Big changes in intercity bus travel, a sector long known for Greyhound, Megabus, and Trailways, indicate that the industry is in the midst of a transformation. Carriers are turning to new technologies to expand the industry’s visibility and customer options. At the same time, though, chronic driver shortages and the impending closure of Greyhound bus stations in major U.S. cities loom as a potential roadblock to the sector’s recovery.
Among the most notable changes was a late-February move by Greyhound Lines — America’s largest bus line — making it an all-reserved-seat operation. Customers can now select priority seats for a small fee or have a seat automatically generated for free, much like on airlines.
The carrier also rolled out an option to travel “neighbor free” (next to an empty seat) for a fee and an easier way to change your ticket. A new add-on for a carbon offset is also part of the mix.
The FlixBus, Greyhound Merge Still Playing Out
These and other enhancements are key features of a new reservation platform introduced earlier this year for FlixBus and Greyhound, which have been under common ownership since German-based FlixMobility purchased Greyhound in 2021. FlixBus’s well-known technical capabilities, such as its online “bots” and passenger-management systems, have the potential to help enhance Greyhound’s North American operations.
In addition, connections between Greyhound and FlixBus could be increasingly sold as a single “through tickets,” thus multiplying the number of schedule options provided on some routes, a prediction we make in our “New Destinations: 2023 Outlook for the Intercity Bus Industry in the United States” report.
The new platform also brings new and more restrictive baggage rules, which appear to be partly intended to speed up station stops.
“No longer can travelers pack their life’s belongings into minivans to head to the bus station,” notes Abby Mader, another co-author.
Such changes bring hope that more people who have other travel options will put their inhibitions (and unfavorable past experiences) aside and hop on a scheduled coach.
Greyhound’s moves carry some risk, even though FlixBus, its sister company, has offered the above conveniences for some time. Some Greyhound riders may push back against losing the ability to pick a seat as far as possible from strangers, and the tighter baggage policies will create some unwanted station drama.
“Enforcing the reserved seating and baggage policies will require persistence and diplomacy,” notes Allison Woodward, a co-author of our study. But the payoff for travelers should be greater service consistency and fewer surprises.
Although more FlixBus-Greyhound integration seems to be coming, the identities and separate branding of these bus services will likely remain distinct, at least for a while. Flixbus, a powerhouse in Europe and having served the U.S. since 2018, does not own buses and uses a contracting model emphasizing curbside stops and public transit hubs. Greyhound has a more conventional approach to service.
The fast-growing FlixBus, which added many services last year in Florida, the Northeast, and Pacific Northwest, could even join the interline bus network, which allows for coordinated connections between several dozen carriers, including Barons Bus, Burlington Trailways, Southeast Stages, and other local carriers. Companies that are part of the interline system divide revenues based on established formulas administered by a centralized clearing house. Even so, some existing connections could be lost if carriers opt-out, desiring to have a higher degree of independence.
Trends in Passenger Traffic Encouraging
Intercity bus ridership, we predict, will reach 85% of pre-pandemic levels by late this year, if the chronic driver shortages ease. Many bus lines are eager to add back schedules but are holding off out of concern over leaving passengers stranded at stations. Although the outlook for finding drivers has improved, some bus lines still barely hire enough drivers to replace those who retire or quit.
Passenger ridership currently appears to be about 70% to 75% of pre-pandemic levels nationwide, but situations vary widely by region. In the Sunbelt, including Florida, Texas, and the Deep South, ridership has almost entirely recovered.
“Among the bright spots is the surge in immigrant traffic from Texas, particularly at El Paso and McAllen, and the return of college students and lower-income travelers without ready auto access,” Woodward notes.
In the Great Plains and the Midwest, traffic appears to be around 70% to 75% of pre-pandemic volumes, but in California, the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest, levels seem closer to 65% to 70%, even after excluding New York’s struggling commuter-bus routes. Even so, the evidence appears compelling that there are more paying customers per coach departure than before the pandemic. The demand for seats has outpaced the supply due to driver shortages, resulting in many peak-period departures being sold out.
A big “question mark” remains the ability to attract and retain travelers who can drive, fly, or take the train. These customers tend to be fickler about service quality than the industry’s core market. Attracting them will require dealing with their concerns about personal safety in and around bus stations and improving conditions around curb locations.
