What's Troubling Megabus Haters?

Despite the claims of Scott Walker et al. who say there is no market for intercity rail, the fact is there are a growing number of private companies offering intercity transportation service. One of them is Megabus.

Megabus is cheap. Megabus has free WiFi. Megabus doesn’t frisk you and confiscate your toothpaste. Best of all, the service reduces the need for single occupancy vehicles.

Megabus waiters: a nuisance? Photo: ##http://www.urbanophile.com/## Urbanophile##

But Aaron Renn at Network blog the Urbanophile says Megabus doesn’t get enough love from fans of urbanism and sustainable transport. He wonders if tension between private intercity bus service and hopes for high-speed rail might be the problem:

Among the common complaints are that Megabus is “subsidized” because it uses valuable curb side real estate in cities for free, that they are implicitly subsidized by highway funding, that passengers waiting for the bus at the stop are a nuisance, that the buses clog the streets and pump fumes into the air in a way that harms the “neighborhood,” and that the service really isn’t that good because of congestion. Even the government of Washington, DC is getting in on the act, as reported they want to charge Megabus a fee for access to their loading zones.

And to argue about crowds hurting city life seems a bit odd given that we’re told one of rail’s benefits is bringing all those people in to patronize businesses. I know I’ve made purchases at businesses near the Megabus stop that I wouldn’t have otherwise made. And in places like Midtown Manhattan, there are already vehicles of all types more or less continuously stopped or even double parked along the avenues. Megabus is barely a blip here. Plus don’t forget all the loading zones that already serve many private businesses all over our cities.

So why the complaints? They can speak for themselves, but I suspect a couple of items. Firstly, some people just don’t like private sector solutions. That’s a view I can respect, but not agree with. But more importantly, I think that there’s fear that successful private sector intercity bus service undermines the case for high speed rail that is near and dear to the urbanist heart.

Meanwhile, Rob Pitingolo at Extraordinary Observations says to count him in the anti-Megabus camp, though not for any of the reasons Renn details. Pitingolo says the service is unreliable on a Greyhound-esque scale.

So what do you think? Are urbanists being unfair to Megabus? Is the growth in private intercity bus service a threat to high-speed rail efforts, a sign of how much it’s needed, or something else altogether?

Elsewhere on the Network today: NRDC Switchboard offers more praise for Arlington, Virginia, which just received a new round of data indicating that its efforts to encourage sustainable transportation have been a tremendous success. This Big City reports urbanism is catching hold in Africa. And M-Bike.org carries the awesome news that Detroit and its surrounding suburbs have received a $750,000 grant to make the important Woodward corridor a complete street.

  • Anonymous

    I love megabus and use it frequently.  It’s like the Chinatown bus but nicer.  In NYC they moved from a location where they used a lot of sidewalk and irked the police to an empty lot where people can que up.

  • I’m not fond of Megabus, but more in line with Rob Pitingolo’s stance… I *am* a BoltBus fan, as I’ve had far better experiences with them in reliability, service, comfort, pickup/dropoff locations, and other aspects of ride quality.

  • Definitely a “sign of how much it’s needed.” Megabus and its colleagues on the Eastern corridor fill the demand that spills over from Amtrak, and west of there it fills the demand Amtrak isn’t providing at all. 

  • Jon Geeting

    I guess it depends why you favor rail transit. Personally, I support rail as a means to getting more intense transit-oriented development. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve seen a number of studies in the urbanism blogosphere showing that buses have a poor record as a catalyst for TOD. 

  • Danny G

    I like the bus because it is cheap and it is not a hassle to bring a bicycle on board. It seems like on Amtrak you have to not only know how to take it apart and put it in a box, but actually set aside time to take it apart and put it in a box.

  • Mfs

    If megabus is charged a reasonable fee to pick up in appropriate places on city streets, I don’t see what the problem is.

  • Low cost busses are a terrific option for the customers: ridiculously inexpensive, choke full of amenities and convenient downtown locations.. 

    However they are a terrible nuisance for the neighborhoods where they operate. Chelsea has now 3 of those loading areas. The ushers shout the destination cities  constantly driving neighbors nuts, the loading of 50 people with luggages takes time and overwhelms the sidewalk, the customers urinate in nearby backyards. 

