More than 93 million people are expected to be jumping in their cars and traveling this holiday season according to Triple-A. But there’s a new trend emerging that is rivaling the car and even some airlines. Curbside buses are extending routes. Even through the unlikely sparsely populated Midwest and Great Plains.
Remember that 1987 John Hughes movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Steve Martin plays an uptight businessman trying to get home for the holidays, winds up getting stuck schlepping from New York City to Chicago with the big lug of a shower curtain ring salesman played by John Candy. The movie was a traveler’s worst nightmare.
“You ever travel by bus before?” Candy asked Steve Martin in the movie. Martin shakes his head no. “Your mood’s probably not going to improve much,” Candy laughed.
But the bus industry’s persona is evolving.
“It’s fun to have an industry that every six months announces a new hub,” said Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University. He studies transportation and said curbside bus service expanded 27 percent in 2011 and is experiencing double digit growth this year.
These buses don’t have a depot. They just pick customers up on the side of the road. Schwieterman said it used to be the business model only worked in dense urban corridors where travel times were at most 4 hours.
“Now we’re seeing that model not only being stretched,” Schwieterman said. “But being sort of abandoned in favor of markets that would have seemed to be unfeasible.”
Leading the pack of these curbside operators are BoltBus, owned by Greyhound and Megabus.com, owned by Coach USA. Mike Alvich is with Megabus. He said the bus line started a little more than 3 years ago and recently welcomed its 22 millionth customer.
“We think there was a pent up demand for a better way to travel by bus,” Alvich said.
Making it even more appealing is that if customers book early enough, they can sometimes get a round trip ticket for just a buck. Megabus has hubs in the east… south… most recently the southwest.
“Iowa has a strong connection to Chicago. There’s a huge percent of University of Iowa’s population from Illinois,” said DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman. There’s not a single train departure between Des Moines and Chicago. Stop in Iowa City along the way and pick up a lot of people.”
I hopped one of these double deck Mega Buses in Des Moines about 2-thirds of the way on its nearly 500 mile journey from Chicago to Omaha. It was only a half hour late.
“Alright, picked up one gentleman here,” Megabus.com driver Dennis Keel said over the intercom.
One of the 19 passengers was Ben Graham, a community psychologist living in Chicago. This is his 8th time using MegaBus to go home and visit his family in Omaha.
“I treat it as a work day, I’ve got 9 hours to get stuff done,” Graham said. “I always try to get in line so I can get this particular spot, because you can have your laptop open un-obscured and you can actually get a lot of work done.”
Christine Valish also scouted out a particular spot on the bus for a different reason.
“We make sure we don’t sit in the front of the bus and like figure well if the bus would happen to tip over or something,” Valish said laughing.
Valish and her partner Stacy Shuman are visiting family in Omaha as well. Schuman said they were paranoid about taking the bus because they hear about fatal bus accidents from time to time and are worried about safety.
“We were even talking about like what alternatives we could take,” Schuman said. “But then we wound up just taking this because flights were so expensive.”
This was the most the couple has ever paid for this trip… 50 bucks a pop. So these curbside bus services are trying to change the popular opinion of bus travel from something that might dampen your mood to something that will get you there… cheap and eventually.