July 27, 2012

Megabus easier for Tarrant riders to catch

Megabus, the low-cost inter-city bus service, now has a boarding site in Grand Prairie with service to three cities in Texas and four in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee.

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Megabus, which launched a fare war with Greyhound last month when it started service from Dallas to Austin, Houston, San Antonio and other cities for as little as $1, is now easier to catch for Tarrant County residents.

The subsidiary of Coach USA recently switched its curbside boarding from downtown Dallas to a site in Grand Prairie just south of Interstate 30 off Belt Line Road.

The bright-blue double-decker buses leave dozens of times daily from a secured parking lot at 710 Davis St. in Grand Prairie to seven cities -- the three in Texas, as well as Norman, Okla.; Oklahoma City; Little Rock; and Memphis.

While the buses are hard to miss, it's the prices that will get your attention.

The $1 introductory fares have ended, but with a two-week advance purchase, most one-way fares are still $3 to $5 to the Texas cities; $4 to $11 to the Oklahoma destinations; $7 to $9 for the 51/2-hour trip to Little Rock; and $9 to $16 for the eight-hour journey to Memphis.

The fares will likely go up over time, but not by much. Megabus, which started in Chicago in 2006, today charges $13 to $17 one way for the 51/2-hour trip between Chicago and St. Louis, for example. Philadelphia to New York City, another established line, still costs just $5 to $15 one way.

"We're always very affordable the earlier they book and the less passengers on the bus," said Dale Maser, president and chief operating officer of Megabus. "But even the day before the trip, prices will still be more economical than flying or driving."

Greyhound is also aggressively pricing its intercity bus market, which began this year in Texas with express buses from Dallas to Houston, Austin and San Antonio. The bus line has reduced rates for its express service to between $14 and $34 round trip with a two-week advance purchase.

Neither bus line would reveal passenger numbers on specific routes, but both said the Texas market is ripe for picking.

"Our numbers have exceeded expectations," Maser said. "We've been delighted with how Texans have taken to our service."

Greyhound is also happy with the response, spokesman Timothy Stokes said. "We are pleased with the activity from passengers," he said.

Besides the convenience of direct routes, both bus lines promote vehicles with bigger seats and more legroom than regular buses, free Wi-Fi and power outlets at each seat.

The latter two features are helping drive a resurgence in express bus travel, said Joseph P. Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development and a professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

After declining for more than 40 years, intercity bus departures have grown 5 to 10 percent a year since 2006, when Megabus began, he said.

"We noticed in 2006 that something dramatic was happening," he said. "An industry that had a serious image problem was being rediscovered."

Megabus said it has transported more than 19 million customers since it began and now has almost 100 express routes nationwide.

Greyhound, which now operates its express service in 60 markets, said it has had a 20 percent increase in overall passenger numbers from March 2011 to March 2012 and has carried 1.8 million passengers on its express service.

Free Wi-Fi and outlets are bringing in younger passengers, Schwieterman said. A 2011 study by Schwieterman showed that 3 in 4 passengers on the new intercity express bus systems were under age 35.

"Young people don't visualize auto mobility as a status symbol," he said. "They want to use their electronic devices and get from point A to point B at a low cost."

Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays.

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