    Different from an airline or a train, the bookings are not limited to the capacity of each bus, thus for each departure time there could be many more times the number of passengers booked.The queues of passengers get longer and the companies call other buses to pick up the overflow. As a result each bus location may result at peak times in 20 buses circling, idling and double parking around the area.  

    in other industries (airlines) the low cost alternatives are located in terminals distant from downtown to save money and still the low cost travelers flock to those airlines . In contrast, here , the low cost buses benefit from prime real estate at no cost. At the present locations each bus stop would bring the city $ 49,000 a year in parking fees. Forgoing these revenues smacks of corpoarte socialism. 

    The stops should be located in areas well served by public transportation but away from congested streets and sidewalks or residents. For $ 1 round trip to Boston no one expects to be picked up at the corner of 34th and 8th Avenue, and the low cost bus business would still be thriving. 

  • the sarge

    DC is planning to charge all intercity bus carriers to rent curb space, not just Megabus. I think it is a much-needed effort to just bring some order to the way that intercity buses use public curb space and to make proper transit terminals comparatively a more attractive place for them to operate. DC is not just trying to penalize them. Intercity buses are still a good solution for many and cheaper than Amtrak while getting people out of private vehicles. 

  • icarus12

    We don’t have megabus in San Francisco, but there is at least one Vietnamese-run bus service between here and Los Angeles, mostly operating under people’s radar and so as yet left alone by our very active local government reps.  In Connecticut there are several Chines-run buses up and down I-95.  The concern with the latter was their equipment upkeep and safety records for drivers.  I would gladly use any of these services, but I am concerned about their safety.

  • PaulCJr

    I’ve been trying to get a petition started to change that.

  • Mike

    The big problem, of course, is Megabus’s incomprehensible fear of bicycles. Bolt and the Chinatown buses have no problem carrying bikes, but Megabus forbids them.

  • Mark Walker

    Long-distance bus travel is brutal. It directly couples the rider to a diesel engine. Short hops on city buses, no problem. But when I’m on a bus for more than an hour, I step off feeling battered. Once took a five-hour ride from NYC to DC, arrived exhausted and sick and swore never again. Rail is a healthier way to ride. The vibration is more benign, the noise is much lower, and doing it regularly doesn’t take as much of a toll. Long-haul buses are a useful transitional mode — but if we’re going to get serious about post-peak intercity travel, rail is the future.

  • I think Megabus is definitely a good thing. Because I live in Cleveland though, service is limited. I have to go to Toledo this week and I’m considering taking Greyhound. The problem is, this company sees itself only as a carrier of last resort for people without options. Last time I rode, my ride home was delayed for 5 hours. No one would stand for those kind of delays on a highway.

    I think there will always be a certain element of that with these bus services because of the way we’ve made our transportation system so wholly reliant on a single mode. There’s not too much competition and service suffers. 

  • PaulCJr

    I use megabus regularly to go to Boston and love the service. All that said, Amtrak is still a nicer ride than the bus. You can walk the length of the train and the restroom are real restrooms. My main reasons why I toke the bus over the train was due to cost and the ability to take my bike. Now that I’m working, I will be taking the train to Boston rather than the bus, unless I take my bike.

  • Bolt and Mega bus can cost as little as a 10th of Amtrak for a trip to Boston. They are actually faster, more frequent,  and more relaible too. Megabus does not have any neighbors to deisturb behind the Post Office when boarding in New York.

  • Bolt and Mega bus can cost as little as a 10th of Amtrak for a trip to Boston. They are actually faster, more frequent,  and more relaible too. Megabus does not have any neighbors to deisturb behind the Post Office when boarding in New York.

  • These new services are a big gift horse, and new urbanists should not look it in the mouth too much.

    I went to college in Boston before the heyday of the Chinatown bus. Back then, to jaunt to New York, the main method was to get some friends together and pile up in a car. Which mostly meant it wasn’t done nearly enough.  When the Chinatown bus service started, it became so popular that stores in Boston sold postcards of the Boston bus stop with a Chinese man holding a sign advertising it. 

    These buses are establishing the demand for city to city travel, sans car, CBD to CBD, and making its existence undeniable. The young people who use them will age, and as they age, they will want to make the same trips by rail. 

  • francis

    Megabus entered California a couple years ago but didn’t last very long.  Its failure had a lot to do with how Amtrak is run better out here.  In CA, Amtrak runs its own bus system to go places where the train doesn’t and is much cheaper (you can go from SF to LA for under $60). 
    Megabus only served the larger cities, while the Amtrak bus network goes to all the smaller towns as well – got to serve as many legislative districts as possible. 
    We still have a handful of Chinatown style buses on the main LA-SF and Vegas routes, though I’d say the most popular form of long distance transport around here is getting rides with friends or on Craigslist. 