Unfortunately, perceptions about safety at curbs and brick-and-mortar stations have fallen due to urban crime and the homeless epidemic. Whereas a veritable arms race exists among cities to build the best airport terminals, resulting in cathedral ceilings, posh dining areas, and expansive shopping courts, intercity bus passengers are often lucky to find a vending machine or clean bathroom — much less a place to sit nearby.
“Many curb locations are in transit-friendly and vibrant retail areas, but litter, graffiti, desolate streets, and deteriorating sidewalks mar others,” notes Abby Mader, another study co-author.
More favorably, state-supported bus systems with savvy branding and operated with relatively new buses, such as Colorado’s Bustang, Indiana’s Hoosier Ride, Ohio’s GoBus, Oregon’s POINT, and Virginia Breeze, all appear to be experiencing a robust traffic recovery. Bustang and Virginia Breeze have even seen ridership on several routes far surpass pre-pandemic levels.
Another favorable trend is a move to make it easier for customers to find services online. The online reservation platform megabus.com, which belongs to Megabus, a bus line long known for its blue double-deckers, is experiencing a revival, with Adirondack Trailways, Miller Transportation, Peter Pan, Southeast Stages, and Fullington Trailways having recently begun selling tickets on it. These moves take advantage of Megabus’s strong brand recognition and large customer database.
More bus lines, including Hispanic-oriented lines and those from New York’s Chinatown neighborhood, are using versatile booking sites such as busbud.com, ilikebus.com, and wanderu.com, which serve roles akin to Expedia in air travel.
Requiem for Privately Run Intercity Bus Stations
The optimism surrounding the industry’s traffic recovery must be tempered by the impending closure of numerous Greyhound stations.
With few exceptions, FlixMobility did not acquire Greyhound’s many privately-owned stations when it bought the legacy line. Since then, most of these depots have come into the hands of private developers who are eager to repurpose the valuable downtown land they occupy, typically residential development.
Last year, stations closed in Charlottesville, Va; Cincinnati; Erie, Pa.; Jackson, Miss.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Los Angeles; and North Little Rock, Ark., forcing bus lines to hurriedly move for new locations. This often resulted in moving to pickup and drop-off spots lacking traditional waiting rooms and far from the city center. Passengers waiting outside in hot or cold weather at new stop locations have cast the industry in a negative light.
Other Greyhound stations are now at risk, including Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City, Louisville, and Nashville. How the new round of closures affects travelers, including the throngs of immigrants making long-distance Greyhound journeys, remains to be seen. However, it seems certain to strain the relationship between bus lines and municipal governments, many of which in the past have done little to support the needs of bus passengers.
The problem is being exacerbated by ambiguities in federal regulation requiring government units to provide “reasonable access” to intercity bus lines at public transit facilities. These transit hubs are often well-maintained and centrally located, having indoor waiting rooms and security protocols to keep passengers safe.
The regulation does not, however, stipulate the fees governmental units charge for the use of these facilities. The monetary payments local governments demand from privately run bus lines to move into and use these hubs are often prohibitive. Some officials justify their demands out of a desire to refrain from subsidizing a private business.
We expect municipal and state governments to face growing pressure to find long-term solutions. More cities will be provided the impetus to follow the example of Boston; Denver; Raleigh, N.C.; and Washington, D.C., by creating consolidated and centrally located facilities that handle most local arrivals and departures. In New York, efforts are underway to create a new Port Authority Bus Terminal, while a new consolidated station is being built in Atlanta.
These noteworthy changes set the stage for a time of significant disruption. In addition to the above prognostications, we expect the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill passed in 2021 to increasingly benefit the industry, thanks to the intensive advocacy work of industry trade groups, such as the American Bus Association and the United Motorcoach Association.
In addition, although 2022 saw relatively few rollouts of the new Amtrak Thruway Bus service, that network is poised to grow. However, the extent to which rail passenger improvement hurts intercity bus travel is hard to predict, considering that bus and train services tend to be complementary in some cases but not in others.
About the Author: Joseph Schwieterman, Ph.D. is the director of the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University in Chicago and host of DePaul’s Talking Transportation podcast. His New Directions: 2023 Outlook for the Intercity Bus Industry report (25 pages, PDF) is available here.