Thinking Tech

Huge spike in bus riders because of Wi-fi?

Huge spike in bus riders because of Wi-fi?

Posting in Cities

Some argue that the recent and significant increase in bus ridership is due to Wi-fi on busses. Others think it's a bit more subtle than that.

Everyone is taking the curbside bus. Or at least 30% more of us are.

As you can see from the results of this recent study out of DePaul University:

1. The intercity bus was the sole major long-distance passenger transportation mode that grew appreciably in 2011. Daily bus operations expanded by 7.1%, a marked increase in the annual growth from previous years.
2. “Curbside operators,” led by BoltBus and Megabus, grew at a particularly rapid rate, expanding the number of departures from 589 to 778, a 32.1% increase.
3. Passenger traffic on curbside operators grew by approximately 30%. In absolute terms, we believe this represents the largest expansion of passenger traffic on curbside operators since the sector emerged as a significant transportation mode in 2006.
4. Evidence suggests that the two largest Megabus.com hubs, Chicago and New York, are now profitable, indicating that the core business model is financially sustainable.

This is a significant rise. Why?

Some say that it’s new Wi-fi enabled busses that is luring people to leave cars behind so that they can surf the Web while traveling. Others say it’s just that with cheaper busses and more intercity routes people are taking more trips, period.

The interesting thing we need to note as Felix Salmon in Reuters notes here, is that the rock-bottom priced Chinatown express busses were never part of the DePaul study. What has possibly contributed to the spike in bus riders are new brands that have popped up that mimic the cheap and easy Chinatown busses. Offering rates like New York to DC for $20 makes such busses highly attractive. So Megabus, Bolt Bus and Limoliner have jumped into the market offering cheap routes, Wi-fi, higher safety standards, and an added bonus of fewer live chickens. Apparently they have succeeded in taking market share from the Chinatown busses. So an interesting theory behind the rise is that there is no rise at all. Just a movement in the service, that went unrecognized by the study. It might, as it seems, have nothing to do with Wi-fi at all.

From the article:

In other words, the DePaul data is consistent with total bus ridership actually staying constant, with the recognized curbside buses simply taking ridership share from unrecognized Chinatown operators. In reality, I suspect that bus ridership is growing. Just not nearly as fast as the DePaul paper would have you believe.

Even this article in Bloomberg that angled the Wi-fi theory ended the article with this quote from the director of Megabus:

More traffic in existing hubs in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia is also bolstering growth, said Bryony Chamberlain, director of Megabus USA.

“We’ve come in with a product which is new and brings the long-distance, intercity buses to a new market,” Chamberlain said in a telephone interview. “It’s much nicer to be sitting there being driven somewhere than sitting in traffic.”

As Salmon notes in his piece the travel industry has to improve current Wi-fi access in hotels, planes, airports—that is, if they want to attract consumers. And this is only going to become a more pressing problem for the industry, fast. Since tablet adoption is about to experience exponential accelerated growth, with tablets eclipsing lap top sales by 2015. And tablets function with Wi-fi.

From Salmon’s post:

So far, no one’s really cracked the problem of the mobile web — we’re still in a world where connecting to the internet when on the move is far too difficult, and needs to be configured (and often paid for) on a device-by-device basis. Which means that for the time being it’s a bit of a stretch to say... that the mobile web is actually changing the way we travel from city to city.

[via Reuters]

[photo credit: poditte]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure