If you are traveling between Dallas and Austin anytime soon, you might want to give Vonlane a try. This is a new first-class bus that has just 16 cushy seats, each wider than a first-class seat on a plane, plus a private conference room for six. Naturally, the bus has free WiFi, but also has on-board snacks, newspapers, television, radio, and noise-cancelling headphones to listen to them.
Vonlane spent $700,000 on each of two luxury motorcoaches and provides four three-hour trips a day from Dallas’ Love Field to Austin’s Hyatt Regency, a short walk from downtown Austin. The fare for a late-night trip is $40, while the daytime trips are $100. Vonlane claims this is half the airline fare; while it is true that Southwest’s fare for a trip tomorrow is $201, if you book far enough in advance you can get a $77 nonrefundable fare.
One of the many excellent speakers at this year’s American Dream conference was Dale Moser, CEO of Coach USA and Megabus. Coach USA is owned by Stagecoach, one of the two large private transit companies that emerged when Britain privatized much of its transit industry. (The other is First Group, which among other things owns Greyhound.)
Just seven years after it began, Megabus covers scores of cities in the East, South, and Midwest as well as several in the California market. Click image for a larger view.
Moser’s presentation describes how Megabus expanded from a few Midwest routes in 2006 to dozens of routes serving more than 80 cities today. Megabus truly revolutionized the intercity bus industry, which had steadily declined since the 1960s but has been growing since 2007.
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation dramatically shut down more than two dozen “Chinatown” bus companies for safety violations. At the time, the Antiplanner expressed skepticism, saying that if the same criteria were applied to transit agencies such as Washington Metro or Boston’s MBTA, they would be shut down too. But the DOT said it relied on a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) study that found that “curbside” buses were seven times more dangerous than conventional intercity buses.
Fung Wah, the original Chinatown bus company, was not one of the ones shut down in last year’s federal raids. Wikipedia photo by Toytoy.
Now, some people are challenging this study, saying that its methods were so faulty it may as well have been completely fabricated. The NTSB has a reputation for sound quantitative analysis, but this study was first questioned by Aaron Brown, a Wall Street financial analyst, who accused the NTSB of “statistical malpractice” for improperly manipulating data and refusing to release its raw data. Based on what data were available, Brown estimated that curbside buses were actually safer than conventional ones.
Megabus, which serves the Midwest and Northeast, is starting service in the South and to celebrate it is giving away 10,000 tickets to or from Atlanta and eleven other cities. Even if you don’t get a free ticket, when the Antiplanner checked there were still seats on many routes for $1 to $3.
Megabus’ new service connects Atlanta to Birmingham, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Memphis, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville, and Orlando. Buses to Knoxville, Mobile, Nashville, and Orlando stop once; the rest are non-stop.
The Antiplanner spent the last couple of days at the annual meeting of the California Bus Association, which left me unable to post as I was too cheap to pay the hotel $9.95 per day for Internet access even though the nice people at the Bus Association would probably have covered the cost. In any case, I learned a lot at the meeting that I’ll probably comment on in future posts.
I’ve never been to a bus association convention before, but my impression was of a thriving, growing industry. Hundreds of different companies offer scheduled and charter bus services; there are quite a few different manufacturers; and new buses feature intriguing technologies including adaptive cruise control, vehicle stability control, and on-board fire detection and suppression. Moreover, the market is rapidly shifting in an endless series of buy-outs and mergers. It felt more like Silicon Valley than a nearly-100-year-old industry that had been in decline from before 1980 to some time in the last decade.
More than a third of Bolt and Megabus riders in the Boston-to-Washington corridor say they would have taken an Amtrak train if the “new model” of bus service were not available. (The new model relies on curbside stops instead of stations, mainly non-stop service between cities instead of multiple stops between major cities, internet ticket sales, and fares set by yield management–with the first seats sold going for very low prices.) Amtrak lost far more customers to the new model than conventional carriers such as Greyhound.
To reach this finding, Joseph Schwieterman–a professor of public service at DePaul University–and his students and associates at the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development surveyed nearly 400 Bolt and Megabus riders in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, as well as nearly 400 Megabus riders and 275 Greyhound passengers in Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis.
