Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Intercity bus travel is booming in the U.S. Is there a case for bringing back some decent infrastructure dedicated to it?
If you're unfortunate enough to be one of the 65 million annual bus riders who arrive in New York City via the Port Authority Bus Terminal, you will not be greeted by the grandeur that Frank Sinatra promised.
The light in the cavernous bus station is a strained, pee-stained yellow, free of natural inflections. Its halls are labyrinthine and too hot, its signage confusing, and its smells (I’ll spare you the adjectives) are very, very bad. Given such "ambiance," it's perhaps not surprising that the local NBC affiliate produced an investigative piece last summer on whether or not the terminal is a safe place to be.
Last July, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved $90 million in upgrades for the terminal, promising to patch leaks, replace doors, upgrade the air conditioning system, and increase homeless outreach services. Still, this is just a drop in the bucket for the joint agency, which budgeted [PDF] $4.4 billion in capital investment in 2014 alone.
Given the state of the intercity bus industry, there's reason to believe bus travelers should expect more. After four consecutive decades of decline, the industry shot up an average 9 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Six years later, it's still growing. Chaddick announced last month that city-to-city carriers saw a 2.1 percent increase in daily scheduled operations in 2014, which means that nationwide, express bus carriers have doubled their offerings from just four years ago. The numbers are even more striking when compared to Amtrak’s service growth—0.6 percent—and changes in total domestic airline departures—which fell 3.5 percent.
This growth in intercity bus travel is coming overwhelmingly from shorter trips, between 150 and 300 miles. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s from the business world's favorite demographic: young adults. Sixty-seven percent of discount curbside operator BoltBus’s ridership falls in the 18-34 demographic, according to the company. Those riders come, says BoltBus General Manager David Hall, because they’re attracted to cheap tickets, in-seat outlets and (sometimes spotty) Wi-Fi connections.
There are yet more reasons to be bullish about intercity bus travel. In the Northeast corridor, where intercity buses have been particularly successful, rides partially insulate customers from proposed congestion pricing and rising tolls. And despite some bus lines' reputations as poorly regulated death traps, research from the National Transportation Safety Board shows that travel by bus is actually much safer than riding in a car. (Since those statistics were published, the government agency has shut down 26 bus operators it deemed “unsafe,” though more recent reports suggest that the decision was based on faulty data, and that curbside buses are even safer than we thought.)
And yet despite all this, the country’s intercity bus infrastructure has fallen into disrepair. While the changing shape of the industry means that bus stations are no longer the necessary staging grounds they once were, what terminals do exist are often unclean, uncomfortable and unequipped to handle new volumes of travelers. Newer curbside bus services, which exist thanks to deregulation that came to the bus industry in the 1980s, often stay in the black because their business models avoid the costs associated with renting space in terminals. But operating on the street at unlabeled, ad-hoc bus stops also means that bus operators are subject to the whims of city planners, who can constantly force companies to change their drop-off and pick-up spots to accommodate local traffic and businesses. These changes leave even consistent riders confused.
While it's true that there are a number of intriguing new intercity rail lines in the works in a handful of regions around the country, it's important to remember that this is a big, big country: in many more places, reliable rail connections are just not feasible. Buses aren’t just the present of intercity U.S. travel, they’re the near-future as well.
So here’s a suggestion, and one that may be more cost effective than it first appears: Why don’t we bring back the bus terminal?
Bittersweet tidings for Port Authority travelers: It wasn't always this way. Intercity bus travel was born in the 1920s, and intercity bus terminals, as historian Margaret Walsh writes, “were both the core of a systematic service and were architectural features of some repute.” It may surprise the young bus travelers of today to learn that many U.S. bus terminals were once beautiful. In the interbellum bus boom, Art Deco stations in the central business districts of America's biggest cities were points of civic pride.
Walsh notes that these structures’ opening ceremonies were very much a thing:
The civic opening ceremonies that welcomed bus terminals throughout much of the twentieth century, whether in small and large urban centers, were not simply gestures of public relations towards business or voters. These stations were perceived as notable symbols of progress and commerce. The intercity bus industry brought travelers and trade to the area and stylish terminals were at the core of that enterprise. Sometimes they were more when they became a nucleus for local community activity.
These terminals were stocked with amenities: restaurants and quicker food options, clean restrooms, newsstands, telephones, information desks, and well-lit waiting areas.
The decline of America's bus terminals accompanied a number of larger cultural shifts. Large, new and modern stations suffered when populations shifted to the suburbs, leaving bus managers with sunk costs that prevented them from following potential riders to the edges of the crabgrass frontier. As city centers transformed into centers of poverty, crime followed, and bus travelers—many of whom were women—began worrying about arriving in downtown stations in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the rise of the personal automobile and air travel made the bus seem unsophisticated.
There were classist elements to this change, too. Riding the bus between the 1970s and early 2000s “was pretty bleak,” James Inman, author of the comedic travelogue Greyhound Diary, told Mental Floss. “It was a lesson in America’s class divide: broke people, unpleasant buses, rude drivers, horrible terminals. There was no romance of the road at all.”
Bus service fell nearly two percent between 1960 and 1980, and then another 4 percent between 1980 and 2002. The hammer blow: A 10.2 percent decrease in bus service between 2002 and 2006.
The game finally began to change in New York’s Chinatown. In the first decade of this century, a network of intercity buses sprang up to service the highly mobile Chinese immigrant community. With one-way fares between Boston and New York City as low as $15, these services benefited from deregulation, which permitted them to operate without having to rent slots in bus terminals.
