Correction to This Article
This article omitted the first name and affiliation of John Townsend. He is a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Back on the Bus: D.C.-N.Y. Travelers Line Up for Low Fares, High Value

D.C. to New York travelers are lining up for high value as start-up bus companies give older bus lines a run for your money. Video by Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post ALSO READ: Back on the Bus Video by Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

There is a new generation of bus riders traveling between Washington and New York, and these are some of their faces: an FBI lawyer, a Northwestern University undergraduate, a Brooklyn uncle, a government consultant, a preschool teacher from California and a London lad working at a summer camp in New Jersey. You can also see my visage pressed against the large tinted window, and I'm sure I've seen yours, too. We are a tribe, and we're growing.

The bus is making a comeback. That once maligned mode of transportation -- search terms: Greyhound, runaways; Chinatown, fire -- is becoming the au courant form of travel along the Northeast corridor. All the early adopters are taking it. But so, too, are people on budgets, Washingtonians who loathe the 233-mile drive to the Big Apple and bons vivants with an itch to head for New York at midnight to catch the after-hours parties.

The appeal is prodigious. The buses are cheap, convenient, well kitted-out and eco-approved. They are relatively hassle-free, especially because someone else is stuck navigating traffic. Baggage rules are more lax than on other forms of transportation, and there are no sneaky taxes or rules against carrying liquids, unless they have alcohol content. In addition, your pals, relatives and co-workers are hopping aboard. Do you really want to be left at the curb?

"I take it all the time. All my friends do, too," said Alan Henderson, a Howard University student who was waiting in line recently to board a Megabus in New York.

Between 2005 and 2007, according to the American Bus Association, nationwide ridership surged by 20 percent, increasing from 631 million passenger trips to 751 million. "We move about the same numbers as domestic [air] carriers each year," said ABA spokesman Eron Shosteck, a bus rider himself, "and more people in two weeks than Amtrak does all year."

As Shosteck put it, "This is Transportation 2.0."

On a more local level, new bus lines are popping up like wildflowers on a median strip: DC2NY (inaugurated July 2007), BoltBus and Megabus (spring 2008), Tripper Bus (February), Hola (July). The motor coaches form a dotted line from Dupont Circle to 15th and K streets, over to the parking lot at H and Ninth streets, and south to Sixth and I streets in Chinatown. You can also trace the perimeter of Penn Station in New York and run out of fingers and toes counting the buses.

Despite outward appearances -- it's a bus, after all, with doors, windows, wheels, etc. -- no two are identical. They vary in amenities, service and style, pickup/drop-off locations and sometimes cost. Even on short-haul journeys, those distinctions matter.

To shake out the good from the bad, the comfortable from the dismal, I dedicated a month of my life to riding the buses to New York, boarding nearly a dozen to figure out what makes these vehicles go 'round and 'round -- or flat.

* * *

It was hard to nail down an exact count of bus lines. I initially found 10, but then an 11th (Hola) popped up, and then a 12th (MVP). Part of the confusion stems from the fact that some of the major lines oversee several brands (Greyhound co-owns Bolt with Peter Pan, for instance, and Megabus is a subsidiary of Coach USA); forge partnerships (Greyhound and Peter Pan); or go by multiple aliases (Chinatown buses). It was so easy back in my grandmother's day: skinny racing dog, infantile boy who can fly or Trailways.

Of the riders I met during my busathon -- and they were of all ages, professions and financial standings -- many said that the main factors they weighed in deciding which bus to take were price, location and times.

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