Half truths, innuendo, and pseudo-science form the basis of a recent response to the Antiplanner’s recent paper, Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode. The basic thesis of the response is that intercity buses have a role to play in a “balanced transportation system,” but they are “no replacement for high-speed rail.”
Of course, the Antiplanner never argued that buses were a replacement for true high-speed rail. But it did show that existing bus schedules in many corridors are faster, more frequent, and charge far lower fares than Amtrak in the same corridors. Of course, there is a “replacement” for high-speed rail: it is called “air travel” and it is far faster and costs about a fifth as much per passenger mile as Amtrak’s Acela.
In any case, America 2050 says the Antiplanner ignored “one of the most powerful arguments for rail: providing an alternative to highway congestion.” I didn’t address that argument in the paper on buses because, as I’ve shownbefore, it’s a stupid argument. Highways move about 85 percent of all passenger travel, and more than a quarter of all ton-miles of freight in this country. If they are congested, maybe we should relieve that congestion rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an elitist rail network that won’t relieve congestion and won’t carry than a tiny fraction of the number of people (and none of the freight) moved on the highways.
But we can’t fix highway congestion, says America 2050: “providing additional road space does not solve congestion; in fact it creates additional demand for driving.” That’s another stupid argument for four reasons. First, my bus paper never advocated building new roads, and if asked, I would have suggested relieving congestion using congestion pricing of roads before building new capacity.
The Antiplanner rarely responds to comments in a post, but Andrew asked many good questions and requested a lot of background information last week. Most of his questions are answered by citations in the report, but since he did not seem to understand those citations, here are my responses.
1. â€œIntercity buses carry at least 50% more PM than Amtrak in Amtrakâ€™s showcase Northeast Corridor.â€ How is this computed and what are the data sources? What trains are you including in the Amtrak total vs. what buses?
I compiled the on-line schedules for what turned out to be sixteen different bus companies for the week of May 15 to 21. The schedules included all buses connecting Northeast Corridor cities: Boston, Providence, New Haven, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington. I used Google maps to calculate the bus miles between these cities. I then calculated seat miles assuming that premiere lines like Bolt, DC2NY, and Vamoose have 50 seats, Megabuses have 79 seats, and Chinatown buses have 56 seats. My numbers may be an underestimate as some companies may not post their schedules on the web.
To convert to passenger miles, I assumed the seats are 60 percent full. According to the American Bus Association, this is accurate for the major carriers but conservative for the Chinatown buses. Even if the buses are only 50 percent full (which is Amtrak’s average), they carry far more people than Amtrak.
My Amtrak numbers come from page C1 of Amtrak’s 2010 performance report. The September report includes data for the entire fiscal year. Seat miles and passenger miles can both be calculated from this table. I only included Northeast Corridor trains, not trains such as the Crescent, but I also did not include buses such as New York to Raleigh or New York to Atlanta.
Tomorrow, the Cato Institute will release a new report on intercity buses that Antiplanner readers can preview here. This is an expansion and update from an Antiplanner article posted almost exactly two years ago.
For that post, I reviewed schedules for about a dozen different bus companies in the Boston-to-Washington corridor and calculated that they collectively operated about 3.4 billion seat miles of travel in the corridor in 2009. This is about the same as Amtrak, but the bus companies reported that they filled a higher percentage of seats than Amtrak, so I concluded that buses move more people than Amtrak in the corridor.
For tomorrow’s paper, I updated this calculation and found that, in 2011, some 16 different bus companies move about 4.0 billion seat miles in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak claims about 6 percent of the travel market in the corridor, so buses have about 8 to 9 percent. (Airlines have about 5, with the other 80 percent being automobiles.)
Last fall, the Onion made fun of Obama’s high-speed rail plan with an alternative high-speed bus proposal. But Wubbo Ockels, a physicist and the first Dutch astronaut, wasn’t laughing.
High-speed trains, Ockels says, are too slow and don’t go where people want to go. So he has designed and built a prototype electric-powered bus capable of going 150 mph. The bus holds 23 passengers and, as he envisions it, would operate on dedicated lanes in the median strips of existing highways. But it could also leave these lanes and operate at conventional speeds on ordinary roads and streets, which means it could serve far more destinations than high-speed trains.