Cities Lure White-Collar Workers Onto Buses

Increasing numbers of commuters are using buses as a faster and cheaper way to get to work, new figures show. Urban municipalities are expanding bus services — and adding features like wireless Internet access — in an effort to target white-collar and business employees who might otherwise drive their cars.

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Speed, comfort, convenience. For most commuters, those words do not conjure up the image of riding to work on the bus. But a growing number of people, even those with other transportation options, are climbing aboard the public buses and they're liking it.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Not long ago, during a typical commute in northern Virginia, Keith Surlow realized something that alarmed him. His commute had changed him. Traffic was snarled. There had been an accident.

Mr. KEITH SURLOW: And instead of thinking oh, dear, God, I hope no one got hurt. All I could think of was I'm glad it happened back there not in front where I have to get into it. That's when I knew it was time to take the bus.

SCHALCH: Now, Surlow takes the bus everyday. The 35 mile trip from Leesburg into Washington, D.C., takes about an hour and a half. It's not your typical city bus. It's a motor coach with a restaurant. And it makes very few stops. Still, by the time Peter Marshall climbs on, stows his briefcase and settles back in his reclining seat, the bus is almost full.

Mr. PETER MARSHALL: Often, they even max out and I'm standing. So I've seen buses frequently don't have any standing room left, so.

SCHALCH: This despite the fact that Northern Virginia's Loudon County transit has nearly doubled the size of its fleet. Division Chief Nancy Gorley(ph) says there have been huge annual jumps in ridership.

Ms. NANCY GORLEY (Loudon County Transit): Double digits - 20 percent, 22 percent, that kind of growth. People who ride our bus do not go back and ride their car.

SCHALCH: Ridership is up across the nation as well, according to Linda Cherrington of the Texas Transportation Institute.

Ms. LINDA CHERRINGTON (Texas Transportation Institute): We'll see a very consistent growth of nine to 12 percent in most of the markets.

SCHALCH: Fuel costs are one reason. Cherrington says nearly half of those who switched to buses do it to save money. But with more riders, state and local governments can also offer better service.

Ms. CHERRINGTON: For example, in the Seattle area, service is every five to ten minutes, and they have now expanded their commuter routes to operate seven days a week.

SCHALCH: That, in turn, attracts even more riders. In congested areas, taking the bus can also be faster and more reliable than driving since buses get to use the HOV lanes. And Loudon County bus passenger Peter Marshall says the bus zooms past the congestion on the highway.

Mr. MARSHALL: Nothing but red brake lights on the right. All four lanes are basically stopped. And we're still just cruising along at 65 miles an hour, making good time.

SCHALCH: These buses arrive on schedule 95 percent of the time. More enhancements are coming. In Utah, some commuter buses now offer free Internet service as part of a pilot program. Passenger Ed Carbun(ph) gets on in Ogden and then checks his e-mail on his laptop. He says he will gladly pay for Internet service.

Mr. ED CARBUN: It does make a difference. Instead of driving to Salt Lake, you know, not being productive at all, you're able to sit on the bus and get some work done.

SCHALCH: Back in Northern Virginia, passengers can now use cell phones and other hand held devices to download schedules and pinpoint the location of their bus.

Ms. KALA QUINTANA (Northern Virginia Transportation Commission): So no longer does a bus rider have to sit and wait at a bus stop wondering when the next bus is going to come.

SCHALCH: Kala Quintana of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission says investments that lure people out of their cars makes sense here.

Ms. QUINTANA: We have the third worse congestion cost in the country.

SCHALCH: She predicts other regions will discover what northern Virginia has.

Ms. QUINTANA: You can't pave your way out of congestion. You can only build so many roads. At some point, we need to look at moving people the way they do in Europe.

SCHALCH: Loudon County bus passenger Dan Forlano(ph) agrees that more people should try the bus.

Mr. DAN FORLANO: Serving a great need for Loudon County in Virginia, and it's the only way to travel on my mind.

SCHALCH: It's fun, he says. He and his commuting friends sit up front and chat about sports, food, anything but work.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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