Making the Bus Cool

  • Bus lines like Megabus are attracting new riders with cheap rates, direct routes, and perks like free wi-fi. (Photo by Tamara Keith)

Buses are one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel. But for years, the bus has had an image problem. The Environment Report’s Tamara Keith tells us that could be changing:


Buses are one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel. But for years, the bus has had an image problem. The Environment Report’s Tamara Keith tells us that could be changing:

I swear I’m not a snob, but up until a couple of months ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead on a bus. Come on, the thought of being trapped for hours with potentially smelly strangers on some rundown, grimy bus –well– it’s just not all that appealing.

But, there’s a new genre of motor coach travel out there and it’s making the intercity bus cool again (or maybe cool for the first time).

In a downtown Washington DC parking lot, Lauren Kessler is waiting to board a Bolt Bus to New York City. It’s a shiny black and red bus with a bold lightning bolt on the side.

“I’ve never taken Greyhound. I would take Amtrak or fly but those are both much more expensive.”

What Kessler doesn’t know is this is a Greyhound bus. The company launched the Bolt brand last spring. Giselle Carr doesn’t realize it either, until I point out the fine print on the side of the bus: “operated by Greyhound.”

“I did not know that. Yeah it says right there, operator Greyhound. Oh, so they’re changing their strategy. Interesting.”

It’s not your father’s Greyhound. Gone are bus terminals. Bolt picks up curbside in just a few major east coast cities. Delivering passengers from one happening downtown to another with no stops in between. It’s cheaper than the traditional bus lines and there are some pretty nice amenities too, says Greyhound spokeswoman Abby Wambaugh.

“We have free wi-fi, extended leg room, power plug ins. It’s a very sleek brand.”

And she says it’s been an incredibly successful brand.

“We actually broke even financially in May 2008, which is just a couple months after launching which was phenomenal and exceeded all our expectations. And every month we see a larger ridership than the month before.”

Bolt isn’t the only one. MegaBus, operated by Coach USA, started in the Midwest in 2006. It now serves 14 cities with its double-decker wi-fi enabled buses. Each bus holds 81 people, and, Coach USA President Dale Moser says, most of them would have driven if not for the bus.

“And I would have told you 3 years ago that it was going to be a challenge to change a culture and get Americans out of their automobile. But we’re finding that there is a large contingency out there that is looking for something like this and it just continues to grow.”

These bus lines can thank regulars like Raphael Fuchs-Simon for their success. If there was a uniform for a hipster, it might just be what he’s wearing: red framed 80s sunglasses, a soccer jersey and one of those Peruvian Alpaca sweaters.

“Sometimes I drive but there’s no point. It’s 22 dollars dude. Get out of here. It’s like a lunchtime meal in Manhattan.”

He’s pretty stoked about the green credentials, that come with his chosen mode of travel. Joe Schwieterman has actually crunched the numbers. He’s a transportation professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

“You can get 200, 300 even more passenger miles per gallon of fuel burned and you just compare to that to a private automobile, it can be a 10-fold increase in fuel efficiency.”

And, Schwieterman says, just in the last couple of years intercity bus transportation has had a remarkable revival.

“The growth has been roughly about 8 percent a year, so the mode is growing much faster than air travel or automobile travel or even rail travel. The bus kind of stands alone for an industry that’s growing in some pretty tough economic times.”

That’s even with gas costing just half what it did last summer. For The Environment Report, I’m Tamara Keith.

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