Curbside buses: private sector response to intercity transportation woes

Short-haul buses - with on-board Internet -- are a fast-growing alternative to automobile and air travel.

For getting from my locale to Manhattan, nothing beats the service of Trans-Bridge Lines, a regional service that offers 7-8 trips daily, with on-board WiFi and comfortable seating.

While last month's bus tragedy on I-95 north of New York raised concerns about the safety of discount bus services, it can also be argued that the proliferation of such lines are a private-sector mass transit alternative to commuting by automobile, which is many times riskier, uses far more energy, and is much more stressful.

And, while local mass transit agencies strain and struggle with tight budgets, and the dream of a federal high-speed rail initiative gets pummeled, entrepreneurs are stepping in with solutions of their own, via nimbler short-haul intercity bus services.

Many of these lines leverage online resources to operate cheaply and efficiently, as Dale Moser, chief executive officer of Coach USA, operator of the Chicago region's Megabus line, explained in a recent BusinessWeek interview:

"90 percent of customers book online, many simply showing tickets texted to their phones to board; ...the buses all offer free Wi-Fi and power outlets at every seat; how every trip includes at least one $1 fare, with prices going up as the departure date nears and as the bus fills; ...there are no terminals or storefronts, just a bare-bones back-office staff; ...the bus fleet is in constant use."

Along with Megabus, there are a number of emerging regional curbside carriers, such a BoltBus and Trans-Bridge in the Northeast.  These lines, which are highly adaptable in scheduling and routes, are an emerging industry in their own right. Megabus itself is a $100-million-a-year business, covering 50 US cities. The bus company kept right on growing and hiring, right through the recession. BoltBus turned a profit within the first three months of its operations, which began in 2008. As BusinessWeek describes it, these curbside bus services "have fundamentally changed the way Americans—especially the young—travel, so much so that they may help kill plans for new railroads."

Indeed, the curbside bus market grew 33% in 2010, compared to 5% growth for airlines and 6% for Amtrak. And the Internet service is a real draw -- except when you're trying to type while hitting potholes. But, still a real nice way to travel.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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