The Three-Martini Greyhound: The Future of Corporate Travel?

In June, my partner took a three-day business trip– her first since before the pandemic hit- to Chicago. I threw out on Twitter that it kind of blows my mind that people actually fly from Detroit to Chicago. “Uh, yeah, duh, just drive!” people said in response. Yeah, actually, no, not the response I was going for. I was thinking about this little-known technology that isn’t driving your own car or flying! It’s called a train– or a bus. This made me wonder about how companies are approaching the question of business travel as we return to, well, not really a “new normal,” but Some Kind Of Something, certainly. I’m not gonna call it the New Normal because everything is still weird. And might be. Like, forever. So, this invites a big question that corporate shills like myself are all pondering: are we going to see a return to the era of lavish corporate travel? Cushy per-diems, four star hotels, and last-minute flights booked at high cost?

Maybe! Or… maybe it’ll look a bit different.

A new Alstom train being built. It’s not one of the engines that runs the Wolverine service from Detroit to Ann Arbor, though. Why? Because why would we have nice things in Michigan? (Photo courtesy of Amtrak/Alstom).

I wanted to look at a few different ways to get between Detroit and Chicago. Let’s think about this as a matter of cost and as a matter of time savings.

Trip No. 1. Aeroplane.

You can’t get from downtown Detroit to the airport in a reasonable time frame on the bus. The airport has a vested interest in fighting against this because it makes so much money off parking fees. The city has no interest in fighting the interests of a public authority. So, consequently, we don’t have nice things. Your options are left to taking a Lyft or Uber– $35 on a good day and far higher with recent driver shortages- or driving yourself. A long weekend in the Big Blue Deck will run you $50-some. You’re also losing out on valuable productive time.

Why Do Airports Not Want Us To Have Nice Things?

Trip No. 2. Train.

The train isn’t particularly fast, even if it’s on time. But on the best day, the plane will take you about 3.5 hrs. door-to-door, and it includes less than an hour of consistent workable time. Maybe an hour and a quarter– if you’re really lucky and don’t have to deal with pissy wifi. The train, on the other hand, involves 5-5.50 hours of uninterrupted work time. That’s nearly a full workday. Just think of all of the fun stuff you could do during that timeframe. You could even take meetings (please don’t take them too loudly!), or go to the café car for a 12 oz. cup of medium roast, medium-strong coffee with a single-serving creamer and a single-serving sugar and a stirring stick, served to you by a friendly, somewhat jaded, federal union worker!

Trip No. 3. Motorcar.

As Midwesterners say, “Why would I fly? It’s only a 12-hour drive!” So, seriously, the Chicago drive isn’t that bad. It does usually include some gnarly tolls. It’s probably just as carbon-intensive as flying. And, of, course, it’s definitely way more carbon-intensive than Amtrackin’. It’s also exhausting, even on Midwestern interstates, compared to the luxuriously huge, first class-width seats of an Amtrak coach. That plus having to deal with Michigan drivers, who will speed past you in their F150 Super Duty, emblazoned with anti-Gretchen Whitmer misogynist stickers, at 90mph and cut you off without using a turn signal. (As my partner and I often remark, in the Midatlantic, you’ll get cut off on the freeway, but at least we use our turn signals). 

Anyway. Here’s the full comparison.

Method of TransportationDoor-To-Door Time in TransitNon-Workable TimeUninterrupted Work TimeTotal Cost (one-way)CO2
Aeroplane.3.50-5.25 hrs. [6]1-1.50 hrs.0.75 hrs.$208-253 [5]84.7kg [1]
Amtrak.6.00-6.50 hrs.0.50 hrs.5.00-5.50 hrs.$34-4455.9kg [2]
Motorcar.4.25-5.50 hrs.4.25-5.50 hrs.0 hrs.$30.31-126.45 [3]86.36kg [4]
[1] ICAO carbon tracker thing. [2] Amtrak + DOE carbon estimates for passenger rail travel vs. air travel. [3] The higher-end estimate here is based on a cost of 45 cents per mile, which might account for tolls and maintenance as well as gas, while the lowest end includes only gas. Car costing is also notoriously problematic because of how many externalities and other factors are involved beyond just gas. [4] assumes 28mpg in a car and 19-20lbs of carbon dioxide per gallon of gasoline burned. [5] We found a one-way ticket for $163 and $45 is a reasonable assumption for the cost of a Lyft or the cost of driving and parking at DTW (and about the same for a Lyft from ORD to the Loop). This trip also might exceed the time of the hourlong CTA trip– which would also save you $42. [6] Flights allow an hour before departure and a 45 minute trip from home to the airport, to allow for traffic (Detroit’s airport is also very far away from the city). As many as a fifth of all flights into O’Hare (ORD) are delayed at an average of 20 minutes per flight.
Conclusions

Midwesterners, fight the automotive spirit within! Whether corporate travel or personal trips, consider taking the train. It’ll be fun. Also, for as hideously unreliable as Amtrak’s Wi-Fi is, most flights don’t really have wi-fi (unless you count a Boingo subscription– even that can be dicey). If you’re worried that the train is taking that much longer, look at the comparison of maximums and minimum time frames versus cost. Flying costs as much as $253 for this hypothetical trip. The train costs as little as under $36. Assuming you’re able to work productively for even half the time on the train– let’s say, 2500 hours per year at a salary of $75,000- that’s a minimum in $75 in labor time you can contribute on the train (ahem, surplus value, anyone?) versus a maximum of $45 on the plane, plus a maximum of $75 additional savings in labor time if flights aren’t delayed. So, $253 seems ever more expensive.

The reference to the three-martini Greyhound is, of course, the tongue-in-cheek idea that you can have the best of both worlds if you were to take the Dog between destinations, saving your company a lot of money, which they could then, in turn, throw into a lavish per diem. After all, gotta keep the workers happy, right?

Does anyone really enjoy driving to the airport in traffic, going through the TSA circus, and having to wait on service, exposing themselves to kerosene fumes, radiation, and lousy, single-serving snacks? Or can we imagine a new era of corporate travel beyond the age-old, dysfunctional, and extremely expensive one?

DDOT buses lined up to not take you to the airport. (Photo courtesy Neil Greenberg).

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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