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America's Fastest Growing Form of Transit: The Intercity Bus
The Megabus intercity bus brand has even expanded internationally. Photo by Andrew Harvey-Adams.

The Megabus intercity bus service has expanded internationally. Photo by Andrew Harvey-Adams.

For the third year in a row, “intercity bus service was the fastest growing mode of intercity transportation, outpacing air and rail transportation,” says a report released by DePaul University, called “The Intercity Bus: America’s Fastest Growing Transportation Mode,” by Joseph P. Schwieterman and Lauren Fischer.

The trend is a reversal of the decline of intercity bus operations from 1960 to 2006, which Schwieterman and Fischer attribute to the expansion and improvement of the interstate highway system, increased automobile ownership and the decay of downtown districts.

The newer successful services have, in some cases, utilized the model of “Chinatown Operators” that previously dominated the intercity market. For the past few years, a new breed of “curbside operators” have gained in popularity, expanding operations by six percent in 2010.  Such “curbside operators” like Boltbus, Megabus and RedCoach do not utilize traditional bus stations, making their services more flexible. In the fourth quarter of this year, compared to the same time last year, these operators expanded service by 33 percent. (Megabus reported ridership growth of 48 percent in 2009 and 2010.)

intercity compared to other travel

From the report, "The Intercity Bus: America’s Fastest Growing Transportation Mode."

changing intercity travel

From the report, "The Intercity Bus: America’s Fastest Growing Transportation Mode."

Bus Branding

As we wrote about on TheCityFix, such operators are embracing new designs, offering services like free wireless Internet and cheap same-day fares, and utilizing cohesive and appealing marketing and branding efforts. The buses also are operating at service locations that meet the needs of riders.

The data further substantiates a number of headlines that have reported how such services are not only on the rise but “out-competing and out-edging other services by being more responsive to changing city dynamics and commuter needs.”

Location, Location, Location

Another important piece of the trend is that these curbside operations either originate or depart in large cities with dense urban centers supported by rapid transit systems. Most routes tend to be in the Midwest and Northeast, though recently RedCoach began operations in Florida.

Reducing Emissions

The report’s conclusion on emissions reductions factors in how the low cost of travel is stimulating new demand in intercity travel. So, quantifying the net savings by evaluating how passengers would have traveled had curbside bus service not been available, the report finds that intercity buses are reducing fuel consumption by about 11 million gallons per year (about 125,000 tons of carbon,) which is equivalent to removing nearly 24,000 vehicles from the road.

Such buses “achieve an estimated 196 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel burned, making them about four times as fuel efficient as commercial airplanes and private automobiles, after adjusting the latter for the fact that many car trips involve multiple occupants.” When passengers ride these intercity buses, it’s equivalent to reducing about 2.41 gallons of fuel per person.

Our analysis quantifies the net savings in fuel by evaluating how passengers would have traveled
had curbside bus service not been available

Changing Behaviors

The report also figures that the rise of rebranded and convenient set of travel services encourages “transit lifestyles:”

Arguably, there has been no comparable phenomenon that has reinvigorated intercity travel from departure points in the downtowns of major cities in the United States since the growth of rail-passenger travel during World War II.

Given the success of these systems,  Schwieterman and Fischer anticipate that new services will emerge in places like California, Florida and Texas. “We suspect it is only a matter of time before curbside operators launch service in routes that neither originate nor terminate in cities without dense downtown districts supported by rapid transit.”

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  • Samuel Augustus Jennings

    Anthing that gets auto-addicted American out of cars while saving lives and reducing reliance on oil is a good thing. In order to remain competitive Amtrak will be forced to expand and improve services while reducing fares.

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  • Keith

    Thanks for the clarification. Obviously, as the other person pointed out, there are the unregulated services in addition to the regulated bus companies. Having not read the full report, I was not clear on the research methodology. The article seemed to ignore the fact that services other than the old school traditional companies are operating, suggesting that operators like Megabus are a new phenomenon.

    I don’t have any particular value judgment with regard to illegal operators. Safety can get lost, but the fact is that there is a demand that’s not being met by traditional operators, and many cities have precluded service by alternative legal operators due to the lack of shared terminals.

    The demand for alternatives to Greyhound have long been there, there are significant challenges for newcomers to the market.

