Out of Control Policy Blog

Intercity Buses are the Cost Effective Transportation Option

While much of the U.S. transportation world is entranced with the prospects of high-speed rail, intercity buses are surging in popularity. Buses use existing infrastructure, are one of the safest travel methods, provide the lowest travel costs of any intercity transportation option and require almost no subsidy. The table at the bottom of the page shows that buses are often quicker and cheaper than rail alternatives. In 2010, intercity bus service was the fastest growing mode of intercity travel dwarfing increases in air and rail transportation.

Today there are a dozen major lines and many smaller operators. While most of the carriers originally served only the coastal Northeastern market, several have expanded across the country and now serve customers throughout the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest. Today direct intercity bus service is available in Burlington, Knoxville, Madison, and Omaha. Modern bus routes differ from traditional buses by offering direct connections between different cities. Instead of a route between Washington D.C. and New York City which stops in Baltimore, Wilmington DE, and Northern New Jersey, today’s buses offer direct service between New York and Washington. Those customers traveling to Baltimore, Wilmington, or Northern New Jersey have other bus routes that can take them directly to those destinations.

Much of successful modern day bus service is the result of a new business model. Older bus service featured large stations on expensive downtown real estate with ticket agents and baggage handlers. With the new model passengers buy many of the tickets online, buses pick-up and drop-off customers at the curbside, and drivers handle the baggage. Busier corridors such as the Boston-Washington corridor feature more than a dozen different bus lines. While most bus services offer a number of features including wireless access, plug-ins and expanded legroom, different bus lines cater to different travelers’ tastes. These range from bargain-basement lines offering the lowest price such as LuckyStar and Worldwide Bus to luxury bus lines with fully reclining seats and hot meals including Vamoose and LimoLiner.

Buses also compare favorably with Amtrak in many ways. Intercity buses in the Northeast carry at least 50 percent more passenger miles than Amtrak. Fares are about a third of Amtrak’s regular fares and about 10% of High-speed Acela fares. Intercity bus service is competitive time-wise with trains. Buses can also be less polluting. More information on the environmental and cost advantages of buses versus trains is available here.

Mid-level priced buses include Megabus, Bolt, and Greyhound Express. Megabus operates an extensive network from the Great Plains eastward. Greyhound Express operates in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast. Bolt, which is jointly owned by Greyhound and Peter Pan, operates mostly in the Northeast. 

The best thing about this new generation of buses is the low-cost. Round-trip journeys from Atlanta to Charlotte cost $4; round-trip journeys from Boston to New York cost $14. The table below contrasts three mid-level priced bus companies on different randomly selected round-trip routes throughout the U.S. 

 Table 1—Travel Times and Travel Costs Intercity Buses vs Rail



Travel Route

Megabus

Bolt

Greyhound Express

Amtrak

Bus Travel Time

Rail Travel Time

Atlanta-Charlotte

$4

--

$10

$108

4:15

5:25

Atlanta-Memphis

$2

--

$10

$536

7:50

41:46

Chicago-Cleveland

$35

--

--

$104

6:35

6:45

Chicago-Minneapolis

$24

--

$10

$118

8:00

8:10

Washington-New York*

$16

$26

--

$98 

$332

4:25

3:35

2:50

Buffalo-New York

$55

--

$2

$120

7:50

8:15

Washington-Charlotte

$47

--

$50

$152

8:00

8:00

Chicago-Memphis

$51

--

$170

$194

10:00

10:25

New York-Boston*

$14

$26

--

$98

$219

4:15

4:15

3:35

*These routes offer conventional and higher-speed rail. The conventional rail price and time are on the top line; the higher speed rail and price are on the bottom line. 

Forget high-speed rail, intercity buses are today's transportation breakthrough.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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