The old silver dog is back, and it may have learned a few new tricks. After 40 years of steady decline, the nation’s bus network is reviving.
Persistent, sobering economic news is a major factor in the regeneration, as oil prices hover around $130 a barrel. But transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman identifies another aspect: What’s good for the green in your wallet also promotes green living.
He says the bus industry is being buoyed by high gas prices and that “a new brand of bus operator is emerging who point to their services as being the environmentally friendly travel choice…. People are starting to feel good about stepping aboard a bus. Many see it as a socially responsible way to go.”
The tipping point came in early 2006. After decades of steady decline, the nation’s intercity bus systems have grown by 13 percent in the last two years, according to a study by Mr. Schwieterman, who’s at DePaul University’s School of Public Service in Chicago.
Between 1960 and 1980, the study found, intercity bus service fell by one-third. More than half the remaining service was gone by 2006. But then prices at the pump, crowded highways, frustration with congested airports, and high air fares prompted travelers to rediscover mass transit. By late 2007, intercity bus service was experiencing “a significant rebirth,” the study says.
Megabus, a low-cost service operating in the Midwest and Northeast, was the first to jump on the green bandwagon. For a few months at the beginning of this year, it gave away 100,000 bus tickets in order to “increase awareness about reducing carbon emissions by encouraging bus travel,” said Dale Moser, CEO of Stagecoach Group, which owns Megabus.
According to Megabus, one coach filled to capacity – effectively taking 56 cars off the road – means 3,850 fewer pounds of carbon emissions for every 100 miles traveled, compared with the emissions of 56 cars traveling the same distance
So if 100,000 travelers fill 1,786 buses, it reduces CO2 emissions by a massive 6.9 million pounds for every 100 miles traveled.
Putting it another way, Mr. Moser says: “The fuel used on a Megabus double-decker driving from New York to Washington, D.C., amounts to 0.5 gallons of gas per passenger. Compare that to four people traveling by car for the same distance, where it’s 2.75 gallons per passenger.
“And seriously,” Moser continues, “how often do you see four people riding in a car? More likely it’s just one passenger. What’s clear is the bus is much greener, by far.”
As riders return, the old stigma of bus travel is evaporating, too. “Just 10 years ago, affluent travelers saw the bus as the last resort, a sign of desperation,” says Schwieterman.
To questions about a shifting clientele, Greyhound spokesman Eric Wesley diplomatically states that Greyhound carries people from “all walks of life.” This is hard to dispute; the bus doesn’t turn many people away. If one passenger is leaving his $40,000 SUV at home to save money on gasoline, his seatmate may well lack shoelaces and carry his possessions in smiley-face plastic bags from Wal-Mart.
As bus companies welcome an influx of new and returning customers, they are reclaiming respectability. Greyhound has spent $60 million refurbishing its 1,250-strong fleet and its largest terminals. The iconic service leads other bus companies by a wide margin: It racked up nearly 5.8 billion passenger miles last year, transporting nearly 25 million people among its 2,200 terminals nationwide.
Investments in new, more comfortable, amenity-laden coaches with Wi-Fi connection and on-board movies ensure that patrons won’t leave the comforts of modern living behind.
To go any distance the bus is certainly cost-effective, financially. For longer journeys – coast-to-coast, for example – prices can be found around $180-200, almost half of the average east-west airplane fare.
The psychic cost may be steeper, however.
Cross-country bus trips can be grueling. They are costly in terms of time (up to three days). Such journeys may also define sleep deprivation. Riders are awakened and told to disembark every two to four hours. Transfers to connecting shuttles, driver changes, cleaning time, and rest breaks become the routine.
For those pushing the 50-hour, 60-hour, even 90-hour mark, including delays, the demand simply to remain coherent can absorb all one’s energy. Passengers may feel at times that they are being treated like cattle; nevertheless, order and discipline are required to keep to a schedule.
Short trips, including overnight, are worth it for most people. But there is a degree of stamina and determination required when it comes to the second day or third morning. At that point your destination may still be far away, in hours and in your priorities, and you may begin to question the necessity of it all. (This writer speaks from recent and extensive experience – numerous cross-country bus trips and frequent day journeys in the Northeast.)
Longtime passengers have noticed a changing clientele. Amy Cogan, a 20-something who has traveled between Boston and New York by bus for a decade, says more young people and business types – the “train crowd,” as she describes them – have appeared on her bus.
Bus personnel have also noticed the shift. Byron G., a veteran of the Greyhound operations staff in the Washington, D.C., bus terminal, says passengers have “definitely become more diverse” in the last 10 years.
