DEBORAH AMOS, host:
As gas prices make driving more and more painful, bus companies are luring customers with low fare and new comfort. Buses may never be the answer to getting every American out of the car, but as NPR's Charla Bear reports, at least the ride's getting better.
CHARLA BEAR: On a street corner in downtown Washington, D.C., a crowd of hearty travelers wait in the heat for buses to New York. College students have long known about cheap curbside buses. Now these express buses that don't use terminals are attracting new customers.
Ms. MICHELLE CURRY CRAYTON (Bus Rider): My name's Michelle Curry Crayton, and I live in Waldorf, Maryland.
Mr. CLINTON CRAYTON (Bus Rider): I'm Clinton Crayton. This is our daughter Jordon. Say hello, Jordon.
Ms. JORDON CRAYTON (Bus Rider): Hi.
Ms. CRAYTON: Well, we're actually going to see our family up in New York City. And this is actually my second time on BoltBus, and I liked it the first time. So we decided to try it out again.
BEAR: BoltBus is a new curbside service that got the family to ditch the car and Amtrak for the first time. The Crayton's say they were lured by extras, like free Wi-Fi, electric outlets, and the low price.
Ms. CRAYTON: Because all three of us was $100 round trip.
Mr. CRAYTON: It's a nice-looking bus. It looks like it's OK, better than the Greyhound.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BEAR: Actually, BoltBus is Greyhound. The company rolled out shiny new red and black coaches to grab back customers it was losing to smaller curbside operators. With more leg room between the soft gray seats and toilets that actually flush, the buses even smell new.
(Soundbite of bus P.A. system)
BEAR: The Craytons settle in toward the back. They have a bag of snacks, their laptops, and a portable DVD player for their 5-year-old daughter.
Ms. CRAYTON: She always has the best ride out of all of us.
Mr. CRAYTON: This time around we're watching movie too, as well.
BEAR: After declining for almost four decades, bus travel has actually grown in the last couple of years. In the Northeast, there are several bus lines to choose from. There's Vamoose, the Chinatown bus, and a company from the U.K. called Megabus. Megabus's president says the opportunity came as air travel became more of a hassle. The companies now offer about 20 percent more routes than two years ago.
I met Julie Dayhick(ph) on a Megabus from New York to D.C.
Ms. JULIE DAYHICK (Bus Rider): My niece e-mailed me with the information about Megabus and said let's try this and give it a shot. And it's been wonderful.
BEAR: The 42-year-old suburban mom had never been on a bus before. She and her niece and two friends rode to New York to watch a Broadway play and stay in an upscale hotel. They're all wearing New York City hats, souvenirs from their girl's night out.
Ms. DAYHICK: And we're sitting here planning our next three, four, five trips up. We'll definitely do it again.
BEAR: But New York is one of the few places they'll be able to go on a discount bus like this. Joe Schwieterman is a transportation professor at DePaul University.
Professor JOE SCHWIETERMAN (DePaul University): Frankly, we haven't seen these services prosper out of the most densely populated urban areas - the Northeast and Chicago.
BEAR: Megabus shut down its service in L.A. last month. Schwieterman says that's because passengers needed cars when they got off the bus. Curbside bus companies cut costs by not having terminals. That means fewer employees to pay. But if fuel prices keep soaring, it'll be tough to turn profits. Then again, unaffordable gas also works in their favor.
Ms. CRAYTON: As long as the gas prices go the way they're going, I think we'll probably be traveling on the bus more.
BEAR: Passenger Michelle Curry Crayton says her family won't just be using the bus as an alternative to driving. If ticket prices stay around $20, her family might even travel more than usual.
Charla Bear, NPR News.
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