Once an industry sector on the verge of extinction, regularly scheduled intercity bus service has made a huge comeback in recent years. That fact seems to be lost on national policymakers, and that situation has to change.
Chicago-based DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development tracked this comeback through its annual survey of intercity bus service. The most recent report, covering the year 2012, shows an annual service growth of 7.5%, as measured in daily service departures,
the second-highest rate in the survey’s 15-year history. In addition, ridership is also on an impressive upward trajectory and annual boardings now exceed the number served by airlines.
Innovative service offerings
It’s also a vibrant industry, with many innovative curb-side services offered by BoltBus, Megabus, the so-called “Chinatown” services in the Northeast and other recent start-up carriers, a segment that grew in the most recent annual survey by more than 30%. Part of this growth is represented by new services from traditional companies, such as Greyhound Express and Peter Pan Express, which are both responses to the new demand.
Some of the forces that are driving the intercity bus growth are the same driving other modes, such as less automobile use, the aging of the population and the desire of many in the millennial generation to have more transportation options than those that come with owning a car.
These are trends that seem to be more than what can be explained by the recent recession, because they started before it and have continued after the recovery began. What is also driving this mode’s growth is what drives Amtrak’s growth: the greater freedom offered, including fewer boarding hassles and the ability of passengers to use new personal technology in ways that airlines have been unable to provide in recent years.
Very little done for industry
Although many in the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress are beginning to take notice of these trends, very little was done in either of the major transportation bills that were passed since the recession, the Recovery Act and the two-year surface transportation authorization.
To its credit, the feds have begun to address safety concerns in this industry, but only after a spate of high-profile accidents and traffic-related issues that have been created by operators in some cities.
This year, Congress and the president have another chance to more fully integrate intercity bus services into a national transportation policy as the current authorizing legislation expires at the end of September. The focus should not simply be in greater safety enforcement; a larger vision of better mobility choices, including intercity bus services, must be part of the next bill.