Bus travel picks up speed in Midwest

Bus travel is booming and not just in densely populated areas.

More than 93 million people are expected to be jumping in their cars and traveling this holiday season, according to AAA. But there’s a new trend emerging that is rivaling the car and even some airlines.

Curbside buses are extending routes, even through the sparsely populated Midwest and Great Plains.

“It’s fun to have an industry that every six months announces a new hub,” said Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University. He studies transportation and said curbside bus service expanded 27 percent in 2011 and is experiencing double-digit growth this year.

These buses don’t have a depot. They just pick customers up on the side of the road. Schwieterman said it used to be the business model only worked in dense urban corridors where travel times were at most four hours.

“Now we’re seeing that model not only being stretched,” Schwieterman said. “But being sort of abandoned in favor of markets that would have seemed to be unfeasible.”

Leading the pack of these curbside operators are BoltBus, owned by Greyhound and Megabus.com, owned by Coach USA. Megabus is three years old but has served 22 million customers, according to company spokesman Mike Alvich.

“We think there was a pent-up demand for a better way to travel by bus,” Alvich said.

Making it even more appealing is that if customers book early enough, they can sometimes get a round trip ticket for just a buck. 

I hopped one of these double-decker Megabuses in Des Moines about two-thirds of the way on its nearly 500-mile journey from Chicago to Omaha. It was about a half-hour late, one of the perils of relying on the bus.

One of the 19 other passengers was Ben Graham, a community psychologist living in Chicago. This is his eighth time using Megabus to go home and visit his family in Omaha.

“I treat it as a work day. I’ve got 9 hours to get stuff done,” Graham said. “I always try to get in line so I can get this particular spot, because you can have your laptop open un-obscured and you can actually get a lot of work done.”

Christine Valish also scouted out a particular spot on the bus for a different reason.

“We make sure we don’t sit in the front of the bus [in case] the bus would happen to tip over or something,” Valish said, laughing.

Valish and her partner Stacy Shuman are visiting family in Omaha as well. Schuman said they were paranoid about taking the bus because they hear about fatal bus accidents from time to time and are worried about safety.

“We were even talking about like what alternatives we could take,” Schuman said. “But then we wound up just taking this because flights were so expensive.”

This was the most the couple has ever paid for this trip -- $50 each.

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