So...have you wondered if all this talk amounts to anything? I'm hoping it does, but I need anyone and everyone who knows something about Charleston *and* Savannah to weigh in. In the spirit of rivalry, I've created a poll. Let's get some data people!
When starting a transportation business with a range of municipal stakeholders, there's a delicate dance involving operating logistics and marketing. In the case of the ACE Basin Express, I needed to ensure that both Charleston and Savannah would allow us to operate, and that our schedule of service and pick-up/drop-off locations were legal and sustainable, before pushing too hard on the marketing front. On the flip side, it's not exactly easy to sell tickets when you haven't been able to get the word out with concrete, here's-how-to-catch-the-bus details.
We're grateful for those passengers over the past few weeks who have clicked on a meager Google ad while in search of bus transportation between Charleston and Savannah. We're working on improving internet search-ability, of course, but now that solid operating logistics are in place, it's time to get the word out through other local channels.
First step: the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CACVB) and the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce's (SACC) tourism unit, Visit Savannah. These are two of the biggest tourism players, and over the past few weeks I've had an opportunity to speak with both organizations about the ACE Basin Express. By the end of this week we'll be an official member of both organizations. The discussions were enlightening and encouraging, but it didn't come as a surprise that an undercurrent of rivalry emerged from both sides. The missions of CACVB and SACC Visit Savannah are to promote tourism in Charleston and Savannah respectively, and it seems counterproductive to promote a service that removes people from your city and takes them to your closest competitor. Luckily, CACVB and SACC Visit Savannah recognize that transportation ideally works in both directions, and that in practice, many travelers are already making the choice to visit both cities in tandem.
Still, as far as I can tell, there have not been any attempts to market the cities together. These two cities compete - not just in tourism, but in almost every way that cities vie for wealth, prominence, influence, and notoriety. The proliferation of popular city rankings only fuels the fire, and I sense more of a rift than a bridge in spite of their proximity and common goals.
Most sports fans would agree that a strong rivalry makes both competitors stronger. It raises their games, it creates hype, and it draws fans. Though the rules of play are the same, a strong rivalry allows athletes or teams to promote their unique identities in contrast to their competitors. Take Federer and Nadal, Clemson and South Carolina, or the Yankees and the Red Sox. Win-loss records aside, it seems that everyone enjoys positive gains. The players and teams build strong, loyal fan bases, who in turn benefit from a high level of competition and the pride of allegiance.
As I continue working on promoting a new transportation option between Charleston and Savannah, I will embrace the rivalry between these two Southern cities. Literally every passenger with whom I've spoken has been excited to compare the two cities based on his or her own discoveries, and that's exactly what travel is all about. I will encourage those in charge of promoting Charleston and Savannah to consider opportunities to capitalize on this rivalry, to foster uniqueness while working together as one region, and to remember that friendly competition leads to all kinds of victories for both sides.
Charleston versus Savannah? Which one? Both? How much time for each? During my years away from home, this was a question posed by so many different people in so many different contexts, and it always results in a good discussion with locals, visitors, and prospective travelers alike. While some people always passionately defend their hometown, I am not so black-and-white. Depending on the topic at hand, the mood in the air, the company in the room, and the drinks being served, there are tons of different angles to consider. Best city to live? To visit? To raise kids? To dine? To party? To explore? To relax? To make art? To consume art? To get around?
As a kid growing up in Charleston, I really didn’t know much about Savannah. It’s amazing what a silly state boundary does. I knew Savannah was similar to Charleston in size, geography, and historical significance, but I was so much more familiar with other cities and towns in South Carolina. We are indeed products of our home state, and that alone made Savannah seem much farther away.
I did have a few opportunities to visit Savannah when I was young, but it was not until I studied city planning that I became familiar with this fascinating place that is, in fact, quite different from Charleston. While they are both old and well preserved, Savannah is considered America’s first planned city, and the ordered structure of its historic district results in some striking public spaces. Charleston grew more organically, and the lack of structure seems to result in more unexpected urban surprises. Charleston is all about its spectacular harbor, a city surrounded by water and, at times (if you've been following the news), under it. Savannah, which is a few miles further inland, is a river city through and through. I remember visiting as a kid and being so excited about the bona fide hill that sloped from the top of the bluff down to the river. In Charleston, bridges and parking garages are the closest we get to terrain.
Finally (and most interesting to me), where are these cities headed? Both are real-world metropolitan centers, both are experiencing tremendous growth, and the New South has undoubtedly gained a foothold in an environment where history reigns supreme. How do they embrace these changes? How do they handle the constant threat to their old-school ways-of-life, while retaining the hospitality that makes them famous and attractive to the rest of the world?
This debate isn't new. Fellow geography nerds may be familiar with a beautiful two-part map of Charleston and Savannah, illustrated by Joseph Hutchins Colton and published in 1855. Drawn at the same scale and presented together for comparison, the maps immediately highlight some significant differences in these two cities that have so much in common.
