Reporting from New York
In the summer movie thriller "Salt," Angelina Jolie's character smashes her way out of police cars, dives from a highway overpass onto the top of a passing big rig, then tackles a speeding motorcyclist and roars off on his two wheels, leaving a flaming landscape of twisted metal, shattered glass and bloodied cops.
But when it's time for Jolie's indestructible spy, Evelyn Salt, to flee Washington, D.C., for New York, her mode of transport takes a deluxe turn. From her reclining seat, the lights of Manhattan twinkle outside. The only sounds are the engine's purr and the soft snoring of fellow passengers on her … bus.
Uh, call it a "motor coach," some in the industry say, the better to distinguish Salt's getaway vehicle with its Wi-Fi, footrests, overhead luggage bins and flush toilet — complete with blue swirly water — from the clunkers that belch exhaust and dump passengers at grubby stations in forlorn neighborhoods. The elegantly appointed BoltBus that streaks along an expressway into midtown Manhattan epitomizes the changing face of long-distance bus travel.
BoltBus, owned by Greyhound, is one of the major players in the battle for bus riders, whose numbers nationwide have increased as travelers avoid airport security hassles, recoil at Amtrak fares and gas prices, and embrace greener modes of transportation. Unlike the overbooked crates that ply the roads from New York's Chinatown to neighboring cities, these buses cater to a clientele that includes students, professionals, well-heeled retirees and out-of-towners on vacation.
"People just like me," said Ainsley Perrien, a public relations executive in Washington, D.C., who travels regularly to New York on the Vamoose bus service, paying about $30 each way. Cost and convenience are big selling points, but being able to change plans without paying steep penalties — and the sense of community — is appealing.
"We're all in this together," she said of fellow bus loyalists. "And it's just more fun."
Bus ridership in North America grew from 631 million passengers in 2005 to more than 762 million in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, and an increase in numbers is expected for 2009 too, said Eron Shosteck of the American Bus Assn., which represents more than 1,000 privately owned bus and tour companies.
Nowhere is the surge clearer than in the northeastern United States, where ridership on the Washington-New York-Boston corridor has soared with the emergence of BoltBus, Vamoose, Megabus, DC2NY and others that leave from corners convenient to New York's Pennsylvania Station. The region's routes hit the "sweet spot" of bus travel, Shosteck said: 200- to 400-mile trips.
There are no baggage fees, no need to be patted down before boarding and no middle seats. Fares for the deluxe buses range from as little as $1 to $50, depending on when and how you buy your ticket — online or at curbside.
"It's a feeling of empowerment and being able to take control of the travel experience," Shosteck said.
Despite low prices, profits are big because of low overhead. Bolt sells 97% of its tickets online, meaning few employees other than drivers.
"We're quite profitable now," said general manager David Hall, who said Greyhound riders suggested the idea. But Hall didn't realize the potential until he spent a chilly day in late 2007 counting people waiting for Chinatown buses and for midtown coaches already in the game.
"There were hundreds of people on the streets and curbs waiting for the buses. It kind of shocked me," Hall said. Bolt began New York to D.C. service four months later.
Bolt now runs 77 buses, most of them 80% to 100% full, Hall said. He attributes Bolt's success to such things as extra leg room and to a frequent-rider loyalty program.
Most of the bus lines have similar amenities, and some also offer free bottled water, movies and even democracy. On DC2NY buses, riders vote on whether they want to see a movie, and whether to make a rest stop. Vamoose wins fans with stops in suburban Bethesda, Md., and Arlington, Va., thus avoiding traffic in the capital. Megabus' big selling point is its double-decker fleet, offering more seats per bus and increasing the chance of having two seats to yourself.
"We got a lot of folks who tried a motor coach for the first time because fuel prices were so high," said Megabus Chief Executive Dale Moser. "Those who came to us have stayed because of the service."
But even the fiercest bus loyalist knows that things don't always go as planned.