  • AlexB

    The Megabus type and Chinatown bus companies are great.  They provide effective and inexpensive travel between major cities along the east coast at very low prices.  The only problem is that they like to set up near Penn Station where there is simply no space.  Even in Chinatown, the buses block traffic, park in the bike lanes, and create crowds of waiting passengers which clog the sidewalks and just annoy everyone.  All these companies really need is a parking lot or garage where people and buses can people can wait without getting in anyone’s way.  The Williamsburg bus depot would be a great spot, or one of those parking lots in the Lower East Side on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge.  Ideally, the PABT would be the bus terminal for the whole city and the Port Authority would charge cheap rents, but it’s over capacity and the PA doesn’t have enough money to keep any fees or tolls low for anyone.  Maybe what we need is a bus terminal run by the MTA with a direct connection to the Queens Midtown Tunnel that could directly compete with the PA for private bus companies…

  • Bob

    my issue is that these companies HURT streets, not help them. ever try to walk down 7th ave when these buses are loading/unloading? the bus fumes away the whole time. i think its a great idea, but i do not like how the streets are completely taken over by these companies; there should be marked, supervised, and regulated curbs for the buses (preferably near transit, but on side-streets)

  • Anonymous

    Through no fault of its own, AMTRAK is a piece of crap.  NEC is supposed to be a money maker, yet the fares and service do not reflect this.  Any mode of transport that is not a passenger car is a good mode.  And a fully loaded diesel bus is more energy efficient per passenger mile than partially loaded trains, especially high speed ones.  Yes an american TGV would be fun to ride and worth the extra expense, but that is not reality.  We blew our wad on suburbia and oil wars and bailout and tax cuts.  Long distance bus travel is becoming a fact of life for more and more people as we slowly get poorer.  It sucks, but that’s not Megabus’s fault.  

  • I am unimpressed with Megabus as a result of its half-baked California operations, which it cancelled so it could start up bus service on the East Coast instead.

    Although cheap, the buses picked up at some of the most inconvenient locations imaginable: 4th & King in SF (instead of near Market Street), West Oakland BART (instead of Uptown Oakland), hidden behind a building at LA Union Station (which was nearly impossible for people to find!), and in some random industrial area off Federal Blvd. in San Diego.

    The San Diego bus stop in particular was such a big failure that Megabus moved the stop downtown soon after, but it was too late and Megabus failed in the LA-SD market. That says a lot considering the SD-LA travel market is the second busiest nationally for Amtrak and also quite popular with Greyhound.

    Megabus lost a lot of goodwill with passengers when it cancelled service without advance notice. For example, I was supposed to take the service from SD to LA Christmas evening and the bus never came. There were 20 of us hanging out at the bus stop, and none of us could get a hold of Megabus. We eventually got in contact with Coach America, the contractor, who informed us that Megabus had cancelled the trip. They also told us that they had cancelled the trip the previous night. Imagine trying to get home on Christmas Eve only to find that the bus never came!

    Megabus cancelled its California routes soon after. We’re left with Greyhound (ick!) and Amtrak California. Amtrak California (state-funded service operating under the Amtrak name) provides extensive train and bus service throughout the state, and this seems to be the preferred service for travelers who do not want to fly or drive. The service is a bit slow, but it’s very comfortable and reasonably affordable too.

  • @facebook-100001639054770:disqus  Faster and more reliable?  Not in my experience but I haven’t taken Mega bus since they stopped going to Hartford.  So maybe I am wrong.

  • I dont think it has anything to do with private vs public.

    Fact is, many transit fans are actually simply rail fans. They cant stand buses for whatever reason.

    Its extremely superficial.

  • Ian Dutton

    Christine is 100% on-target. Sure these buses are better than each person in a private auto, but you can’t just ignore their consequences.

    Much like private autos, these bus services which eschew traditional loading/disembarking facilities are a great benefit for the user by exacting a penalty from the public at large. 

    And just like private autos, the people who benefit from the service are often blinded to the negative impacts their choice of transit mode and defend their choice as if the negatives “don’t count”. 

    The best solution is what Christine hinted at: satellite terminals (supported by the companies which are profiting) reachable by public transit and which are convenient to major highways, reducing the negative impact on neighbors and reducing the congestion impacts.

