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Bus wars ease travel for New Yorkers
2010-03-12
By Bruce W. Fraser

An old-fashioned price-and-service war has broken out in an unlikely area: bus service to and from New York City. Following the addition of two bus lines in the past two years, more than half a dozen companies are now vying for riders, offering everything from buy-four-tickets-get-one-free promotions to Wi-Fi to a hitherto rare amenity: seat belts.

"I've become a complete convert to bus travel," says Sue T. Cohen, a psychotherapist who was recently waiting in line to board a Vamoose Bus on the street near Penn Station. "I used to think buses were terrible.”

Now she says there is less wear and tear in getting to the bus, it actually takes less time door-to-door, and departing from the street is easier than facing the congestion and confusion of train stations or airports.

The new competition is springing up in a market that, much to everyone's surprise, has started growing again. The upsurge in bus travel is due in part to recession-squeezed budgets but more broadly to the safe, comfortable and frequent service the companies provide.

“Nationally, intercity buses today carry more people in two weeks than Amtrak carries coast-to-coast in a year,” said Robert Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan, citing a 2009 study by the American Bus Association. “Bus travel is a better deal, and people today are looking for deals.”

Long-distance bus ridership in the United States expanded by nearly 5% last year over 2008 levels, according to Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago. The bus industry has outperformed all other modes of transportation, he says.
New arrivals
Price Points

For one-way travel between major Northeastern cities

* LimoLiner: $69
* Vamoose: $30
* Greyhound: $35 to $37; $25 to $28*
* Peter Pan: $18 to $23; $20 to $25*
* BoltBus: $15 to $25
* Megabus: $15 to $25
* Fung Wah: $15 or less
* Lucky Star: $15 or less

*Ranges are for New York to Boston and for New York to Washington, respectively.

Sources: company Web sites, BusJunction.com

The bus wars here are being fought among a host of small and large companies. Two lines known as the Chinatown buses, Fung Wah and Lucky Star, have long provided low-priced, low-service travel between New York and other cities, competing with stalwarts Peter Pan and Greyhound, which have a partnership in the Northeast.

Boston-based LimoLiner, which markets itself as a first-class shuttle between Boston and New York, started in 2003. And Vamoose Bus, which started in Washington, D.C., but is now based in New York, entered the fray in 2004, giving riders a more personalized, higher level of service between the two cities.

The big companies responded with a couple of nimble subsidiaries serving these and other key East Coast destinations. Peter Pan and Greyhound established BoltBus, and Paramus, N.J.-based Coach USA launched Megabus, both of which hit the roads around New York in the spring of 2008. Both offer not only lower prices, but also free Internet service and other amenities to attract a younger and more wired traveler.

Florence Bluzenstein, co-owner of Vamoose Bus—a family-owned firm with about two dozen employees—isn't intimidated by going head-to-head with the giants.

"Competition always benefits the customer," says Ms. Bluzenstein. "May the best man win."

While Vamoose caters to an older customer base of about 300,000, BoltBus and Megabus have traditionally competed for roughly the same-size pool of tech-savvy college students and young professionals—although the lines seem to be blurring. For example, Megabus is rebranding to draw a more inclusive demographic.

The carriers are promotion-minded. Vamoose, taking its cue from successful airline marketing programs like those for frequent fliers and business-class passengers, is currently running a “Buy four, get the fifth ride free” promotion. LimoLiner offers a free glass of wine on departures after 5 p.m.

A recent Megabus promotion that offered 100,000 free rides throughout the Northeast and Midwest sold out quickly, according to the carrier. Under the BoltBus “Bolt Rewards” program, a customer is entitled to a free one-way ticket after eight trips.

The pioneers of the bus business, Peter Pan and Greyhound, are getting into the competition, although Greyhound is outfitting only its newer buses with wireless access. Both are equipping their buses with seat belts—but they've already been one-upped on that amenity by LimoLiner, which boasts “aviation-quality” belts.

Next thing you know, the buses will be flying.