Did wifi cause a rise in bus ridership?

By Felix Salmon
December 26, 2011
rise in bus travel in recent years?

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What’s behind the rise in bus travel in recent years? It certainly seems very impressive, according to the latest research from DePaul University.

Here’s how Bloomberg’s Jeff Plungis characterizes it:

Megabus.com and BoltBus led U.S. curbside bus companies that boosted trips by 32 percent this year as travelers opted to leave their cars behind and surf the Internet while traveling.

And here’s Matt Yglesias, with a slightly different take:

Like Duncan Black, I’m far from certain that the right way to understand this is actually as intercity bus trips substituting for intercity car rides. The way I would primarily interpret it is as these services leading to additional trips that wouldn’t otherwise have been taken. Instead of riding Amtrak to New York once a year, you ride the bus three times instead.

If you look at the data, Yglesias seems closer to the mark than Plungis. Could the massive 30% rise in curbside bus ridership be accounted for by the 1% fall in private autos? Possibly. But it’s more likely that something else is going on.

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Both Plungis and Yglesias, I think, miss the elephant in the room, and the obvious reason why the DePaul measurements for bus ridership have been growing at such a startling rate. Here’s how the paper puts it:

The analysis we provide also excludes all “Chinatown operators,” which have significant different qualities than mainstream operators. As a general rule, those carriers listed on the GotoBus.com web site are considered for purposes of our study to be Chinatown operators. Many of these carriers do not invest in a brand identifiable by the paint scheme or insignia on their buses.

Indeed, DePaul specifically excluded the dramatic growth of California’s USAsia Bus Lines, just because they determined that it counted as a Chinatown operator.

The obvious theory, then, is that big operators like Megabus and Bolt Bus saw the huge success of the Chintaown bus market and saw an opportunity there. They brought in branding and professional marketing and wifi and much higher safety standards, and succeeded in taking a huge amount of market share from the Chinatown operators who were never part of the DePaul survey in the first place.

That theory is borne out by my own anecdotal experience: when my friends took the bus from New York to DC or Boston ten years ago, it was normally a Chinatown bus. Today, it’s more likely to be a Bolt Bus, or even a higher-end product like the Limoliner.

In other words, the DePaul data is consistent with total bus ridership actually staying constant, with the recognized curbside buses simply taking ridership share from unrecognized Chinatown operators. In reality, I suspect that bus ridership is growing. Just not nearly as fast as the DePaul paper would have you believe.

As for the much-vaunted wifi on these buses, it’s basically the same as the wifi on Amtrak, or from Gogo in-flight: in a word, crap. If you’re working on a laptop and can download emails or web pages in the background while reading or writing something else, then it’s fine. But it’s pretty much useless for people on iPads, where the lack of multitasking means you can’t read one thing and download something else at the same time.

It seems to me that the travel industry in general has done a very bad job of adjusting to the fact that most wifi-enabled devices these days are not laptops. I even stayed at one pretty high-end hotel in England, recently, which thought that providing an ethernet cable was a perfectly good alternative to providing wifi, and which didn’t have any kind of Airport Express devices or similar that it could lend out to guests who didn’t have ethernet ports on their computers or tablets.

So far, no one’s really cracked the problem of the mobile web — we’re still in a world where connecting to the internet when on the move is far too difficult, and needs to be configured (and often paid for) on a device-by-device basis. Companies like Lightsquared want to change that, but for the time being they’re vaporware, and I’m not holding my breath for them to arrive. Which means that for the time being it’s a bit of a stretch to say — as Plungis, for one, does — that the mobile web is actually changing the way we travel from city to city.

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