BoltBus, an intercity express bus company that is very popular in the Northeast, comes to Cascadia with the launching of a Seattle-Portland route beginning May 17. BoltBus and its many competitors (like MegaBus) are popular because of their express service, cheap tickets (10%-30% of an Amtrak ticket and usually cheaper than driving), free wireless access and power outlets, and very comfortable – leather – seats. The service is commonly known as “curb-side buses” because they pick up and drop off passengers on city streets instead of at traditional terminals.
Portland Afoot has a good summary of the details:
- In Portland, BoltBus will operate from 647 SW Salmon Street, two blocks south of Pioneer Courthouse Square. In Seattle, buses will operate from 5th Avenue South and King Street, adjacent to the International District Station.
- Advance midday fares from Portland to Seattle will start at $7 including a $1 transaction fee. According to the BoltBus FAQ, “every schedule will sell at least one $1.00 ticket. The $1.00 ticket will be sold at random and generally within the first handful of seats sold. The earlier you book your ticket, the greater your odds are of grabbing a seat for a buck. [Note: I purchased a midday Portland-to-Seattle ticket the other day for $6. And every ninth trip is free if you join their rewards program.]
- BoltBus plans to depart from each of its terminuses at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Travel time between the points was estimated at 3 hours 15 minutes to 3 hours 30 minutes.
If you live between Portland and Seattle, don’t cross your fingers for a future BoltBus stop. The key to this business model is express service between two high-volume locations. You’re stuck with Amtrak (which isn’t so bad).
Will BoltBus take passengers from the popular Amtrak or Horizon flight shuttle? We’ll speculate about that in a coming story.
Most intercity bus service is centered in the north- and mid-eastern United States. Service grew by 7.1% between 2010 and 2011, according to Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. Passenger traffic on curbside operators grew by approximately 30% during that same period.
Why has private intercity bus service grown so quickly? The reasons include the obvious (cheaper than driving due to rising cost of gas; increasing air fares) and not-so-obvious (“rising interest among travelers in being able to continuously use portable electronic technology, which is difficult or impossible when flying or driving,” Chaddick Institute). Baruch Feigenbaum of the Reason Foundation adds that the business model is more cost-effective than in the past:
“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. . .to luxury bus lines with fully reclining seats and hot meals” (“Intercity Buses are the Cost Effective Transportation Option,”).
Intercity bus passengers overwhelmingly are traveling for pleasure or personal reasons; only about 17% are traveling for business.
There are some challenges with intercity bus service in some cities, however. For one, “street-corner loading”, the industry norm, can impact traffic flow – yet prohibiting this practice could violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Safety regulations regarding vehicles and drivers, and crowd control and littering are other important issues. A 2009 study found that “smaller bus companies do not have waiting rooms so passengers are forced to wait on the sidewalk. As they wait, there is no proper place for trash disposal or available restrooms. Much of the waste generated by waiting passengers is thrown onto the sidewalks. . . . Customer queuing frequently eliminates the pedestrian right of way, often forcing pedestrians into the street. These lines also obstruct the entrances of legitimate businesses. When parked, some buses habitually block storefronts” (Chinatown Bus Study, NYC Dept. of City Planning, October 2009).
Intercity bus service companies are nimble, something that high speed passenger rail can never be. Ben Austen of Bloomberg Businessweek observes that
“The bus simply uses existing roads, requiring no policy debates, government funding, or land management studies. It needs only a curb and a sign. Bus companies are also able to gauge demand quickly, gather rider input online, then alter pickup locations or routes just by posting changes to their websites.
The comparison with rail is revealing. Consider that even after the Obama Administration budgeted $10.4 billion in federal stimulus money to jump-start high-speed rail projects around the country, the states had to submit proposals, federal transportation officials had to select the most viable ones, and state and federal governments had to negotiate these plans with the freight companies that own most of the nation’s track. After all that, politicians, citing budget shortfalls, ended up scuttling many of the plans (The MegaBus Effect).”
That nimbleness, combined with the growth of intercity bus service, has caused some free market think tanks to believe we should rethink investing in high-speed rail. Baruch Feigenbaum of the Reason Foundation comments:
“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” (“Intercity Buses are the Cost Effective Transportation Option).
Randall O’Toole at the Cato Institute says:
“Despite the hype about high-speed rail, intercity buses are proving to be a far superior mode of transportation for travelers who choose not to drive or fly distances of about 100 to 300 miles or so. The buses are safer, more energy efficient, and—despite Amtrak’s huge subsidies— far less costly to ride than intercity trains.”
O’Toole’s 12-page report, “Intercity Buses: The Forgotten Mode,” includes a good history of how the intercity bus mode grew from its lowest level in decades in 2006 to become today’s fastest growing transportation mode.
Mike Ennis of the Washington Policy Center argues that
“Washington State officials should get out of the high speed rail business. It loses millions of dollars per year and more importantly, it competes with private sector companies that also provide intercity transportation, like charter buses and airlines.
Using public taxes to artificially shift demand from an efficient sector of the economy (airlines and charter bus companies) to one that loses money (Amtrak) is a waste of resources and places hometown businesses at a competitive disadvantage.” (“Washington’s support of Amtrak is unfair and harms private intercity transit companies”).
“The Megabus Effect,” Business Week
“Intercity Bus Travel Roars Back,” Governing Magazine
“The High-Tech Bus Is The Fastest Growing Form of Intercity Transportation,” Transportation Nation
The Chadwick Institute has two relevant studies (which can be downloaded here):
“Privacy Invades Public Space: The Growing Use of Portable Electronic Technology on Intercity Buses, Trains and Planes”. Our national study showing how the growing use of portable electronic technology among intercity air, rail, and bus passengers is having transformative effects on travel behavior across the United States.
“Who Rides Curbside Buses: A Survey of Passengers on Curbside Bus Lines in Six East and Midwest Cities.” Provides survey results from 750 curbside and conventional bus passengers in six cities, including analysis of how traffic is being diverted from other modes.