  • Bob Davis

    That last remark about many transit fans being railfans hit rather close to home.  Even  places like San Jose, where the light rail system has come in for a lot of criticism, I’ll visit just for a chance to ride their electric rail lines.  I grew up along a Pacific Electric line and the abandonment in 1951 must have caused mental trauma, because I’ve been looking for the equivalent of the Monrovia-Glendora line ever since.  I’m now part of the group that speaks out on behalf of the Gold Line in the San Gabriel Valley.  And I originally got into Streetsblog through a rail-interest website.  But I do ride buses on occasion and don’t feel demeaned by doing so.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve got no issue with cities regulating the buses, but they shouldn’t make them inconvenient just because they can. Charging a fair price for the curb space is fine, but $49000 is crazy (how do you figure that?) Reducing idling and providing bathrooms for customers are both reasonable goals, but I think they should remain curbside– it’s very space- and cost-efficient.

  • Cberthet

    $ 49,000 is the current cost of metered parking at this location , 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. ( the balance of this curb has meters at $ 2:50 per hour). Charging the market price would dictate where it is economically feasible to locate the stops.

    The sidewalk is for walking, the equivalent of a bike lane for cyclists. Can you imagine the uproar if a bike lane was used for loading 50 passengers with their luggages 24 hours a day ?

  • Cberthet

    By the way Bolt is a division of Greyhound, and Megabus is a division of Coach, both big corporations, they have the means to do it right.

  • Andy Chow

    While you may have a strong preference for rail (just like many people who prefer to fly first class rather than coach), it would be bad from a public policy perspective to either advocate against or ignore inter-city buses. If buses continue to be the most affordable way to travel, it wouldn’t be fair to the low income folks by making their travel more expensive.

    In China, even with many HSR lines completed, some of the lines were not able to get as much ridership as the government expected, while many people still ride the slow trains and buses. The primary reason is that many low income people don’t think the reduced travel time and extra amenities are worth the extra cost.

  • Hayden

    The idea that the bus stop at the West Oakland BART station is less convenient than Uptown Oakland seems a bit odd.  West Oakland is more convenient to every BART train from San Francisco, and unlike the 20th Street BART station in Oakland, has ample nearby waiting/drop-off space, plus a grocery store (Mandela Foods) and a Subway across the street for last-minute snacks.  It has fewer AC Transit buses than the Broadway corridor, but that’s compensated for by the BART connections, and it’s convenient to 880.

    The Downtown Oakland Greyhound station is somewhat convenient to the 20th Street BART station–about a 4-block walk, but I’m not sure where Downtown or Uptown, convenient to BART and with good space for cars to park/wait, Megabus might have stopped.  San Pablo Ave. where it ends at Frank Ogawa Plaza by City Hall would have been okay, except for the poor parking situation for people meeting or dropping off passengers.

    It’s a moot point now, but I saw the West Oakland BART stop as a well thought-out one.

  • Nemo

    Seriously? Ridership is up on Acela and NER. Amtrak is looking to get equipment and maintenance done to increase the number of cars in the Acela trainsets so they can carry more passengers. They have 40% of the WDC-NYC air/train market.

    Last year, Amtrak extended additional service from the NEC into Virginia. The service has been enormously successful. From the first quarter, revenue was sufficient to cover the state’s portion of costs, and ridership continues to climb.

    Much of the NEC is powered by hydro. How does a bus get its power?

  • Bolwerk

    Acela is a bit of a money-maker, and maybe other NEC services are now too. 

    Re energy: Fully loaded long-distance bus services may be impressively energy-efficient, but that seems to reflect a generally low level of service (e.g., 1 fully loaded bus per day, with less capacity than one or two Amtrak coaches). If regional and LD buses started offering service frequencies even beginning to approach Amtrak, you’d quickly see that per-passenger mile energy efficiency drop precipitously in comparison. 

    IMHO, such service frequency is desirable, even if it means using 150% more energy (still half as much as a POV). Travelers actually have a lot of mobility and flexibility between major NEC points between Boston and Washington. A bus ride to Cleveland might look great from an energy-efficiency standpoint, but there probably aren’t many options.

  • vnm

    I don’t think it’s really high speed rail vs. MegaBus. It’s MegaBus vs. regular-speed rail. High speed rail speeding along at 200 mph is competition for airlines. MegaBus is competing against Amtrak today (or poaching from, opponents might argue, given that their stops always seem to be right next to Amtrak stations.) 

