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By Sherry Listgarten

Would you take a bus to LA?

Uploaded: Jul 28, 2019

Buses are climate-friendly, cheap to ride, and don’t require any special tracks or right of ways. They are an important transportation alternative on our warming planet, but we don’t seem to ride them much around here. What is it like to take them, and what would it take for us to use them more often?

To begin with, this blog post is about longer-haul buses, specifically between here and LA. Would you consider taking a bus? I hope the information here will help you decide.

Below is a chart showing the climate impact of a round-trip from San Jose to LA. (1)

So, by all means drive if you pack the family in the car. It’s also the best way to take your family pet(s) along! But if you are going on your own -- is the bus an option for you? Here is my take on the pros and cons.

Reason to take the bus: Lower climate impact. A plane has 4-5 times the climate impact of a bus, per passenger, even when the bus is just over half full.

Reason to take a plane: Faster. A bus takes at least 7 hours each way, while a plane takes about 1.5 hours. Even when you include an additional hour for the extra time to get to and from the airport and to wait in the airport, there is still a 4.5 hour difference. (Buses have minimal check-in time, and the stations are often in more convenient locations than airports.)

Reason to take the bus: Cheaper. This is particularly true if you are trying to purchase tickets without much advance notice. Bus tickets are around $20 each way, while air fare is around $130. If you book a flight well in advance, it can be as low as $60 each way, while the bus could be $10.

Reason to fly: No stops. Buses are required to stop once or even twice on this route, per California’s rest break law. The stops are in a parking lot along the highway with a fast-food place or two. Maybe this is a plus for some -- you can stretch your legs, buy a drink, or use the facilities -- but the two stops were long on my trip from LA (30 minutes each), and I’d rather just get where I’m going.

View from one of the two 30-minute Megabus rest stops. The other stop was similar.

Reason to take the bus: Station charm. Both the San Jose station (Diridon Station, est. 1935) and Los Angeles station (Union Station, est. 1939) have some historic charm. The airports? Not so much.

Pictures of Diridon Station in San Jose, clockwise from top left: Exterior; Main lobby; Historic display; Main lobby seating.

Pictures of Union Station in LA, clockwise from top left: Exterior; Main lobby; stairs with fountain leading up to bus stands; underground walkway to transit terminal.

Reason to fly: Station amenities. Airports have better amenities, presumably because they bring in more money. Seating is much better, shops are nicer, the space is air conditioned, etc. Should our cities be investing more in bus terminals?

Diridon Station offers snacks and books. The bus wing of Union Station had a handful of eating places, but they were in various states of open and there was almost no seating. It looked like a work in progress.

Reason to take the bus: Less need to plan ahead. It is pretty easy to hop on a bus at the last minute, finding an empty seat without paying too much extra. Plane fare, on the other hand, gets much pricier the longer you wait. Taking the bus can have that spontaneous Jack Reacher feel to it...

Reason to take the plane: Makes you feel special. Okay, this is less true of the LA plane shuttles. But still at least someone walks down the aisle to offer you a drink and pretzels. No such service on a bus.

Reason to take the bus: Slice of America. You get to see more of America when you take a bus, and it feels like a part of our history. There are also some great songs about buses -- you can make a playlist to pass the time.

Reason to take the plane: Better schedule fit. Not only are planes faster, but there are more of them. Southwest offers about 12 flights a day to LA. Megabus and Greyhound each offer about six “express” rides per day. (Greyhound also has a few slower ones with more stops.) Though when you combine departure times for all the bus and plane services, it’s probably a wash.

For the record, here are some non-differences: The (relatively few) buses I’ve taken were about as quiet as planes, and the seats and amenities seem similar. Sitting in a bus feels like sitting in a plane, except the windows are bigger. Both are sometimes late. I have the sense that buses are late more often but by a smaller amount, though that is just a guess. All three of my buses either arrived late or departed late, though only the first by more than 30 minutes. On the plus side, the bus services offer real-time bus tracking.

Greyhound's real-time bus tracking

If time is your highest priority, then without a doubt a plane is your best option. Or, you could opt to use the bus specifically because it’s a slower trip, and then force yourself to think hard about how to go less often, which could save even more time. Well, maybe your mind works that way...

If you want to try the bus, there are three main options: Greyhound, Megabus, and (new on the scene) Flix Bus.

For this blog post, I took a Megabus from LA to San Jose and a Greyhound on a segment of that route (a round-trip from San Jose to Santa Cruz). A high schooler I know took Flix Bus recently, so I’ll incorporate his thoughts here, but I don’t have any direct experience with it.

