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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.”