Intercity Bus Travel Roars Back

Bus travel between major cities is popular, but operators need strict regulation to avoid a race to the bottom.
August 2011
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

Jamie Wilson, a 28-year-old hat designer, stands in line with a roller bag in Boston’s gleaming South Station Bus Terminal. Headed to New York City, Wilson wanted to ride with Megabus, a fast-growing express bus service. But for various reasons, she was forced to take the more traditional intercity Peter Pan Bus Lines, a Greyhound ally. And because she had not bought her ticket online in advance, she was paying a whopping $35. Of course she could have paid a mere $15 on the spot to ride on Fung Wah, one of the original lines that serve South Station. But she felt it was unreliable. At least that’s what she heard.

Welcome to the brave new world of intercity bus service. After decades of decline, bus travel between major cities around the country is roaring back to life, driven by dozens of small, independent bus companies.

It was not long ago that buses had a reputation as the poor man’s ride. The big companies -- Greyhound and Trailways -- provided much of the service at surprisingly high prices. But, after all, they had few competitors and big stations to support. Ridership steadily declined. Greyhound went through bankruptcy and multiple reorganizations.

Around 2000, word began to spread of ultra-cheap bus travel, nicknamed the “Chinatown Bus,” which offered service between New York and other East Coast cities. Instead of a traditional station, buses were boarded on street corners, and although attendants often didn’t speak English, business grew. Online ticketing debuted, and more companies sprang up. Suddenly, a new transportation industry had emerged from what began as a cheap way for Chinese-American workers to travel.

Some of these new companies, like BoltBus (a 50/50 venture between Greyhound and Peter Pan) or Megabus, cultivate a hip image by offering Wi-Fi service and promotional gimmicks, like selling the first seats for a dollar. Then there are the no-frills outfits like Fung Wah or Lucky Star. These and many other companies are now operating in Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Tampa and smaller cities. This kind of bus service has provided people an option in places where plane or train service is either nonexistent, too expensive or too limited.

For now, cities and states would be smart to foster this emerging service, even though the challenges are many. Among the questions are whether street-corner loading, the norm in the industry, should be prohibited or regulated; whether some sort of central terminal should be required; and what safety regulations should be imposed or enforced. A couple of fatal accidents earlier this year, allegedly caused by sleepy, overworked drivers, has underscored this issue. It’s clear oversight is needed.

Boston provides a model on how to handle the growing proliferation of bus lines. The city’s South Station, run by the Metropolitan Transportation Bay Authority, houses train, bus, subway, commuter rail and Amtrak service in a collection of buildings. This makes connections quick and easy.

In 2004, Boston passed a law requiring that all bus providers use South Station. Despite predictions that this would raise prices, tickets are still dirt cheap. I suspect having a clean, central location has greatly increased business. On the Sunday afternoon I was there, multiple lines of people waited to board buses heading out to Cape Cod; Hartford, Conn.; New York and other destinations.

Of course, South Station cost hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades to build out. Not every city needs or can afford such a center. Still, smaller towns and cities can regulate street-corner pick-ups, and when traffic justifies it, build or designate some sort of central terminal. Obviously, safety is a must. These small bus companies actually need strict regulation to avoid a race to the bottom.

As bus service revives, what about trains? Amtrak can be quicker and more comfortable than bus travel, but it’s substantially more expensive. A one-way ticket between Boston and New York starts at $68. Also, the rail trip usually lasts about four hours -- only a tad faster than the bus (premium service on the faster Acela takes 3.5 hours).

With similar travel times, bus and Amtrak’s intercity train service co-exist in a seesaw relationship. When traffic congestion hits during the day, a four-hour bus ride can last seven hours, so buses are best at night when traffic is light. Trains are better at peak traffic periods, although prices are higher then, because service is more frequent and sometimes faster.

For me, a recent ride on the Fung Wah line from Boston to New York City took a mere four hours and 15 minutes, despite a big traffic jam on Interstate 91 in Connecticut. Even though I arrived at a street corner in Manhattan’s gritty Chinatown and not a bus terminal, for $15, the inconvenience seemed minor.