From now on, whenever I hear the question: "Charleston or Savannah?", my reply is "Both." You gotta find room for both. If you seek out the differences, chances are you'll appreciate their respective qualities that much more.
Yes, I'm a big proponent of walking and biking and transit. Sometimes, however, a car really fits the bill. In those cases I'm a fan of Uber, and I've heard good things about Charleston Green Taxi too. But what's this? A totally free car service in downtown Charleston? In 100% electric, emission-free vehicles?
Presenting Scoop. They don't charge a penny, thanks to sponsorships from a few local businesses. And while their range and hours are somewhat constrained, it's ideal for most visitors to the city (and a lot of residents, too). Definitely give them a try, and as with all car services, don't forget to tip your driver.
Well, I suppose a few setbacks were to be expected, but they haven't kept me from pushing this thing forward. So, finally, I can officially say that we have a launch date (October 2nd!), and tickets are available to be purchased online. Please bear with us as we sort through the inevitable bugs, and if online booking isn't working for you, don't hesitate to give us a call to make a reservation over the phone.
I'm really pleased about how this is all going to work. In particular, I'm excited that we'll be able to give our passengers an opportunity to get off the bus and enjoy a free, scenic boat ride into the heart of Savannah. I really think it will make for a wonderful travel experience, and there's just something fun about using a unique mode of transportation to get to your destination. I wholeheartedly subscribe to that famous Chinese proverb, "The journey is the reward," and I hope the ACE Basin Express embodies that sentiment and passes it along to all its passengers.
It's not by mistake that I've been pretty vague about the launch date for the ACE Basin Express, and I'm afraid that isn't going to change now. I really want to make sure that all of the service details are solid before asking anyone to buy a ticket, and I'm still waiting on confirmation of my operating plan from a few important players. So, it's still going to happen in September; whether or not I will need to adjust my plan is another story. I will let you know as soon as all the details are ironed out!
During my years at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe Center, I spent a good deal of time working on federal policies related to alternative transportation. When someone would ask me to explain this in more detail, I would usually say something like: "We work with cities, states, and other government agencies to fund, build, and maintain transportation systems that offer more ways of getting around. Trains, bikes, buses, ferries, sidewalks, rideshares - I'm interested in people having more options than a private car."
Really, there was a lot more to it, but the topic of alternative transportation was usually the best way to engage a stranger. Once they understood what I was talking about, they almost always had some thoughts or opinions. Inevitably, I would be asked what we were doing to fix the MBTA (Boston's transit system made infamous during last year's horrid winter), and I was glad to be able to punt this one. "I wish I could help more, but I don't really do much locally." Phew!
Another frequent topic of interest was the state of passenger rail in America. "Have you been to Europe? I was there last summer and rode the train everywhere! It was super easy and fast and clean and always on time, and I just had the best experience! Why can't we have that here?"
This question does fit squarely within the realm of national alternative transportation policy, and while I am by no means an expert, I do have a general handle on the issue. The simplest answer is that America has a very well respected freight rail system, and our success at moving freight has come at the passenger's expense. The vast majority of physical railroads in the U.S. are now owned by the major freight companies, and Amtrak pays these companies to run passenger trains on the same rails. So when it comes to managing train traffic, freight pretty much wins, and indeed, moving freight is a lot more lucrative than moving passengers. Here's a pretty good article in The Economist from 2010 that sums it up.
As I thought more about it and became more familiar with the freight rail industry, I formed an opinion that, like it or not, major improvements to passenger rail in this country are a long time coming. Of course we will continue to hear about higher-speed rail initiatives, and there are a few corridors that are better positioned to make some headway in this area. So many other places, however, are stuck with what they've got, which means there must be room for some new intercity transportation ideas.
I couldn't help but think about my hometown, Charleston, and its neighbor to the south, Savannah. Both cities feel about as European as it gets for small cities in the U.S. They are beautiful, walkable, vibrant, and people visit simply to absorb their respective charms. Also, as discussed in a previous post, at least some portion of visitors are interested in incorporating both cities into their travel plans.
So, given the bleak train situation, I decided there must be room for a new sort of bus between Charleston and Savannah that works for visitors in addition to locals. A bus that is fast, efficient, comfortable, and runs on time. A bus that focuses solely on the historic urban cores of these two remarkable cities. With the ACE Basin Express, I envision a transportation service that does everything possible to provide the quality and experience of European intercity travel, albeit on a highway rather than rails.
To be specific, a Sprinter Minibus, configured for thirteen passengers. The actual process merits a full post, but for now, here's a pic, so it's clear that we're not talking about a big fancy coach or retrofitted school bus. I'm going for comfortable, nimble, and efficient. So far, I'm really pleased. Any thoughts/suggestions for graphics/wraps?