|Jet Set, Meet the Bus Bunch- NYTimes
By TRACIE ROZHON
KENNY BASCOM stood near the steering wheel of his BoltBus, just about to leave from West 33rd Street in Manhattan, bound for Washington. He called his passengers to attention.
“Can I put a rule in?” he asked. “This bus doesn’t move unless you smile. And here’s another thing: You got cellphones? Use ’em.”
There was a buzz of disbelief.
Use the cellphones? Plug in the laptops! Chat with your fellow passengers and laugh — guilt-free — with a friendly driver at the helm and very comfortable seats all around you.
All for $25 or less, sometimes much less, depending on when you reserve. B.Y.O.F. (bring your own food).
Starting about a dozen years ago with the so-called Chinatown buses, which were the first to offer a minimum of frills (and schedules), Route I-95 between Boston and Washington has become jammed with cheap express buses with jazzy names and the design and Web sites to match: BoltBus (online, tap a key and watch lightning strike!), Megabus (a huge, cherubic driver is emblazoned on the side of the bus), DC2NY, Washington Deluxe and others.
Capitalizing on the success of those first Chinatown buses, the big boys got into the business — BoltBus is owned by Greyhound, and Megabus by a large Scottish transportation company, Stagecoach Group, through its subsidiary Coach USA. As the companies refine their service, the cheap express bus experience just keeps changing, competing to offer amenities: BoltBus now offers plugs for electrical appliances; Washington Deluxe has just added Dupont Circle to its list of Washington stops.
Judging by a recent round trip from New York to Washington — down on BoltBus, back on Megabus — the changes are being seen and, for the most part, appreciated by the passengers, a surprisingly diverse group.
“I usually travel to Washington in three ways,” said Billy Tate-Mitros, 62, an architect on his way to visit clients there. “First, private jet; second, rail. And third? My new favorite, practically unknown way is by this bus.”
Mr. Tate-Mitros comes prepared for anything. “I’m happy to talk with anybody,” he said. “Or I sleep,” he said, brandishing his black eyeshades and leaning back in his cushy seat. “I can sleep in any vehicle.”
This is Mr. Tate-Mitros’s sixth trip to Washington on one of the new buses. He buys his ticket early enough to get the $15 fare: if you are the first one to sign up for a particular trip, you get the ride for $1 on BoltBus and Megabus. (If you arrive at the bus without a reservation, and there is room, the fare runs as high as $25.)
The air shuttle from New York to Washington can cost more than $300, and, while the flight takes less than 90 minutes, there’s that pesky ride to and from the airports. The same-day fare on Amtrak between New York and Washington ranges from $103 to beyond $200, depending on the time of day, and whether you take the regular train or the Acela. According to the schedule, the train takes two hours and 51 minutes (Acela) or an average of three and a half hours on the Northeast Regional. The buses take longer: most schedules say four hours. “But the trains are so often late,” said Mr. Tate-Mitros. “And getting out to Teterboro for a plane is so time-consuming, and then waiting on the runway — even if it’s somebody else’s money — is so boring.”
Down the aisle, Josh Kram, 29, who bills himself as a consultant, typed on his laptop. “Sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s not,” he said, “but it seems absurd to pay $100 for an Acela.” Mr. Kram lives in Virginia, he said, and the bus leaves him off in Washington near Metrocenter, the subway hub with a choice of lines. The rail station in Washington, he explained, only has the connection to the red line.
Nearby, Barbara Yuravlivker, 59, had been visiting her children in New York and Vancouver, and was on her way to take a plane from Washington back to Montevideo, Uruguay. The only thing she found confusing was the lack of signs, “and the BoltBus was sort of around the corner on 34th Street,” she said. “If my daughter hadn’t been with me, I might not have found it.”
Daniel Kwon, 22, a student from Berlin, said he had heard about BoltBus from his brother: “He said it was actually cleaner than the other buses. Not only does it have Wi-Fi, it arrives on time. I am German,” he said, with a laugh, “so I believe transportation should be punctual.”
Mr. Kwon’s brother was right about most things: the BoltBus was indeed spotless, including the rest room, and it did have Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, there was one problem: the BoltBus arrived in Washington 30 minutes late.
But Mr. Kwon and his fellow passengers seemed unconcerned. The new lines are much more reliable than the first cheap bus lines, said Francesca Blanco, a 23-year-old event planner who was riding the 5:45 p.m. Megabus back to Manhattan. “And they are definitely less creepy,” she said. “The first ones left under a bridge in the middle of the night, and they were unpredictable about the time they got there.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Blanco insists that the Chinatown buses serve a valuable function — and acquired an appreciative ridership.
“They left much more frequently than most of the buses,” she said, “and they were the first to start this huge move towards cheap buses. For students and other low-budget people, those buses were the way to get from major city to major city.”
