The Rebirth of Buses: N.Y. to D.C. for $1

ALONG INTERSTATE 95 -- Imagine traveling from New York to Washington -- and back -- for less than the cost of a gallon of gas. Sounds impossible, right?

Not anymore.

A new bus line started service Thursday offering tickets on the well-traveled route for as low as $1 each way. The company, called BoltBus, is the latest in a series of supercheap bus lines across the country trying to woo travelers away from trains, planes and their own cars.

So what do you get for $1?

I decided to find out for myself.

First, I must point out that not everybody gets that $1 fare. BoltBus offers at least one seat on each bus for that rockbottom price. Then as seats start to fill up, the price goes up.

If you are, say, the fourth person to book a seat, it might cost $7. Wait a little longer, maybe $10 or $15. The top price is $20 if booked online, $25 if you buy your ticket last-minute from the driver. (There is also a 50-cent surcharge for booking online.)

"The earlier you book the seat, the cheaper it will be," said Dustin Clark, a spokesman for the bus line.

Basically, if you want a cheap trip you need to book early and do it over the Internet with a credit card. That is in stark contrast to Greyhound's traditional service where, Clark said, 90 percent of the tickets are purchased at bus terminals or over the phone.

Another change that saves money: BoltBus doesn't use the normal city bus depots. The bus picks up and drops off passengers at a designated street corner in each city.

With the train and the plane -- or even a regular Greyhound bus -- there is usually an indoor or covered place to sit and wait. For my trip on BoltBus, I found myself standing on a street corner in Washington, D.C., waiting.

And then it started to rain.

Passengers huddled together under umbrellas, counting down the minutes until the bus arrived.

I had to remind myself: The ticket cost only a dollar.

Bus Traffic Grows

BoltBus -- a joint operation of Greyhound and Peter Pan bus lines -- is part of a growing number of bus companies trying to draw the American public back to motor coaches.

U.S. cities lost nearly one-third of their scheduled intercity bus service between 1960 and 1980, and more than half of the remaining service between 1980 and early 2006, according to a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.

Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul professor and director of the institute, said that in those decades buses were filled with low-income travelers and almost nobody else.

"Women traveling alone, who were once the staple of the bus market, fled partly out of fears about safety," he said. "The inner cities also deteriorated, which made bus stations places to avoid. And of course, discount airline travel became widely pervasive."

Schwieterman said that now, after those decades of decline, bus travel is having a national resurgence in popularity.

"Young people don't feel any particular stigma riding the bus, unlike us old-timers who came to see buses as a mode of last resort," he said. "It's been a remarkable combination of factors ranging from sky-high fuel costs to growing frustration with traffic congestion."

While bus travel has started to rebound, it is still consumed by individuals traveling alone for vacation or to visit friends and family.

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