Megabus. Megabus was founded in 2006 in Chicago, with the goal of innovating beyond the established stalwart Greyhound. Megabus has now expanded to over 50 cities in the US, plus more in the UK. Their mission is to offer efficient city-to-city routes at low fares. Their easy online booking and advance purchase discounts allows them to better fill buses and plan schedules, which keeps costs down. They deploy high-capacity double-decker buses that fit up to 81 people, which further lowers fares and reduces emissions.

A Megabus parked at a rest stop along the way

Indeed, their fares from LA to San Jose are cheaper and have fewer stops than the competition, though some Greyhound buses come close. They have easy online booking, as do the other services.

The bus from LA was quiet, though there were probably 40-50 people in it. It was quite warm -- the AC was too weak to counteract the sun coming in through the windows in the front of the bus.

Megabus has big front-facing windows on top, but they get very warm from the sun and the shade does not pull down the whole way.

The bus left on time but arrived almost an hour late. The driver was not apologetic, or even communicative, and did not shorten the stops along the way to try to hit his schedule. As a result, I missed the last train from Diridon and had to take a Lyft, which was convenient but cost more than the bus ticket from LA.

Unfortunately, I neglected to take pictures of the interior of the bus. This one from the Megabus company shows some of the reserved (for a small fee) seats covered in blue, and the unreserved cloth seats behind. You can see the seats are fairly close together, with large windows but no overhead storage.

Megabus interior, courtesy of Megabus

Greyhound. Greyhound was founded in 1914 in Minnesota to help miners get to work. It has expanded over the last 100+ years to become one of the largest bus services in the US, serving almost 4000 destinations. A college student who is staying with us for the summer sung the praises of his trip to LA on Greyhound, so I checked it out with a shorter ride to Santa Cruz, a nonstop route from San Jose that is part of a longer route to Los Angeles. (3)

Greyhound bus parked at Diridon

As expected, the fares were somewhat higher than Megabus, but the buses were much nicer. (Greyhound has recently refurbished its buses.) The bus we took to Santa Cruz was very new, with comfortable seats, good leg room, and nice overhead fixtures, including storage racks.

Interior of Greyhound bus

There was also a (working) onboard entertainment system, complete with free movies and TV shows on the first (newest) bus. The bus on the return trip had (working) free internet but no entertainment. Megabus claims to have a similar onboard entertainment offering, but reviews are poor, with remarks that it rarely works. (I did not try it.)

Screenshots of Greyhound’s mobile entertainment system on its newest buses

The driver was very friendly, making announcements about schedules and policies. He seemed like he cared and wanted the ride to be pleasant. The driver on the return trip was somewhat more engaged than the Megabus driver, but not a particular selling point.

The Greyhound terminal is integrated with Amtrak at Diridon, and has its own ticket booth in Santa Cruz (albeit empty when we were there). So its presence seems a bit more “official”, perhaps because it has been around for longer.

Amtrak/Greyhound booth in Diridon Station

Flix Bus. Flix Bus was launched in Germany in 2013 and has rapidly expanded across Europe since then, arriving in the US in mid-2018. A junior in high school I know was eager to try it because of convenient stops in Millbrae and near UCLA. But he was not impressed. He had difficulty sleeping due to lack of leg room and meager seat recline, plus the bus stopped every two hours. There was a “distinct smell of weed” and he felt that a few of the people on the bus might make a single female traveler uncomfortable. He summed it up saying “It just wasn’t a pleasant 8 hours…. The bus was a fine temperature and did take me where I wanted to go on time and for very little money. But I would not go so far as to recommend it to anyone.”

All three bus services. All seats have working power outlets. All bus services have some options for advanced boarding, for exchanging tickets, and for real-time tracking of buses. It is more difficult to cancel tickets. Megabus does not allow it, and Greyhound allows it only if you purchase a much more expensive ticket. Only Flix Bus allows cancellations with minimal fee, though you get a credit rather than a refund.

I had the opportunity to talk with Bryony Chamberlain, Regional Vice President of Megabus, who has been with the company since it started in 2006. I asked her about innovation in intercity bus travel. Megabus led with efficient online booking and fast, city-to-city express buses. But others have caught on, and since then they are leap-frogging on features, whether it is wifi, or power at the seat, or onboard entertainment. Megabus has looked into sleeper buses, ala Cabin, but they don’t see how to make the economics work.

In 2015 Megabus deployed a set of new driver-facing tools to improve safety and mileage, and has since seen a “huge difference” in safety performance (and insurance rates) and “some difference” in maintenance and fuel costs. In the future they may look into alternative fuels to further lower their emissions.

Chamberlain is very excited about the potential for buses to help lower transportation emissions. The way she thinks about it, “one person needs one gallon of fuel to go 500 miles”. When fuel prices spiked in 2012-2013, