You may have spotted an unusual sight cruising on an Interstate between many U.S. Midwestern cities or up and down the East Coast. Large, modern double-decker buses have been ferrying passengers between dozens of Northeast and Midwest cities. More than the “dirty dog,” these buses are shiny and sleek, with free wi-fi and halogen lighting.
They’re operated by Megabus, a British discount travel company that launched U.S. service in 2006. Although their experiment with Western service in California was canceled, the Eastern and Midwestern routes are showing strong demand.
On the East Coast of course, after Chinatown operators successfully challenged the hegemony of Greyhound, scores of private companies have popped up providing cheap service between cities. To combat the intense competition for some of their most profitable routes, Greyhound itself launched the Bolt Bus brand, offering cut-rate fares for express travel on new buses. After decades of declining popularity, is hopping on the bus back in vogue?
The answer is more nuanced than it might seem. Research by a team at DePaul University under the guidance of Professor Joseph Schwieterman documented the industry’s long decline. Their painstakingly created database of historical timetables shows the daily scheduled arrivals and departures by intercity buses in the US declined from around 1,862 in 1960 to around 635 in 2002, a staggering 66% drop. At the same time period the U.S. population grew, and other forms of intercity travel — namely driving and flying — exploded.
Starting in 2006, however, the researchers find intercity bus traffic is now increasing. After declining at an annual rate of 8% between 2002 and 2006, the industry recorded a 7.6% growth rate in 2007, and another 9.8% in 2008. The report cites several reasons for the reversal: Megabus launched Chicago operations in 2006 and nearly doubled service one year later in 2007, east coast operators (Chinatown buses, Vamoose, Washington Deluxe, DC2NY, etc), and expansion of established carriers like Peter Pan and yes, Greyhound.
I can’t help but note one carrier, not mentioned in the report but certainly in the data, is New England’s Concord Coach Lines, which has been doing a brisk business shuttling people from Maine and New Hampshire to visit the city or go to the airport since the early 1990s. When Amtrak Downeaster began service from Boston to Portland, Maine, they began operations out of the terminus station, the Portland Transportation Center, carrying passengers to points beyond. (Incidentally, a too-rare model of planned intermodalism)
Is the trend here to stay? Given how far the industry has fallen, the time seems ripe for service to stabilize and even improve. Central cities are more vibrant than any time in a generation, and demographic shifts mean the baby boom echo generation is reaching early adulthood. Last summer’s gas price spikes and instability and high fares in the airline industry didn’t hurt. The only negative part of the research team’s 2008 update is the note that service to small towns continues to decline and is missing the rapid passenger growth. Unresolved problems include the “curbside” operators causing congestion because they refuse to pay the fee to use existing stations, and remaining inconsistency on reliability, on-time performance, and comfort. Yet the tone is upbeat, concluding that the stigma of intercity bus lines is clearly changing.
Although (as far as I know) all the new service is on new diesel buses, it’s had a surpising positve environmental impact. Assuming an average load of 30 passengers, the bus gets 150 passenger miles per gallon of fuel. Fully packed, a Megabus gets much better than that, and the company claims as much as 500 passenger-miles per gallon. Using a simple mode shift calculation, they DePaul study estimates the growth of operations in 2008 alone saved an estimated 36,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
A recent trip I took on Megabus demonstrated the wrinkles in the system. Departing Boston (6/26, 5:30 PM), the company’s representative wasn’t uniformed and hurriedly put me on a bus which turned out to be an early bus nearly 45 minutes delayed. The stop in Hartford, Connecticut included a 10-minute unexplained delay at the station. Entering Manhattan, we experienced another delay as the driver was ticked by police for for pulling down the wrong off-ramp coming into the borough, much to the passengers’ amusement. However, as we pulled up to the curb at Penn Station no more than 30 minutes late, considering the alternatives made the annoyances melt away. At the absurdly low price of $18 for the 211-mile trip, the trip cost me $.08 a mile with no parking costs. A flight would have risked unexpected delays, and not got me anywhere near as close to my urban destination. Like for a growing group of travelers, despite its imperfections the intercity bus is increasingly the best choice.