  • Sally T.

    Since the US will NEVER build HSR (due to the expense, political hurdles, and the fact the America’s population is too spread out to make it viable), why not look to this as an alternative?

    This uses infrastructure (roads) that Americans are more comfortable with paying for. Yes, it would be nice to have HSR, but it’s not going to happen here. Airlines, the highway lobby, environmentalists, NIMBYs, and train-hating Republicans will see to that. Buses don’t inspire people the way that trains do, but their more practical.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t buy that. The problem with buses is they’re slow and uncomfortable, and people know it. They’re fine for short feeder routes, but hour-long bus rides of a few miles are already a joke. LD bus rides just seem like torture.

    And it’s often quite galling when buses are being used in so many cases where investing in some proper rail infrastructure will save time and money.

  • Bolwerk

    This is up-is-down, black-is-white backwards think.  The U.S. population isn’t too spread out for HSR. It’s too spread out for slower, buses or non-HSR rail services that crawl half way across the country.

    Put simply, when you have to travel longer distances, you should do it more quickly, not less quickly.

  • Bolwerk

    No mode is a perfect substitute for another mode. Planes have applications, buses have applications, boats have applications, rail has applications, and within each are many grades of service for choosing based on speed, convenience, available funds, necessary capacity, existing infrastructure, geography, local expertise, population density, and many other factors.

  • Scott Adams

    As a transportation planner and a rider, I offered observations for improved operations, some of which they’re considering.  Namely, signs/non-verbal communications to passengers in order to cut down on yelling out destinations/directions.

    A quick slideshow summary can be found at http://tiny.cc/yrf8b or my Portfolio section at  http://www.linkedin.com/in/russellscottadams

  • Noah Berland

    I hate mega bus, bolt bus and all those types of buses for pretty much all of the enumerated reasons, but I think that they will actually help us get HSR and better more affordable rail service in general. Before these buses existed the need for inter city affordable transit wasn’t nearly as apparent. I think these terrible buses will make it clear to the society at large and the politicians that the the bus service provided is inadequate and that it is necessary to invest greater in rail.

  • Erica

    Rail is indeed a far nicer way to ride for all the reasons you list.  Unfortunately, from DC to NYC at least, it’s also 4-5 times as expensive depending on time of travel.  When I lived in DC and wanted to go north, I always wistfully contemplated a train ticket before resigning myself to the cheap bus.  However, as bus rides go, it was pretty darn nice (onboard wi-fi, no middle-of-nowhere stops) and I would simply not have been able to afford the travel otherwise.

    We can’t have a travel “future” that most people can’t afford.

  • Robert Scott

    I’ve got four megabus tickets august 25th 2014. from chicago, il, union station s canal st south of jackson blvd. depart (9:05 AM) or ( 9:00PM) to: dallas/fort worth, tx, 710 davis st, grand prairie arrive at (6:20 AM) or (5:20PM) one way. I’ll forward the reservation number you need for boarding upon payment via Paypal. Asking $30 per ticket message me
    Thanks

  • rckk

    Some places need rail service and even higher speed rail and some don’t. Megabus is a welcome addition to our transportation options, but busses cannot be volume carriers where trains are. It is unlikely that a high population density like the northeast could reasonably expect Megabus to replace the need for rail service.

  • rckk

    In the 1950’s, railroad publications complained that their terminals and right of ways (which were private property) were being assessed property taxes, some of which were going to help pay for upgrades to regional airports. Airports were public property, built by taxpayers (many long before the aviation trust fund was tapped) and railroad terminals were private tax paying property built and maintained by the railway companies and being taxed to build terminals and runways for their competition. In addition, user fee ticket taxes charged to railroad tickets were put into general fund revenues while airline ticket taxes were allowed to accumulate in the Aviation Trust Fund. It appears that socialism is the taxpayer handout that the other guy gets. But when it lands in my pocket, it is an investment.

  • rckk

    But busses are not volume carriers and volume carriers are needed in the densely populated northeast. The chances of Megabus replacing rail in the densely populated northeast is unlikely. They are a nice compliment to the overall transportation system in the northeast, but they can’t replace rail at least in that region.

  • rckk

    And they do this to Greyhound too, stopping near the Port Authority Bus station in NYC. Their passengers get the benefit of having a terminal to slip into and wait, but they (Megabus) doesn’t pay for this convenience as a tenant there. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this.