Ms. Blanco should know: she estimates that she took at least 30 trips on Chinatown buses. Her enthusiasm, and her prodigious use of the cheap buses, does not surprise Joseph P. Schwieterman, a professor of public service management at DePaul University. According to a DePaul survey, bus ridership has gone up 13 percent since 2006 — the first increase in 40 years. People who sign up for the new, more luxurious, more efficient cheap bus lines, he said, are reacting to skyrocketing fuel and parking costs and the congestion of the highways. And to avoid them, they may not object to spending a little more time aboard.
“They don’t mind sitting in traffic for 45 minutes if they’re on a bus,” he said. “They can do something; they’re not sitting on their brakes.” Mr. Schwieterman had spent decades chronicling the decline of the bus industry, he said. “But 2007 became the year of the bus’s comeback, with bus lines added in the Midwest and West — with the East Coast stuff heating up this spring. There’s been an explosion of new carriers.”
Although he said the buses particularly appeal to younger riders, now, especially in the Eastern corridor, buses are starting to attract business travelers.
Yet Mr. Schwieterman said that he was doubtful the cheap express buses would be stopping at the Main Streets of small towns anytime soon. And not every large city does well with the buses: Megabus was forced to close its Los Angeles hub because of a lack of riders. And although everything was completely convivial on the trips to Washington and back, there seem to be questions about one policy that are still being worked out: the showing of movies.
To show them or not to show them seems to be the issue.
Mr. Schwieterman recently took his own children on a ride on a cheap bus — and ran into a bit of a problem.
The movies, brought aboard by one of the passengers, voted on by general acclamation, and played on the overhead screens, got progressively more explicit. They weren’t X-rated, he said, but there were torrid love scenes; his children are 10 and 12 years old. When Ms. Blanco was riding on DC2NY, yet another new cheap line, she said that the bus driver took a vote on the movies. “Thirty people wanted one, four people wanted another and one person wanted another — so it wasn’t too hard to decide.”
As the bus companies begin to offer both wireless Internet and plugs for extended laptop use, the whole issue may soon be moot. On BoltBus, there was no discussion of movies at all — in fact, there were no movies at all.
After all, the passengers could watch as many movies as they had time for — on their own laptops.
Ms. Blanco, the event planner and self-styled cheap bus expert, said that Washington Deluxe, another bus line, no longer shows movies “because people were offended.”
As for Mr. Schwieterman, how did he get his children to stop watching the raunchy movies?
“I made them move a few seats farther away.”
ALL ABOARD FOR NORTHEAST SERVICE
Schedules for the express buses on the East Coast vary widely, and so do the prices. GotoBus (www.gotobus.com) offers online ticketing for many bus companies. Here is a sampling of some popular lines. Check their Web sites for precise times, prices and for last-minute changes.
No phone listed
Service to: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Cherry Hill, N.J. Fares: As low as $1 plus a booking fee. The earlier passengers purchase their tickets, the lower the fare. Walk-up tickets are $25.
Service to: New York, Atlantic City, Washington, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Toronto, along with more than a dozen cities in the Midwest. Fares: As low as $1 plus a booking fee. The earlier the ticket is purchased the lower the fare.
Operated by Greyhound and Trailways.
Service to: New York, Buffalo, Toronto. Fares: As low as $1.
Greyhound and Peter Pan share bus lines and routes.
Service to: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Baltimore and 2,400 other destinations. Fares: The average price for the New York area is $34.55; $48.65 for the Washington area. Fares also vary depending on time and day of travel.
Service to: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Baltimore and 75 additional destinations. Fares: If purchased online, a midweek trip from and to Washington, New York, Boston and Philadelphia averages about $20.
Service to: New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland. Trailways is an organization of 80 independent companies, with over 500 destinations across the country. Fares: $23 to $49.
Service to: New York, Washington, Baltimore. Fares: $20.
Service to: Washington, New York. Fares: $28.
New York Office: (718) 386-5533; Philadelphia Office: (215) 351-9167; Washington Office: (202) 408-8200
Service to: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Richmond and Norfolk, Va., and Atlanta. Fares: From $12 for a one-way trip from Philadelphia to New York. A midweek trip from New York to Washington is $20 one way or $35 round trip.
Service to: New York, Washington, Baltimore. Fares: $15 to $30.
Service to: Baltimore, Washington, Rockville, Md., Richmond, Va. Fares: $15 one way; $35 round trip.
Service to: New York, Washington. Fares: $21 one way, $40 round trip.
Service to: New York, Boston and Vernon, Conn. Fares: Start at $1, for late-night trips; $25 for peak hours.
Service to: New York, Boston. Fare: $15.
Service to: New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Rockville, Md., Baltimore, Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Norfolk, Va., and State College, Pa. Fares: $15 to $40.
Service to: New York, Arlington, Va., and Bethesda, Md. Fares: $25.
Service to: Boston, New York. Fares: $80 to $89 one way, but service includes advance seat selection, an attendant, Wi-Fi, reclining leather seats, cellphone-free zones, seat-side power outlets, worktables for meetings, pillows and blankets, and a washroom with fresh flowers.