MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now to competition of another sort entirely. One involving wheels that go around and around and people that go up and down. It's our weekly transportation segment, "From A To B."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Two to three million people a year take buses to get up and down the Eastern Seaboard. That's a steep increase from just a few years ago. In fact, you might even say it's the bus' golden age. Any time of day or night, you can head to downtown D.C. and catch a bus with plush seats, free WiFi, sometimes even a movie on board.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
And you can ride that bus all the way to Manhattan for as little as a buck. But as David Schultz reports, this new golden age of the bus might already be on the decline.
MR. DAVID SCHULTZ
This is the Union Station bus garage on a Friday afternoon. Dozens of buses are idling here, mostly charters and tour buses full of kids and their harried looking chaperons. But tucked away in a corner there are a couple of ticketed buses headed to New York City. And next to them is a line of hip looking 20 and 30 something's waiting to get on.
MS. NATALIE LANDHART
I've taken the bus many times and everything I think I'm going to splurge for the train and then I realize how expensive it is and decide I'd rather spend the money when I get there.
Natalie Landhart is headed to New York for the weekend to see a friend. She says when she was choosing how to get there, price was her main deciding factor.
I think this ticket was only $23. so that's just too good of a deal to pass up.
Tough to beat?
Yes, I'll be able to buy my friend a dinner and drinks instead of being worried about how much I spent to get there.
Low, low prices are a hallmark of these D.C. to New York buses. They're the product of fierce of competition between companies like Bolt and Van Moose and Washington Deluxe. Companies that, for the most part, have sprung up in just the past few years.
MR. PETE PANTUSO
If you look in the Washington D.C. market, you can make a pretty good assumption that there's a bus leaving, I would say, every 20 minutes to New York City.
Pete Pantuso is the head of the American Bus Association, a trade group that represents companies like Bolt and Van Moose. He says the low-cost of bus fare, coupled with new, more luxurious, internet-enabled buses, have made his industry look pretty good compared to other modes of travel.
As we've gone through an economic downturn, people are looking for alternative ways to travel. The bus all of a sudden creates an alternative to air, maybe to rail, obviously to driving as well and the paying the high tolls and the cost of gas.
But why now? This isn't the first time gas prices have been really high and it's definitely not the first time the economy's been down. why is this bus boomlet happening now? Now, well to answer that you'd have to head to the streets.
So I'm on the corner of 6th and 8th Street in Northwest D.C. This is the heart of the Chinatown area and I just looked across the block. There are a few people waiting on a bus to New York City. They have their luggage ready to go and this pretty much how it works. The bus just comes by, right on the street, picks people on the sidewalk and off they go.
That's the beauty of the bus industry, you can take the bus where the demand is.
Pantuso says bus companies began operating off the curb in D.C. about 10 or so years ago. This had two immediate benefits. One, it was more convenient for the customers and two, it saved the companies tons of money because they didn't need an expensive bricks and mortar bus depot anymore.
In essence, these companies could afford to upgrade their buses and charge really low fares because they didn't have to pay to use the curb. That is, until now.
MR. ULYSSES KLECKLEY
The days of people coming into the District and using curbside space for free are over. We just can't do it.
That's Ulysses Kleckley, head of the Motor Carrier Planning Division at D.C.'s Department of Transportation, announcing new bus regulations at a conference a few months ago. Starting in a few weeks, bus companies will have to get a permit to operate on the curbside and they'll have to pay the District a public space rental fee that could range from $10,000 to $80,000 per year per parking space.
At his office on 14th Street, just a few blocks from a D.C. to New York bus stop, Kleckley says this the first time the city has made any attempt to regulate this new, booming industry.
Any time that a business or a section of the industry is operating in which there are no regulations and there's no cost associated with it, that's opportunity for growth. Which is fine, but from the city's standpoint, that puts us at a disadvantage in managing public space.
Kleckley says there is so many private buses on D.C. streets now, it's become a problem for traffic and just for public safety in general. That's why the District made its new bus fee lower, much lower for companies that agree to move their curbside location to an indoor garage at Union Station.
We want this service in the city. We understand the need for the service to be in the city. We understand the need for this service to be, you know, kind of centralized and metro accessible and the like. But sometimes it does create a strain on the system.
How do the bus companies feel about all of this? Well, Pete Pantuso says they don't mind the move to Union Station. In fact, he says, they'll probably all move there by the end of this summer. The fees on the other hand, well they're not too crazy about that.
It's very, very clear that the District is looking for money and it's also very clear that the District has identified the popularity of bus travel as a way to make more money from the bus industry and most importantly from the customers who are traveling by bus.
In other words, any fees imposed upon the bus companies will be swiftly passed by to the riders. Kleckley, however, says it's not about the fees. It's about the principle.
You, as a private citizen, parking at a parking meter, you're paying a rate to park at the curb. It's the same concept that exists for these carriers to operate out the curbside.
Either way big changes are coming for the D.C. to New York bus companies once these regulations take full effect this summer. The days when you could head to Chinatown and hop on a dirt-cheap bus to Gotham City are definitely numbered. But that's the thing about golden ages, at some point they end. I'm David Schultz.
Thanks to Alex Goldmark at WNYC in New York for production help on this story.
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