TRANSPORTATION

Young travelers spur strong comeback for intercity bus travel

Paul Truitt can't afford to fly home for the holidays, but that doesn't matter.

With the money he makes as a cellphone technician in New York City, a round-trip bus ticket to Washington, D.C., is well within reach, and that arrangement suits him just fine.

"Planes are out of the question," Truitt, 24, said recently, as he waited at Union Station to board a bus to New York. "Buses are cheap, that's what it comes down to. And they have outlets."

Most buses also have Wi-Fi. Across the country, a new generation of Americans with different lifestyles and travel habits than their parents are hopping aboard buses for affordable, high-tech and hassle-free transportation.

They've helped reverse a long decline in American intercity bus travel. Between 1980 and 2006, bus trips between cities declined by an average 3 percent per year, according to a study published last week by Chicago's DePaul University. The study was based on the number of annual passenger miles traveled -- the metric used by the airline industry and Amtrak -- and excluded ridership statistics for public buses, airport shuttles and "Chinatown" buses.

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But since 2006, intercity bus travel has increased on average 6 percent each year. In comparison, the airline industry's annual growth rate in recent years has stayed flat at around 1 percent, the study found, while Amtrak's ridership growth has remained even lower than that.

"There have already been some pretty big shifts," said Joe Schwieterman, the DePaul study's lead author. "I'm convinced a lot of people are going to look to the bus" in the future.

The bus sector's comeback has been driven primarily by discount service, and the success of two companies in particular -- BoltBus, which is jointly owned by Greyhound Lines Inc. and Peter Pan Lines, and MegaBus, a division of U.K.-based Stagecoach Ltd.

Cheap fares help explain why MegaBus and BoltBus, which advertise rides for as low as $1, are giving airlines and Amtrak a run for their money.

Since Stagecoach established its U.S. MegaBus operation in Chicago in 2006, the company has expanded to the West Coast, the Northeast corridor, Texas and the Southeast, all while keeping fares at a heavily discounted rate.

The same goes for BoltBus, a 2008 startup known for its trademark orange-and-black buses that now operates on both coasts after expanding its business in each of the past two years.

Bolt was rewarded with a 26 percent increase in daily departures in 2013. Megabus, meanwhile, saw its revenue grow by 22.9 percent in the first half of last year alone, according to financial statements released by Stagecoach. The two companies now dominate the discount bus sector and account for roughly one-quarter of all domestic bus trips each year.

Whether travelers used Bolt, MegaBus or other carriers like Crucero Direct -- a Greyhound-owned line catering to Latinos that launched in California in 2012 -- the DePaul study found that people who opted for buses over trains and planes in 2013 saved a total of $1.1 billion.

The average cost of bus tickets purchased about one month in advance was 50 percent cheaper than Amtrak tickets and 78 percent less expensive than airfares to the same destinations, the study found. The savings were higher still for riders buying tickets within one week of departure, when airlines tend to increase their fares.

"When the bus is available, flying seems like an expensive extravagance," Schwieterman said. "So many people are underemployed that saving [money on travel] is a big deal."

'Amenities are the draw'

The surge in bus ridership is also being sparked by factors beyond ticket prices.

When Chinmay Hunasgi, a 28-year-old software consultant who lives in Northern Virginia, decided to make a weekend trip to New York City last month, he said he had no trouble booking a $40 MegaBus ticket online the day before leaving.

An Amtrak or plane ticket would have been too expensive for such a brief visit, Hunasgi said. The bus, where he could read or check email on the four-hour ride up Interstate 95, simply made the most sense for a "last-minute plan," he said.

Travelers like Hunasgi and Truitt fit discount bus companies' target demographic: young, mobile adults who would rather spend their travel time surfing the Internet on an easy-to-book bus than waiting in line to go through airport security.

MegaBus declined to comment, but BoltBus provided data showing about 71 percent of its passengers are between the ages of 18 and 34. A majority of them are employed, have an annual income of at least $35,000 and have undergraduate or graduate-level degrees.

"Amenities are the draw" for younger travelers, BoltBus spokeswoman Alexandra Pedrini said. "A lot of our customers are seeing that bus travel is a really great way of getting around."

As discount bus companies embrace modern technology, they're also expanding to smaller cities in order to tap into a growing pool of customers who live far from major transportation hubs and near airports in danger of being ignored by airlines.

Last year, Megabus added service to Grand Rapids and Lansing, Mich.; Newark, Del.; Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; and Morgantown, W.Va. BoltBus, Top Class Coach and other carriers followed suit with new routes to cities like Bellingham, Wash., and Decatur, Ga.

The strategy could pay off in the long run if airlines reduce their "short-haul" flights from regional hubs to small markets, as many experts predict.

Southwest Airlines Co. took a step in that direction last month when the company announced it would stop flying to Branson, Mo.; Key West, Fla.; and the airport that serves Jackson, Miss., beginning in June because the routes don't make enough money. Just this week, American Airlines Inc. said it will cut nonstop service to 17 cities to fulfill a slot requirement built into its merger with U.S. Airways.

"If demand isn't there, the routes are not profitable," Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said.

Bob Crandall, the former president and CEO of American Airlines, said the airlines' decisions are driven by "simple economics."

"What airlines will do is simply say, 'The hell with it, I'm not prepared to provide'" short-haul service, said Crandall, who is known in the industry for introducing the concept of frequent flyer miles and other innovations.

That doesn't mean airlines will cancel all their flights to small cities in the near future. But transportation advocates said a shift in the airline industry, coupled with the recent decline in car ownership in America, will only bolster bus travel in the years to come.

"The bus industry is pretty smart" about seizing opportunities, said Matt Coogan, the director of the New England Transportation Institute.

Coogan said he spent years making business trips from the regional airport near his home in Hanover, N.H. But that changed when several major airlines stopped flying there. Now Coogan said he takes a bus to Boston, where he jumps on connecting flights to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

'Stigma of the bus'?

All these changes have given the bus industry a new, 21st-century cachet that not many people would have predicted a few decades ago.

"The bus devolved into a mode of last resort where many people were embarrassed to say they traveled by bus since it implied they were desperate or down on their luck," DePaul's Schwieterman said. "It took a new generation of travelers who had no particular memory of the stigma of the bus for the mode to turn around."

Bus travel has also benefited from a growing interest in reducing heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, an issue that drew far less attention from the public and policymakers in the 1980s and '90s.

Pedrini said the carbon emission reductions from each Bolt Bus trip are equivalent to removing 40 cars from the road every day. The motor coaches used by Bolt Bus produce nearly three times less emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide per passenger mile than hybrid vehicles, she added.

Energy issues will play a more prominent role in future transportation debates as the county's travel options continue evolving, Coogan said. But most people still don't "make their modal decisions on the basis of global impacts," he said.

For now, the thing travelers prize most are comfort and convenience, Coogan said. At Union Station in Washington, bus passenger Truitt listed the virtues of Bolt Bus in the minutes before his bus arrived.

"They're really clean, and the drivers are nice. I don't associate any stigma with buses at all." He paused to think, and then added, "Some buses even let you choose what movie you watch."

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