Graham Beck has an excellent article in the current issue of Next American City about the rising popularity of inter-city bus service, the industry's not-so-rosy history, and the challenges it faces as demand for the service grows.

(from Flickr user Cher's Passion)

I've ridden these buses a few times now, and while the experience hasn't been amazing, it wasn't anything to really complain about either, especially for the price I paid. Really, I think the key to understanding why people are responding to inter-city bus service so positively is to look no further than the price of bus travel.

If I wanted to travel from DC to New York City, without driving, I would have essentially three options: bus, train or plane. The problem with traveling by plane is that I'd have to get to the airports, which isn't the easiest thing in these two cities. The buses and the trains offer a one-seat ride to and from essentially the same central locations (downtown DC and midtown Manhattan).

Let's say I wanted to do a weekend (Friday - Sunday) trip one month from now, and I wanted to travel from DC to New York. The round-trip rates I would pay, if I booked right now, would vary depending on the time of day that I pick; but roughly, it would be:

Acela Express: $270.00
Northeast Regional: $98.00
Boltbus: $38.50
Megabus: $26.50

Of these, the Acela Express is certainly the fastest and nicest option. It's also 9 times as expensive as Megabus. Is it 9 times more valuable to ride than the Megabus? Probably not.

It's not just that inter-city buses are competing with planes and trains, it's that they are blowing them out of the water when it comes to fares. And again, while the service may not be top-notch, people seem to be willing to accept that when they pay so little, they shouldn't expect a lot in return anyway. So long as they can get to and from their destination reasonably quickly, and reasonably on-time, that's good enough.

3 comments:

    Buses are more subsidized than trains. Bus tickets don't include the entire cost of maintaining the right of way, since many roads are paid for with local taxes, rather than gas taxes. The Amtrak subsidy is so laughably small that a much larger proportion of your ticket probably goes towards infrastructure maintenance.

    Still, subsidies don't account for the entire difference. Economies of scale is another factor. If rail travel was proportionately developed to road travel, the number of options and competition would've reduced prices as well.

    Then, of course, there is the speed and comfort premium you pay on trains.

     
    On July 27, 2010 JN said...

    And you could save another $6 if you rode the Chinatown bus, which is generally $20 DC-NY. Book online at gotobus.com and you can often get $35 R/T.

     
    On July 27, 2010 Anonymous said...

    I think these buses have created demand more than they've taken riders from planes and trains.

    I went to a concert in NYC recently, and paid $6 round trip (total). I would never had made the trip if I had to have paid $50+ on amtrak, which is more than the price of the concert ticket. These bus lines have made day trips into eastern cities an easy option.