Greyhound revs up with a revamp, face lift

The major reasons more people are climbing on board: high gas prices, traffic congestion and the hassles of air travel, particularly on shorter flights. Moreover, says Joseph Schwieterman, the DePaul professor who did the study, "the stigma of bus travel is slowly fading away. Young people don't have the same memories of the bad old days of bus travel."

Or some don't, anyway.

"I've been taking Greyhound for the past seven years, and I've never been impressed with the service," says Warren Beck, 22, who is homeless. He and his fiancée, Heather Applegate, 21, are sitting on the floor of the Cleveland station, eating pistachios washed down with Mountain Dew as they await a 4:30 a.m. bus to transport them to a new life in Columbus.

"I'm always more than grateful to get off the bus. It's overpacked," Beck says. "On the one we got off tonight, there was a lady who smelled like a dead fish."

To be fair, legions of air travelers endure cramped conditions, annoying, and yes, even smelly seatmates. Riding a crowded Greyhound is no less comfortable than flying in a full coach compartment. But bus travel is an easy target. Witness the headline: "30 Miserable Lives Lost In Greyhound Bus Crash," in a recent issue of the satirical publication TheOnion.

Schwieterman, himself a fan of bus travel who says he has never had a bad experience taking the bus, notes, "Service was never as bad as it was alleged to be. But perception is reality."

Indeed, the stereotype of drug-addled, recently paroled or otherwise wretched members of society's underbelly taking the bus because they have no alternative dies hard. But that's changing.

The No. 1 demographic on Megabus, a Chicago-based express line serving 16 Midwest and six Western locales, for instance, is 30- to 55-year-old women. Second are 18- to 30-year-old "young professionals" and students. Dale Moser, head of Coach USA, which operates the 1½-year-old line, acknowledges that the negative image is one of the "biggest hurdles" to building business. Regardless, Megabus ridership has grown 118% in the past year, with 750,000 passengers since the line rolled out in April 2006.

Besides touting low fares, Megabus peddles an environmental message. More than half its riders have said they took the bus instead of driving, "so we're getting a modal shift out of the car and into the bus," Moser says.

The online ticket agent GotoBus.com, which sells tickets for 50 or so regional or point-to-point lines, has experienced annual double-digit increases, with more than 1 million ticket sales since it launched in 2002. The service caters to a youthful clientele, says its president, Jimmy Chen. And fierce competition among fledgling lines to attract those riders is sparking innovations such as mobile Wi-Fi access.

Greyhound, with an annual ridership of 19.3 million in 2006, also is targeting younger riders. It instituted e-ticketing for some major cities in 2006 and added priority seating for about 50 city pairs. In November, the company kicked off an ad campaign targeting urban 18- to 34-year-olds such as Christopher Moore, 21, a student at George Mason University in Virginia. He has ridden the so-called Chinatown buses — cut-rate lines that got their start catering to Asian communities — between Washington, D.C., and New York. But when Greyhound lowered its fares on that route, he went with the national carrier.

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