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A Different Meaning for Missing the Bus

• September 15, 2009 • 2:00 PM

Intercity bus service is on the rebound in the U.S. thanks to some spiffy new competitors, but only half the country has gotten on board so far.

The gleaming, brightly painted bus pulls up to the intersection between 34th and 7th, and suddenly a line of 50 people on the sidewalk mobilizes. Up the steps, a host of spacious leather seats awaits, ready for riders to plop down, plug in and get online. College students flip open laptops to Twitter their impending departure. A young man in a suit and pink tie browses through his e-mail. The conductor rises to announce the next and only stop — their destination.

Welcome to the new cheap bus.

From Greyhound to the infamous New York Chinatown lines, buses have always been considered the slowest, dirtiest and — let’s face it — sketchiest way to travel. But in the last year, East Coast cities have witnessed the rise of a slew of new, revamped bus systems all offering direct service to major business hubs with spacious seating and free Internet service for a fare solidly under $25.

With lower fuel emissions than planes, downtown access to rival trains and lower prices than either alternative, could buses be the future of intercity travel?

DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development suggests there’s reason to think so. In an update to their 2007 report, “The Return of the Intercity Bus: The Decline and Recovery of Scheduled Service to American Cities, 1960-2007,” they noted intercity bus service up almost 10 percent between the last quarter of 2007 and the same quarter in 2008.

“This marks two consecutive years of robust growth after more than four decades of persistent decline,” authors Joseph Schwieterman, Lauren Fischer and Sara Smith wrote. (The authors use service instead of ridership as a measure because uniform statistics are available.)

Pioneered by Megabus, the brainchild of international transport service provider Stagecoach Group, the concept of more for less in bus travel has consistently grown in popularity since its introduction on the East Coast in 2008.

Boltbus, the trendy product of a joint venture between Greyhound and Peter Pan bus lines, piggy-backed Megabus in advertising fares that start at $1 for the first booking, with the majority of prices ranging between $10 and $20 depending on when the purchase is made. Other spinoffs — including DC2NY and Vamoose Bus — quickly followed suit.

And when it comes to intercity travel — particularly between business and college hubs like New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. — travel by bus has emerged as not only cheaper, but more efficient. With curbside pickup, no stops and a travel time clocking in at around four hours, buses rival trains and flights from busy terminals for speed — and the trip can be spent working on a laptop.

The new buses not only provide Internet access to customers, they depend on riders’ Web savvy ways to spread the word. Both Megabus and Boltbus have Facebook and Twitter pages, and postings range from updates on traffic to responses to fans. A recent Megabus tweet — “running as normal in Albany — no schedule changes from flooding” — was followed by a more personal note to a happy customer: “Glad to have you on board! Enjoy your trip :)”

Yet while these new high-class, low-cost bus systems clearly seem to be thriving in the East, will they fly throughout the greater U.S.?

If social networking is one clear key to the popularity and success of the new cheap bus, then well-used public transit systems within the connecting cities themselves may be another. In February of this year, New York City Transit reported that 2008 saw not only a substantial increase in bus and subway ridership from 2007, but also an overall number of rides the likes of which were last seen in 1965.

On the other coast, however, Los Angeles has seen consistent decreases in citywide bus ridership, and although Megabus operated briefly in the city in 2007, within a year all services in California were ended due to lower ridership than expected. As the Chaddick report noted, “In general, the greater distances between cities in the Western United States reduces the appeal of intercity bus service, which is most attractive for trips under 300 miles.”

Yet with harsher pangs of economic downturn making flights look pricier than ever and the popularity of social networking reaching a fever pitch, who knows, cheap intercity buses might well make it on the West Coast after all. For less than $40 round trip, there are few who wouldn’t feel satisfied sitting back to squeeze in some work en route — or maybe just a few hours worth of YouTube videos.

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Sara Barbour
Former Miller-McCune intern Sara Barbour is an undergraduate student at Columbia University, where she plans to major in comparative literature and political science. She is a copy staffer and writer for the Columbia Daily Spectator, and has also written for the Santa Barbara (California) Independent.

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