But by the mid-2000s, traditional bus industry players had picked up on the curbside bus boom. Megabus, owned by British company Stagecoach Group, began offering Chicago-based service in 2006, while BoltBus, operated by Greyhound and Peter Pan, launched in the Northeast in 2008. And these companies quickly found that travelers were willing to pay a bit more for better amenities and more reliable service.
In a landscape dominated by curbside operators, where do bus terminals fit in?
“In most places, the era of a single, large, centralized bus terminal is probably no longer the case,” says Nick Klein, a city planner whose research focuses on intercity bus travel. “The big picture trend is decentralization, and that will take many forms.”
In practice that's meant the situation can vary dramatically from city to city. Bus “slips”—industry-speak for spots—are pricey in well-trafficked bus terminals like New York's Port Authority, where terminal costs alone can reduce a company's revenue by 30 percent per ticket. Though curbside bus companies must still pay for various permits to arrive and depart from city streets, many of them still save money by staying out of terminals.
On the other end of the spectrum, some cities forbid curbside operators from using the street as a terminus at all. City authorities gave Boston’s South Station Bus Terminal new life when they prohibited curbside pickup in 2004, moving intercity buses back into the terminal.
And as it turns out, there are plenty of operators interested in terminals. For Harry Blunt, the owner of New Hampshire-based Concord Coach Lines (which only occasionally operates as a curbside company), attractive and welcoming bus terminals are a top-line priority. “The term we use in our facilities are ones that ‘pass the mother/daughter test,’” he says. “You wouldn’t be afraid to drop off your 18 year-old daughter to go off to college, and you wouldn’t be afraid to have your retiring mother come visit for Thanksgiving and be dropped off at the bus terminal.” Mother/daughter stations are well-lit, they’re clean, and they’re in safe neighborhoods, so that customers can feel comfortable exiting and making transfers at all times of night, Blunt says.
Internal BoltBus research also found that 70 percent of its ridership uses public transportation to travel to or away from a bus terminus, meaning that a stop’s proximity to mass transit is a big priority as well. “We’re not opposed to terminals at all. Frankly, it would be our preference,” says BoltBus' Hall. After access to public transit, BoltBus needs “a nice, safe area to load and unload that is well-lit and has facilities," he says. "Drinks and snacks—that’s all the better.”
Additionally, fixed bus terminals make using intercity buses themselves easier for passengers, who no longer have to deal with the changing permitting whims of city officials who decide where buses are allowed to load and unload.
There’s reason to believe that bus stations lead to safer transportation, too. A 2011 National Transportation Safety Board report found that the curbside bus model often precludes unscheduled inspections, meaning that inspectors have fewer opportunities to discover safety violations. Without inspections, the agency concluded, a carrier’s safety performance cannot be properly evaluated.
The truth is that the bus terminal of the future will look little like the old. Goodbye, Art Deco edifice: Bus riders and the companies that serve them aren’t looking for anything particularly cushy. Indeed, there are numerous examples of curbside operators and municipal authorities re-purposing less-than-appealing spaces to create safer, warmer and even amenity-filled places for people to wait for their rides.
In 2011, Washington, D.C.'s Department of Transportation reached an agreement with Union Station to build an intercity bus terminal on a deck of the train station's parking garage. Permanent residents include Greyhound, Bolt Bus, Megabus and local bus service Washington Deluxe. The move spelled the end for the city’s dilapidated, isolated and unpleasant Greyhound bus station, which sat uncomfortably between two Metro stations. It also got curbside buses off the street, after years of being forced to hop around the city in search of stops that appeased policymakers and didn't disrupt local traffic. The price tag , $7.5 million, may seem substantial, but it's a pittance for a major transportation renovation project, particularly one that also includes the cost of constructing off-site parking lots. The new terminal serves 2.5 million travelers annually.
It is not beautiful. Instead it's a cavernous garage lit by vaguely unpleasant fluorescent lighting. While the space has a roof, protecting riders from sun and rain, it’s still open and subject to extreme heat and cold. But the 1,000 square-foot space has clear signage that makes it easy for customers to tell where they should wait for which buses. The renovation features new restrooms and a little convenience store. Most crucially, the terminal is just steps away from an Amtrak hub, the commuter train out to Maryland, and the D.C. Metro’s Red line.
Though the bus companies pay fees to operate out of the terminal, all signs point to a pleasant marriage between operator and terminal. BoltBus, which has raised ticket prices moderately to compensate for the increased overheard, says customers haven’t shied away from the uptick. And Union Station is winning, too: A BoltBus company survey found that a third of customers are buying something in the transportation complex.
In Minneapolis, business owners complained riders waiting at a Megabus stop on 3rd Street and Chicago Avenue South were taking refuge from the cold in their shops. There were less savory allegations, too, that riders-in-waiting “defecated and urinated behind buildings, and sometimes left their luggage behind.” After a few months of looking, the company settled on a new spot: Under a parking structure near ABC Ramps, a parking and transportation hub in Minneapolis’ downtown that includes access to light rail and the city bus system. Once again, this ain’t Art Deco:
But the new stop includes a more convenient pre-boarding area, portable restrooms, and crucially, a waiting room, so riders can stay out of the cold. Megabus paid nothing in renovations, says spokesman Mike Alvich, and shells out a modest fee to rent the garage. The facility was there waiting for them.
The next generation of intercity bus terminals may be partially outside. They may or may not have concessions stands. Bus travel in this country may never be glamorous, but it could definitely be more pleasant than what many U.S. cities have today.