For the longest time, travelers going from one city to another turned up their noses at buses, using them only if all other options were impractical. Now, driven by low-cost curbside operators like Megabus.com, city-to-city bus service has had a resurgence.
Buses have been the fastest-growing mode of intercity transportation for the last four years, outgaining airlines, trains and automobiles, according to a new study by DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Intercity bus operations grew by 7.1 percent in 2011 after a 6 percent gain the year before.
More impressive is the growth of curbside bus services, whose operations grew 32.1 percent in 2011.
"Arguably, the explosive growth of curbside service has been the most significant change in downtown-oriented long-distance travel in more than a half-century," said the report, titled "The Intercity Bus Rolls to Record Expansion."
"This is a new and exciting phenomenon," said the study's lead author, Joseph P. Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute and a professor in DePaul's School of Public Service. "I'm kind of a transportation history buff. There's been nothing like it in several decades."
The surge has been apparent here, as Megabus.com, which picks up and discharges passengers at a curbside stop on 10th Street, Downtown, made Pittsburgh its sixth North American hub on May 11. Since May 2010, when it offered its first Pittsburgh service to State College and New York, it has added 14 destinations.
Megabus.com expanded into the south in November, with a new hub in Atlanta, and now serves 72 cities. Its fourth-quarter ridership reportedly grew by 28 to 35 percent compared with the same period in 2010.
"We think we've sort of helped to reinvent the concept, and hopefully the image, of intercity bus travel," said Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer of Megabus.com, a Chicago-based subsidiary of Coach USA.
Curbside companies like Megabus.com and competitor BoltBus, which does not serve Pittsburgh, offer low fares -- every Megabus trip has at least some seats priced at $1, Mr. Moser said -- along with instant online reservations, guaranteed seats, and electrical outlets and free wireless Internet on the buses.
Mr. Moser said he is not surprised by the rapid growth of curbside bus operators. Before launching in 2006, his company did research into why customers were shunning bus travel.
They wanted an easier way to buy tickets and a guarantee of a seat on the bus they chose; express service rather than 10 or 12 intermediate stops that stretched out travel times; more affordable prices; and center-city stops with convenient connections to other modes like taxis, city buses or subways, he said.
Megabus.com sought to meet those wishes.
"Even our highest price is more economical than flying, driving or taking the train," Mr. Moser said. Other than brief rest stops, Megabus.com trips are direct and usually competitive with automobile travel times. The result has been a 92 percent satisfaction rating from riders, he said.
From Pittsburgh, Megabus.com offers service to Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and State College in Pennsylvania; Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo in Ohio; Buffalo, N.Y., Detroit, Frederick, Md., New York City, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Ontario.
Mr. Moser said some Pittsburgh routes "are doing extremely well and exceeding our expectations" while "there are routes where we need to do more work. It's a young hub. Pittsburgh's doing well."
The DePaul study found little growth in 2011 among traditional intercity bus companies like Greyhound and Trailways, but noted that Greyhound has begun in some respects to emulate Megabus.com. It now offers a service called Greyhound Express, which features some $1 fares, guaranteed seats, free wireless Internet, electrical outlets and reduced travel times with fewer stops.
From Pittsburgh, Greyhound offers two daily express trips to Philadelphia and three to New York City.
While curbside operators increased their number of daily departures from 589 to 778, or 32.1 percent, in 2011, traditional operators' departures fell from 1,925 to 1,915, according to the DePaul study. That worked out to a combined increase in intercity bus operations from 2,514 to 2,693 daily departures, up 7.1 percent.
Greyhound added 38 departures nationally, with many of them featuring the new express service, and "further expansion of the Greyhound Express product line appears imminent," the DePaul researchers said.
"That is flattering that they're beginning to duplicate our business model," Mr. Moser of Megabus.com said. "It's more options for consumers and that's all good. It's good for the industry."
In an August report, the DePaul institute noted a long-standing slump in bus travel that began in the 1950s. "Continuing until the early 2000s, the sagging image of bus travel, the rising availability of private automobiles and low-fare air services, and the deterioration of downtown districts took their toll. By the 1990s, many middle- and upper-income consumers considered the intercity bus a mode of last resort," it said.
From 2002 to 2006, intercity bus travel declined by 8 percent but since then, ridership has grown every year. The study included traditional and curbside services but not the loosely organized "Chinatown" buses that don't use fixed departure points.
Other noteworthy findings of the DePaul researchers were that more than 1 in 5 riders of curbside buses said they were traveling solely because of the availability of the service -- otherwise, they'd have just stayed home. And many riders were pushed by a desire to use portable electronic devices like tablet computers, laptops and smartphones while traveling, which is not always possible when driving or flying.
Ninety-one percent of riders surveyed said they intended to use portable electronic devices while on the bus; field observations revealed that at any given time, more than 40 percent were doing so.
Curbside bus riders tend to be younger -- people 18 to 25 years old made up 48 percent of the passengers surveyed, while 73 percent were in the 18-to-35 age range.
Mr. Schwieterman said researchers have noticed an uptick in Megabus.com prices as it establishes itself in various markets. The $1 and $5 and $8 fares tend to become less plentiful with time.
"They come in and gain market share and move to a more rational pricing structure," he said. "They still undercut Amtrak by a substantial margin."
He expects the service to continue to thrive. "I think now that the business model has spread outside the old-line industrial cities, there's tremendous growth potential," especially in Florida, Texas and the West Coast, he said.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/roundabout . Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published January 2, 2012 5:00 AM