“I see more yuppies coming through,” Byron says, declining to give his full name because he is not an official Greyhound spokesman. “More young people, more economically advantaged people, you might say.”
Eighteen years ago, Greyhound and its competitors were embroiled in bankruptcy, stalled by years of labor strikes and going nowhere fast.
Older, less-trafficked bus stations (in this writer’s experience) may still feature a lone security guard at night overseeing throngs of weary travelers while trying to police the entrance, where peddlers, homeless people, and suspicious characters may set up shop at night.
By contrast, most larger, modern bus terminals are surprisingly well-ordered. If not exactly pleasant, they are well lit and smell like a hospital hallway.
Mass transit, with its environmental cachet, would seem to loom large in transportation’s future, says transportation expert Keith Schneider of the Apollo Alliance, a San Francisco-based think tank focused on clean energy and green-collar jobs.
“We’re seeing a shift to a more European model with less emphasis on private car ridership,” Mr. Schneider says. “It’s already happening. And it’s shaping how we design our country and how we move around it.
“Americans are not divided about these issues,” he adds. “In many ways it is hardly a political issue. It is transcendent partisanship.”
In other words: The bus is back.
Secrets of bus-trip success
Preparation is key: Tag your luggage with your destination and contact details. Never leave baggage unattended.
Go online first: The best fares are found there. Greyhound’s specials are only available as e-tickets and can be quite a steal. Megabus offers $1 fares if you book some weeks in advance. (This deal is limited to just a few seats per coach.)
Arrive early: Don’t expect to saunter onto your bus with five minutes to spare. Buses may be overbooked on popular routes, so arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure. Be prepared to stand in line.
Bring amenities: For longer distances (multiday or overnight trips), bring a pillow, toothbrush, books, music, earplugs, and other traveling aids with you in the coach. Seats are adequately comfortable and wide, but we all know this can’t help you if your seatmate is 300 pounds and sweating. (If you see such a person approaching, you might try the old “spread out your stuff and look absorbed” ploy.)
Bring food: Rest stops are not famed for their cuisine, and good food can keep you sane on a long-haul trip. Nutrition bars pack well and are filling, and offer a nice alternative to the mac & cheese that’s been sitting under the warming lamps for about a week now.
Go at the rest stops: Anything beats trying to use the toilet on the bus as you swerve around corners on the highway or bounce over potholes in town.
Be punctual: Greyhound drivers in particular are known for keeping to tight schedules. This bodes well for making a connection, but the unwary may find themselves abandoned at a rest stop somewhere in Oklahoma at midnight.
Be patient: Taking the bus can let you soak in roadside vistas, relax, save money, and even experience a little romance of the road, but patience and humility are required. This is the cheapest mode of travel, remember. You may be an hour or two late; you may be told to stand in line for longer than you wish; you may not be able to dodge the large seatmate. Be grateful when you’re on time, and try to stay calm when you’re not. Enjoy the ride.
A few thoughts on bus lines:
1. Greyhound Lines has the best coverage and most experienced drivers, overall, but myriad other services cover similar territory. Shop around.
2. Megabus, with its Chicago hub, serves Midwest travelers well and, to a lesser extent, the Northeast.
3. The Fung Wah Chinatown bus has cheap service between major cities in the Northeast, but don’t expect Greyhound-style professionalism: Tales of Fung Wah drivers asking passengers for directions are not exaggerated.
A final word: I would not hesitate to recommend bus travel to anyone for shorter day trips. But the prospect of a long-haul journey requires some sober consideration.
Cost comparisonNew York City to Washington: 228 miles
|Bus||4 hours||$15-55 (see note below)|
|Car||4 hours||$123 (see note)|
|Train||3 hours, 20 min||$100-125|
|Plane||1 hour, 30 min.||$75-150|
Chicago to San Francisco: 2,100 miles
|Bus||2 days, 5 hours||$163-182|
|Car||1 day, 17 hours||$1,136|
|Train||2 days, 6 hours||$180|
|Plane||5 to 7 hours||$300-440|
Boston to New Orleans: 1,500 miles
|Bus||1 day, 15 hours||$165-185|
|Car||1 day, 8 hours||$811|
|Train||1 day, 10 hours||$175|
Notes: Car expenses calculated using AAA average figure of 54.1 cents per mile. Advance-purchase (four weeks) bus tickets may cost half as much.
Sources: mapquest.com; AAA; Kayak.com; Greyhound Lines; Megabus; Fung Wah Bus Transportation; Amtrak.