This post originally appeared on August 18, 2011.
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:
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.
Steve Rowlet says
I’m familiar with the downtown Chicago Megabus open-air “station” along Canal Street at Jackson. This street serves as a stop for a handful of CTA bus lines as well, so it is a constant rumble of bus engines but aside from that, Megabus passengers and bags are typically strewn all along the sidewalk on this block as they wait for their departing bus. Throw in a sudden downpour and it is chaos. Worth the $1 fare if you can grab it, I guess. I work a half block from Canal Street and my observation is that passengers are predominantly young, some appearing fairly odd or scruffy. Not what many older adults would care to be part of, IMO. Not for me either and please don’t think that as elitist. I’m older, more established financially, and can afford a better travel experience and appreciate the option of rail or air over driving – if the route fits my needs.
Rod Stevens says
I’ve ridden the Bolt Bus (a Greyhound subsidiary) from Seattle to Portland twice and couldn’t be happier with it. It is faster, more frequent, cheaper, more direct, and has more amenities than Amtrak. For the first time in my lifetime, it’s actually cheaper and easier to take mass transit than to drive.
What really interests me is all the little things. With Amtrak you struggle through a bad website, pay and make a reservation, go to the place a half hour early to pick up the ticket, stand in one line to get a seat assignment, stand in another to get on board, and then hang out in your seat until the conductor comes by. With Bolt, it’s buy a ticket, then flash your smart phone when you get on. There’s at least 30 minutes more of leisure there simply on ticketing.
I agree with your paean to Megabus. It is 1,000,000 times better than Greyhound (there may be reasons for this). However, I think that your argument that the pro-transit community is anti-Megabus because it is private is somewhat of a straw man. I’m not saying this argument has not been made, but I don’t think it is widespread. I know you have cited one, but I would like to see others. That said, I am in Latin America right now. Most bus service is private and much better than in the US, although car ownership rates are different so they are hard to compare. In general, private routes seem fine, but I think there are strong arguments from some government operated or coordinated services on cross-town or rail options…(e.g. BRT needs government). Why not make BRT lanes on interstates so Megabus can go 120?
Nick L says
Megabus and other private bus lines pay taxes that do not begin to cover road use costs. Therefor this is a government subsidized service, as are all bus lines, public and private.
Rod Stevens says
The government also subsidizes our private auto use of the road. It requires fewer lanes of asphalt and less repaving to have one bus driving along full of people than many cars each with one person in them.
Craig Howard says
bus lines pay taxes that do not begin to cover road use costs
If so much of the highway taxes weren’t being siphoned off to subsidize mass-transit, they would cover much more of the cost of highways than they currently do. That is not the fault of the bus companies.
Alon Levy says
Aaron, New York-Providence is actually a case in which Amtrak is doing much better than Megabus. Amtrak’s reported ridership on the city pair is about twice the capacity of the Megabus buses serving the route. Megabus may be cheaper, but there are 5 buses a day from New York to Providence, whereas Amtrak frequency is hourly if you’re indifferent about the Acela vs. the Regional. Rail has an advantage in linear corridors with many secondary cities in that it loses only a few minutes to each additional intermediate stop, which means that New York-Providence riders get to piggyback on the frequency provided by the needs of the larger New York-Boston market. And of course multiple intermediate markets together can piggyback on each other, with overlapping city pairs like New Haven-Philadelphia, New Haven-Boston, Newark-Baltimore, etc. Highway buses are bad at serving these secondary city pairs because it takes them too much time to get off the highway, make a city station stop, and then get back on. Greyhound does that, and is substantially slower than MegaBolt.
Aaron M. Renn says
Alon, I agree that Megabus doesn’t really have any advantage from Providence – except the price, which can be cheap. Amtrak’s cheapest tix seem to be $21 these days. And their garage fills up ridiculously early for those who have to drive in and park at the station.
For me living about 25 mins south of downtown, I’ve actually found that the best price/performance way for me to get to NYC is to drive to New Haven and take the Metro North. It’s about the same time, the prices are pretty good, and the schedule can’t be beat.
So why aren’t there more private bus systems for inner city transit? For example what prevents someone from creating a daily bus schedule for Carmel to Indianapolis for downtown commuters? I know the city is looking at this, but is there something that prevents private investors from doing this? It seems like it would be easy to get say 100 people to pay good money each month to do this. And since you are private and not the city you don’t have to cater to everyone.
I would love a bus with wifi and power and maybe a phone booth that would give you a working commute. It seems like they could build out their business by just servicing one area at a time and seeing how it grows.
I think that some of the antipathy towards Megabus, etc among urbanist/transit advocates is that unlike your approach in this piece, advocates of these intercity bus services often tout them as reasons to eliminate HSR planning, Amtrak, or both.
Taking a quick look at Amtrak versus Megabus in NC, where I live, you find the following:
Travel time: Charlotte to DC
Megabus – 7 hours 40 minutes; 2 intermediate stops
Amtrak – 9 hours 37 minutes; 16 intermediate stops
The discrepancy in number of stops gets to Alon’s point about accessing communities at their core and moving on- this is a strength of rail that is hard for buses using the Interstate system to replicate, especially at rush hour.
But the further issue is that auto travel times are not static in growing metro areas. They are constantly deteriorating in areas with expanding population and employment.
The 110-mph top speed for the Southeast High Speed Rail corridor is supposed to establish service with 4 to 6 stops between CLT and DC within a 6 hour to 6:50 travel time at 90% reliability.
Any bus making that run has the potential to hit rush hour traffic in 5 metro areas, three of which have pretty heavy or growing congestion. The rail avoids all of them.
There’s nothing wrong with Megabus as a service concept. It’s an example of what can be done when the public maintains ROW to a high standard and allows private operators to use that ROW.
But if we want long-term, durable, reductions in travel time, we need vehicles in their own ROW. If HSR is delivered properly, then at medium speed or true high speed, it should fare well.
Alon Levy says
Tim, re, “why aren’t there more private bus systems for inner city transit?”, the answer is that current road planning gives a bus with 40 people the same priority as a car with 1 person, so the bus can’t compete. In areas where buses do get priority, they are more popular – there’s a large number of private operators using the Lincoln Tunnel’s dedicated lanes and exploiting their interstate status to avoid state regulations.
Rod Stevens says
In the 1970’s, there were “jitney buses” (same scale as airport rental car buses) delivering Hispanic passengers running up and down Mission Street. They were cheaper and faster than Muni. I suspect Muni convinced the city to get rid of these because they were skimming off enough volume. Muni would have argued that it served more people by making more stops, and that everyone should pay a penalty (slower trips) to subsidize this. Another case of mixed goals. The result was a whole lot of slow buses on the street. More directly addressing the goal of transportation for the elderly and handicapped might have led to the kind of senior shuttle buses we now see running around most cities. Not to be too cynical about this, but I suspect the unions want to keep their membership numbers up.