Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Greyhound is not a government agency

New Haven residents, apparently, have spent so much time with government-run transit agencies that they've forgotten how to deal with a for-profit company. That's the message I'm getting from this Design New Haven post featured on this morning. The SeeClickFix website (founded in New Haven) is a forum for people to post local non-emergency issues that they would like their government to act on. "About 1 month ago," SeeClickFix co-founder Ben Berkowitz posted an issue, "Bolt Bus Should Run From New Haven to New York," which has become one of the most popular "fixes." It has attracted the attention of Alderman Greg Morehead, who sponsored a resolution that was passed unanimously by the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday, and has used the issue in his re-election campaign.

In theory, this is nice to see: people want transit! But note that the New Haven-New York route is not exactly transit-starved. Metro-North runs hourly commuter rail service ($14), supplemented by more frequent trains during peak times. Amtrak runs almost-hourly Regional service ($26) and an additional almost-hourly Acela Express service ($61). Peter Pan and Greyhound also run a total of ten daily buses between the two cities ($25). If you're in Union Station (the initial suggestion for this desired Bolt Bus service) you've got four options at three different price points.

So why do so many people want BoltBus? It can't be for the company: BoltBus is just a special premium service offered by Greyhound (which in turn is owned by the Scottish company FirstGroup). It could be the price: Bolt uses computerized airline-style variable pricing, with at least one seat on every bus selling for a few dollars. But the Yale Daily News writes, "Greyhound Lines spokesman Timothy Stokes said the company has no plans to expand the BoltBus to New Haven, or any other city." They've clearly decided that at this point they're not going to make money by running the Bolt service to New Haven, so the New Haven residents couldn't be pressuring them to run it at a loss, could they?

But it could be the service: Bolt has free wifi and electrical outlets, more legroom and leather seats. They also have a friendlier policy towards bicycles, allowing them to be stowed in the luggage compartments without being boxed up. The other services can't match all these features: Amtrak has the legroom and electrical outlets, but they don't allow unboxed bikes on the Northeast Corridor or offer wifi. Metro-North allows bikes on off-peak trains, but doesn't have any of the other amenities.

So let's assume that it's the service. Why does it have to be Bolt? On the New York to Boston run there are at least two competitors. Megabus (owned by another Scottish company, Stagecoach) also offers wifi and electrical outlets, with a similar pricing scheme. Limoliner offers wifi and outlets, plus wider seats, more legroom and an attendant, and just started running to Hartford for a flat price of $49 (which is probably beyond the budgets of most students, even Yalies). No word on the bicycle policy. Did anyone from New Haven approach Megabus or Limoliner?

Since Stagecoach recently sold most of their New England bus operations to Peter Pan, and Peter Pan operates under an agreement with Greyhound, Megabus may be unwilling to enter the New Haven to New York market. But there are a number of other bus operators in the region, many of which serve the nearby Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. If there are profits to be made, one of them could probably be convinced to outfit their buses with the necessary amenities and make the run. Or even a brand new start-up.

If there are profits to be made. That's the big question, isn't it? Apparently Greyhound doesn't think so - or at least, not enough to justify putting resources into right now. On the other hand, they are currently rolling out wifi, outlets and legroom under their own brand on their most popular routes, and maybe New Haven will come soon. But if the New Haven residents really think Greyhound is wrong, why not prove it? Yale has an economics department, and a world-renowned MBA program. Surely they could find a grad student willing to spend a day crunching the numbers. If they're good enough, it would convince any bus operator.

And if there aren't profits to be made? I don't think any amount of aldermanic resolutions are going to convince a private company to subsidize intercity bus travel. There's not even any point in asking the government to subsidize the service, since there's already subsidized transit between the two cities. It doesn't have wifi, but beggars can't be choosers. If it's wifi you want, then you'd have better luck petitioning Metro-North to install wifi.

The bottom line is that this isn't really an issue for government. But I would like to see better bus service, so I hope that the people of New Haven can get the numbers crunched and find out that it really could be profitable for someone.


Ben said...

Interesting take on this.
Just want to clear a few things:

1) SeeClickFix is not intended to just direct community concerns at government. Its nice that the city of New Haven believes that they can be a resource here but the intention was just as much to see what kind of support there would be for bolt bus.

2) I personally would fully support any bus similar to Bolt. For me it was the availability of wireless and bicycle storage not available on Metro North at a very low cost. if megabus is equally as cheap and allows bicycles...bring it on.

3) To date lobbying Metro North or State of CT for cyclists has been pretty ineffective so why not try to go another route?

I agree that proving out the business model would be a great citizen task. I'll post it on the SeeClickFix issue and see if anyone takes it up.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for writing, Ben, and thanks for posting the follow-up to your issue.

I understand that it's possible to use SeeClickFix for other things, but most of what you write about it (including your about us page) talks about government, government, government. But more importantly, the tone of your entire Bolt Bus campaign has been that of a lobbying effort. I mean, you wore matching tee-shirts to a meeting, and you weren't part of the Management Pep Team.

It's not just Megabus. If you can show that a bus with wifi and bike storage can have a competitive advantage on that route, you could get any number of companies interested.

I'm guessing that Greyhound and Peter Pan will soon feature wifi and electrical outlets on all there buses; maybe even take out a few seats. The difficult thing would be to convince them (or any bus operator) to allow unboxed bikes. They've been keeping them out for years and it's clearly not essential to their bottom line. Why did Greyhound allow them with Bolt, but not on their regular runs?

Maybe a per-bike fee would do it. You could also mandate it by law, but an interstate regulation like that would require congressional action.