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Megabus was poorly marketed, riders say

Despite bargain fares, the service never caught on in L.A. Its devotees say it wasn't promoted enough.

June 21, 2008|Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writer

Megabus.com's short-lived run in Los Angeles was what one critic called a megabust, and loyal fans are taking its final departure pretty hard.

The ultra-cheap bus service, which rolls out of town for the last time Sunday, had a devoted, albeit limited, following and had been gaining a steady stream of new riders -- though not quite steady enough. In online reviews and message boards, they raved about the clean and roomy buses, shared stories of their experiences and offered tips on how to obtain the lowest fare: $1.

Now they're lamenting the abrupt exit.

"My friends and I are all in mourning," Jan Brown of Van Nuys wrote on Yelp.com.

Brown, 66, became an early enthusiast, riding the bulky blue-and-yellow buses five times to San Francisco and Las Vegas. She loved the convenience and cost, she said, and talked it up to "anybody who would listen."

One-way fares started at $1, plus a 50-cent booking fee, and the highest price for a ticket to San Francisco was $39.

"People would say, 'Are you crazy? There's no such thing,' " recalled Brown, who works at an animal shelter. "It was just such a fabulous deal."

A subsidiary of Paramus, N.J.-based Coach USA, Megabus said last month that it was shutting down its Los Angeles hub because of low ridership, less than a year after launching the service. Despite the bargain fares, the 56-seat buses would sometimes leave Union Station with just a few riders.

"Megabust," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a Southern California mass transportation advocacy group. "It was kind of a good concept but it wasn't carried out."

Megabus entered the Los Angeles market last August, with daily service to San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix. Stops in Millbrae and San Ysidro, both in California, were later added.

Company officials predicted that Southern Californians would try an express bus to escape rising gasoline costs and congestion, and that people concerned about the environmental effect of driving or flying would appreciate the bus alternative.

But within months, Megabus began offering fewer trips and canceling routes, until only San Francisco and Oakland remained.

"It's really unfortunate," said Stefanie Cheng, 19, a student at Santa Monica College and a first-time Megabus rider who traveled to the Bay Area last week. "I was like, 'No, why are they shutting down? I just found out about this!' "

Bhoomi Patel, a student at Cal State Los Angeles, visits friends and family in the Bay Area a couple of times a month. Patel, 23, doesn't own a car, so she always traveled by Megabus, spending about $20 or less each way.

"Now I should cut down my visits," she said while waiting to board her last Megabus to San Jose recently. "I need to manage my budget."

Mike Ricanor, who used to take Megabus trips frequently to San Diego to visit family, snagged the coveted $1 fare a few times. After the company canceled the route this year, he began paying $34 each way for the same trip on Amtrak.

Megabus' decision to pull out of Los Angeles was hardly a surprise, Ricanor said. The first bus he took carries just one other passenger.

"I was like, I wonder how they're going to stay in business," said Ricanor, 29, an information technology systems administrator. "I kind of figured that it was going downhill."

Megabus is flourishing elsewhere. The service, which began in Britain five years ago, has taken off in the Midwest, where Megabus serves 17 cities and has seen business increase 137% during the last year, said its president, Dale Moser. The company recently expanded to eight East Coast cities.

In Los Angeles, where public transportation has long taken a back seat to driving, the market was harder to penetrate. It seems that even record gasoline prices couldn't persuade enough Angelenos to ride Megabus.

"It was either timing, or the network wasn't right, or we were just unsuccessful in getting people to give us a try," Moser said. "We're disappointed too."

Riders blamed poor advertising, although Moser said Megabus had spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to promote the service in newspapers, leaflets and on billboards. Many fans said they had never seen ads and questioned why Megabus hadn't advertised on college campuses and youth-oriented online sites such as Facebook.

Instead, most riders said they had heard about the service from friends.

"You have to spend a lot of money to be a player in the Los Angeles market," said Reed of the Transit Coalition. Megabus "seemed like they kind of skimped on the things that make products work."

Some fans are holding out hope that this won't be the end.

"Write to Megabus on their website," Brown suggested. "Maybe if enough people howl, they'll give it another chance."

But just in case, she said, "I was going to take a camera down to Union Station and take a farewell photo with Megabus pulling out."

--

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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