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Bus travel making a comeback

At a time when flights have been cut and ridership on trains has been relatively flat, traveling by bus has been on the rise.
Image: Bus industry resurgence
A BoltBus is seen leaving New York City in 2008 for Washington D.C. The appeal of bus travel has long been low fares, but what has spurred its revival is the focus on improving the experience, from ticketing to arrival.Chris Hondros / Getty Images file
/ Source: The New York Times

High-speed rail may be getting lots of attention — and money — from the Obama administration, but it turns out the transportation success story of the last few years is the bus.

At a time when flights have been cut and ridership on trains has been relatively flat, traveling by bus has been on the rise. Last year, bus service increased 5 percent, and it rose nearly 10 percent in 2008, according to Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor who has studied the decline and comeback of bus travel. In fact, in 2007, when he and his team of transportation researchers began studying why travelers shunned buses, they found themselves in the midst of a turnaround.

While 18-to-35-year-olds were the first to embrace new bus lines like MegaBus and BoltBus, which offer cheap express service between major cities in the Midwest and Northeast, the appeal of bus travel has expanded to include business travelers and riders older than 35 who want to avoid the stress of driving.

“Even the older generation has abandoned their disdain for the bus,” Dr. Schwieterman said. “They don’t even think of it in the same vein as Greyhound.”

Gary Petty, a retiree from Alexandria, Va., is among those who have given the new bus lines a try. He and his wife took the Tripper Bus from Arlington, Va., to New York last fall, and described it as a clean, comfortable ride.

“I normally don’t mind driving, but at that particular time the thought of hitting traffic somewhere around the New Jersey Turnpike was really off-putting for me,” Mr. Petty said. “So we took the bus, and I really enjoyed having someone else in charge.”

While the appeal of bus travel has long been low fares (which are still often less than $25 one way), what has spurred their revival is the focus on improving the entire experience, from ticketing to arrival. Here are ways new lines like MegaBus and BoltBus have transformed bus service into a cool way to get around.

Online ticketing
MegaBus and BoltBus primarily sell tickets through their Web sites, and though both companies also sell tickets over the phone, they charge $3 extra for reservations booked by an agent. BoltBus even has a mobile site so passengers can more easily buy a ticket using a smartphone. Your receipt is sent by e-mail or text message and serves as your boarding pass, which you can print or show to the driver on your phone.

This automated ticketing process not only helps the bus companies keep costs down, it also influences the demographics of who’s on board. “With the bus, there’s this apprehension about the clientele you’ll be surrounded by,” Mr. Schwieterman said, explaining that online ticketing leads to a more affluent customer base than many people expect to find riding a bus.

Guaranteed seats
Worried about having to stand up in the aisle in a crowded bus, or to wait hours for the next departure? The newer lines have overcome such scenarios by guaranteeing a seat to passengers who buy tickets in advance.

“There’s no walking up and finding yourself the 70th person in line and there are only 50 seats on the bus,” said Dale Moser, president of MegaBus, a subsidiary of Coach USA.

You can still buy a walk-up ticket if there’s space available, though you’ll pay a slightly higher fare. There is also more flexibility to change your ticket than you get with airline or rail travel. To change the date of your bus trip, you may have to pay more if the new fare is higher. But Tim Stokes, a BoltBus spokesman, said that on your scheduled departure date, you can catch a bus leaving before (or even after) your ticketed time if there’s a seat available.

Curbside departures
One reason bus travel has developed a bad reputation is the location of bus stations, which are often in neighborhoods where fears about crime keep riders away. But BoltBus, MegaBus and other new lines typically avoid those stations and depart from central curbside locations instead.

Pickup and drop-off points are usually near transportation hubs, like Pennsylvania Station in New York City, or the Metro Center subway stop in Washington. The downside of waiting on the curb is that you’re not sheltered from snow or rain, but the trade-off is convenience.

“When people get to their destination, they’re either in walking distance of where they want to be or near public transit,” Mr. Moser said.

Express service
Most trips under four hours are express, so riders are not slowed down by stops in tiny towns along the way. The scheduled travel time from Boston to New York is four and a quarter hours; from Philadelphia to Washington, it’s about three hours; and from Chicago to Madison, Wis., it’s two and a half hours.

Trips under four hours tend to be the sweet spot for express buses, but Megabus has been adding longer routes and now serves more than 40 cities in the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. BoltBus concentrates on five Northeastern cities — New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington — while several other lines, like Tripper Bus, DC2NY and Vamoose, focus on the competitive route between the capital and New York City, and sometimes make multiple stops. For those Northeastern routes, is a useful tool to compare options and prices.

Express bus service has been slower to catch on in the West and South, where the distance between cities is greater and the driving culture reigns. But Amy Veiga, marketing manager for, which sells tickets on bus routes around the country, said lesser-known companies are popping up to serve those markets, too. “It’s really moving to be more of a nationwide system rather than just focused on the Northeast,” she said.

On-board technology
Mr. Schwieterman’s latest research revealed an interesting reason why more people are opting for the bus: the ability to use laptops, cellphones, music players and other gadgets on board. Most express bus lines offer free Wi-Fi and power outlets, and although Internet service can be slow or spotty, Mr. Schwieterman said, “People seem to roll with the punches on that.”

For a 2009 study, his team of researchers counted the number of people using technology on express buses (40 percent of riders), trains (37 percent) and planes (18 percent), concluding that the option to text, talk, surf and listen to music — uninterrupted by rules about shutting down electronics on planes — influenced passengers’ travel choices. Even Greyhound has added free Wi-Fi on some of its newer buses on routes between Boston, New York and Washington, but warns on its Web site that getting a new bus is not guaranteed.

It also helps offset longer travel times on the bus, which are subject to traffic backups and bad weather.

“On the East Coast, the reliability suffers a bit because of the tolls, tunnels and traffic,” Mr. Schwieterman said, pointing out that some of these issues could be alleviated by dedicated lanes for buses, especially leaving Manhattan.

“A big deterrent to the industry’s growth is the lack of meaningful congestion management,” he said. “Their growth would be amazing if there were policies to give them traffic priority.”

This story, "," first appeared in The New York Times.