  • I agree with R.W. curbside operators add to congestion and pollution and limit connections between modes by avoiding terminals. I hope the competition encourages legacy operators to upgrade their equipment and services.

  • Hi Keith,

    Thanks for your comment. I think the language in the report could have been more refined to address the issues you are talking about. The authors previously wrote a report analyzing intercity bus operations between 1960 and 2007, but they distinguish these “curbside operators” as having a different business and consumer model than the older bus systems.

    Also, the quote in my post: “Given the success of these systems, Schwieterman and Fischer anticipate that new services will emerge in places like California, Florida and Texas.” I think the authors do realize there are already services in operation, but given the geography and market, there is room for more expansion of the service. The paper also mentions that Megabus started operations in CA but subsequently eliminated this service.

    I checked the appendix of the report and here the explanation of the 2009-2010 data:

    “To measure growth rates during 2009 and 2010, we undertook more exhaustive data collection by enumerating the entire population of bus operations in the United States. This was done by reviewing all schedule information published in the Russell’ s Guide as well as those advertised on websites of carriers that do not participate in the guide. Whereas our earlier estimates were based on the number of departures from city terminals, this new technique measures the number of unique bus operations (which are akin to flight numbers in the commercial airlines industry). The two methods produced growth estimates of 8.5% and 6.0% respectively for the period between December 2009 and December 2010.”

    All good points – thanks for contributing.

  • Keith

    Perhaps the authors failed to realize that these services have been operating for quite a very long time. Moreover, these systems don’t avoid the formal bus terminals, as suggested in the article.

    “Given the success of these systems, Schwieterman and Fischer anticipate that new services will emerge in places like California, Florida and Texas.” Did they not realize that these systems have long been in operation – and growing – in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, among others? Not only are there the formal companies linking cities from the east and west coasts to points in interior Mexico, there are numerous “neighborhood” services, as well. Drive down Harrisburg Avenue in Houston, and you’ll spot several intercity bus stations that are definitely not operated by Greyhound (and they are much safer places to wait for a bus than the downtown bus depot). Similar bus stations exist on the fringe of downtown Denver. In places like McAllen, these bus services actually do use the central bus depot simply because the city has provided a very nice, multi-tenant terminal for this purpose (as opposed to the old Greyhound facilities that don’t offer space to alternative companies). Likewise, Toronto’s city-owned bus terminal serves Megabus, Greyhound, Ontario Northland, and perhaps a few others.

    Could it be that the researchers only focused on the Northeast and Midwest (Megabus territory)? They clearly haven’t gone too far outside the confines of their campus, as many of these “alternatives” serve Chicago.

  • jayayess1190

    Megabus started in Europe first.

  • It’s been interesting to see how long it took after deregulation for these operations to develop. There are some issues that need to be considered before assuming that everything is wonderful:

    1. Some curbside operators sponge off of adjacent businesses or Amtrak, by not providing their own station facilities. Aside from the hostility that this creates, it is not sustainable in the long run.

    2. Some curbside operators create friction with municipal authorities and residents of the areas that they select for facilities. With regulated carriers, local authorities had some ability to work with the companies or the state PUC.

    3. The curbside model does not lend itself to providing coverage beyond a 10-hour on-duty driving range for their operators from their base city. This is because running longer routes on other than an excursion basis requires multiple operating bases and middle management jobs, i.e. Greyhound Lines, or sleeper cab buses and operator supervision problems (i.e., Spanish-language carriers to Mexico from the Midwest). This probably doesn’t matter to most of the readers of this blog, but is significant to us in Denver.

    4. It has been interesting to see how the flip side of deregulation is now being partly offset by Federal and some State funding. This model was foreseen a long time ago: head-on competition between major points and subsidized monopoly service between minor points – but there was no planning for it when interstate deregulation came in. States are now gradually piecing together programs to maintain basic small city access. It took a while for the agony of small-city and rural residents to be transformed into political pressure, and some of what resulted is very costly for very low productivity.

    I’m a fan of the deregulation of intercity bus service — I worked with a carrier in the old regulated days and saw how government regulation distorted priorities toward process, rather than product. Back then, I used to wonder what the wilder days prior to 1935 were like, pre-ICC. Now we’re reliving aspects of that era, albeit with much more comfortable coaches and a need for government support at the lower levels of the market.