- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The bus — previously the antithesis of urban chic — has become just that. Intercity buses that take the young and hip between destinations such as New York and the District have gained huge market share, while air and car travel are hurting. Intercity buses saw a 9.8 percent increase in departures between 2007 and 2008, while miles traveled by car went down 3.3 percent and miles traveled by air went down 8 percent in the same period. (Train travel saw a 3.3 percent increase.)

Experts cite a confluence of four factors behind the transformation: digitally connected youngsters, inner-city revitalization, new bus design and online ticketing, says Joseph Schwieterman, a professor of public service at DePaul University who specializes in urban transportation issues.

“Young urban dwellers don’t have any particular attachment or affinity for the car,” Mr. Schwieterman says. “For them, the intercity buses have become almost an extension of the public transit system. They’re a low-cost, flexible way to go from Washington to New York.”

The tech-savvy young (30 and younger) have become one of the most important markets for intercity buses such as Megabus and Boltbus. (Yes, we know you’ve seen them downtown; their bright, bold branding is hard to miss.) Both bus lines provide plug-ins for digital devices and free Wi-Fi - which certainly doesn’t hurt their appeal to this younger demographic.

Both companies started their Washington-New York City routes in spring 2008, and both report bigger-than-expected ridership expansion.

“We’re continuing to see phenomenal growth in the market,” says Dale Moser, chief operating officer and president of Megabus, which saw more than 420,000 riders in its first year between the two major cities. “People are looking to stretch their dollar.”

Both Boltbus and Megabus offer at least one $1 ticket per departure. (The highest-priced tickets go for $20 to $25 one way, depending on the company.) “If you get the guaranteed $1 fare, you get to travel for less than the price of a cup of coffee,” says Abby Wambaugh, spokeswoman for Boltbus and its parent, Greyhound. “You can’t beat that.”

The buses also have found favor with 30- to 55-year-old women going with friends to shop or see a show, Mr. Moser says. These women have cars; they just don’t want the hassle and cost of driving them.

“They do the math, and they know that parking alone costs about $26 a day,” he says. “By taking the bus, it leaves them money to spend on other things.”

The riders Mr. Moser calls the “silver surfers” constitute the buses’ third major market segment. These are retirees on fixed incomes.

The latter two groups, though, are harder to persuade to take the intercity bus than the youngsters, Mr. Schwieterman says.

“To them, there is still a stigma and the thought that you might have to sit next to a homeless person,” he says, adding that that’s unlikely to happen because most ticketing is done online.

The Northeastern corridor is particularly ripe for bus travel because of its vibrant city centers and the relatively short distances between them. The sweet spot, according Mr. Schwieterman’s research, is a bus trip between 175 and 300 miles.

“When the ride’s more than six hours, the drudgery of the bus ride sets in,” he says. “Their strength is the short trip,” particularly against the backdrop of hassle-heavy airports and occasional parking-lot conditions on the expressways connecting the big cities in the Northeast.

But, you might say, the buses have to use those same expressways.

To which Mr. Moser responds: “It’s still a more relaxing way to travel because you’re not in charge of the driving.”

However, Mr. Schwieterman says, this traffic unpredictability may be part of the reason why the business clientele is not - literally - on-board yet.

“Arrival time is always an ‘educated guess,’ ” Mr. Schwieterman says - which might not be good enough if you’re trying to make an important business meeting.

Still, even business ridership is growing, Mr. Moser says, as companies are trying to save money in this troubled economy.

Mr. Moser says it’s gratifying to know that, beyond making money, he and other bus operators are helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions by tens of thousands of tons each year by getting people out of their cars and into buses.

“It’s the greenest form of travel,” he says.

And this is another inducement to the green-conscious, tech-savvy, young urban dwellers who have helped make intercity buses newly chic.

“They’re making a statement by taking the bus,” Mr. Schwieterman says.



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