Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Megabus – King of the Road

Source: Flickr/Budahbless

In recent years there’s been a resurgence in intercity bus travel, driven by the rise of low cost, non-stop service linking tier one cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC with other regional hubs in their surrounding areas. This is a lively and diverse market, particularly on the east coast, with providers like Megabus, Bolt Bus, Greyhound, and a host of so-called “Chinatown” buses.

These offer service for very low fare, ostensibly as low as a dollar, but more typically $20. Still, that’s far cheaper than even driving in most places, and certainly than flying. These services typically involve curb side loading (no stations) adjacent to a city’s main train station, making them almost a quasi-rail service or rail adjunct, while giving many of the same rail benefits as direct CBD-CBD service without requiring extensive, and expensive, ground transport on either end. With amenities like AC power outlets and free wi-fi – which many Amtrak and commuter trains don’t yet offer – it’s easy to see why they are popular. And this isn’t just with the stereotypical bus ride customer, but increasingly with everything from hip Millennials to the mothers of yuppies coming into the big city for a visit. Megabus and others are drawing an entirely new market who previously would have discounted intercity bus service – including Yours Truly.

With a low cost service that gets people out of cars and planes and into what is basically a shared transit vehicle, you would think that Megabus would be extremely popular in the urbanist/sustainability community. But you’d be wrong. A large segment of them have indeed seen the virtues of this new school intercity bus service, but a surprisingly large number of them actually revile Megabus.

Among the common complaints are that Megabus is “subsidized” because it uses valuable curb side real estate in cities for free, that they are implicitly subsidized by highway funding, that passengers waiting for the bus at the stop are a nuisance, that the buses clog the streets and pump fumes into the air in a way that harms the “neighborhood,” and that the service really isn’t that good because of congestion. Even the government of Washington, DC is getting in on the act, as reported they want to charge Megabus a fee for access to their loading zones.

Every last one of these is bogus. The quickest way to illustrate this is to simply ask how urbanists would react if anti-transit forces made similar arguments against ordinary municipal bus service.

First, municipal bus service is massively subsidized, both from a capital and operating perspective. Megabus pays for its own buses, drivers, and fuel and actually pays taxes to the government. As for subsidies from free use of curbside real estate and highway funding, large amounts of our city streets – including on pretty much every block on major streets in major cities – have permanently dedicated space to bus stops. The bus agency does not pay for these. City buses also runs on streets paid for with highway and general fund dollars. And in any case, this concrete investment in streets and highways is a sunk cost, with buses contributing little to general freeway congestion.

As for passengers congregating at stops, that’s frequently the case with city buses as well, as this picture from Chicago shows:

And to argue about crowds hurting city life seems a bit odd given that we’re told one of rail’s benefits is bringing all those people in to patronize businesses. I know I’ve made purchases at businesses near the Megabus stop that I wouldn’t have otherwise made. And in places like Midtown Manhattan, there are already vehicles of all types more or less continuously stopped or even double parked along the avenues. Megabus is barely a blip here. Plus don’t forget all the loading zones that already serve many private businesses all over our cities.

Also, these bus stops are typically located in the CBD near a train station, which is already crowded and which itself can be a huge (and tax free) mega-structure in the city that poses disruption in its own right (e.g., Grand Central Terminal). What this also means that any fumes and such disproportionately are in the CBD, not really a neighborhood. Again, many train stations also feature diesel fume generating trains (Metra’s trains in Chicago were recently noted as having unsafe diesel fume concentrations). And also, city buses generally do pump out fumes as well, and truly in the neighborhoods. Anyone who’s spent time in a city knows the delight of having a poorly tuned bus pull away from the stop belching a huge black cloud. I frequently get to experience this while out jogging in my neighborhood.

Again, if an anti-transit writer tried to disparage investment in city buses with the arguments raised against Megabus, they’d be laughed out of the house by the urbanist/sustainability crowd.

So why the complaints? They can speak for themselves, but I suspect a couple of items. Firstly, some people just don’t like private sector solutions. That’s a view I can respect, but not agree with. But more importantly, I think that there’s fear that successful private sector intercity bus service undermines the case for high speed rail that is near and dear to the urbanist heart.

Indeed, it is true that in many cases Megabus frankly does undermine the case, particularly for the “Amtrak on steroids” style HSR proposals on the table in places like the Midwest. Megabus already delivers basically the end to end journey times of the proposed Midwest “high speed rail” system with similar amenities but without the need for billions in government expenditures. Even on the east coast, NYC to Providence has a journey time not that much worse than the Acela – and at 20% of the ticket price. Congestion might be a real concern, but if so, customers would notice. But give Megabus some credit – they build this into their schedules. Generally the journey times are as advertised.

I prefer to look at it differently though. What Megabus & Co. are proving is that there is a viable market for intercity transit-style travel at the right price. Thus they are helping to get people used to the idea of traveling that way and in a sense priming the pump for high speed rail at a later date as demand increases. The bus operators are doing the hard work of creating and proving out the market for this. Also, Megabus will hopefully force the backers of many of these HSR proposals to rethink their concept around 110MPH peak speeds in favor of true high speed rail. And even in the worst case, Megabus doesn’t say anything against such slam dunk investments as further upgrades to the NEC. Conceivably if and when HSR investments are made, these bus operators will service a different, lower end market and/or evolve into more of a rail complement. (For another perspective on this, see “Will Megabus Kill High Speed Rail?.”)

In any event, I’m totally puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm or outright hostility against a service which is providing cost effective, green transport and getting people out of their cars today without tax expenditures. That’s not to say these services can’t be improved. Perhaps they should make some payment for curbside space. The wi-fi service is frequently inoperable. And their buses, particularly later in the day, can see schedule slippage as problems cascade. Perhaps some stops should be relocated to be less disruptive. But all of these are easily solvable problems. None of them vitiates the fact that these intercity bus services are one of the best transport innovations of our time.

Topics: Transportation

51 Responses to “Megabus – King of the Road”

  1. cph says:

    A poster on the “All-Aboard” Yahoo group describes the Minneapolis Megabus stop as being in a “desolate” area near the Metrodome. Did they formerly stop near Target Field?

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