn't work out). So three of us set off in the one way rental. By this stage the ten or so people in the parking lot had formed an instant community of experience and we were waved goodbye.

What I learned from this? Have a back up plan at the ready. Have the tools to orchestrate the back up plan – I was able to reserve a car on my BlackBerry, and be prepared to lead other people into a new idea. What I'm still wondering is at what point do you decide to give up on one course of action and take the other (cut your losses). I don't know if the megabus ever showed up. I'm also curious at the way lack of information leads to speculation which is much more difficult to make judgments against. Had I know the bus was going to arrive 2 hours 5 minutes late would I have decided to get a one-way rental? (I left after two hours). If I knew the reliability record of megabus would I have chosen that transport method in the first place, etc. Why was I happy to drive a car 300 miles with two strangers I'd just met in the parking lot? (Partly because I'd shared several short bursts of conversation with them during the two hour wait period). What causes a community to gel in a very short space of time – it seems the shared experience is key. A great novel on this topic of is Bel Canto by Anne Patchett.

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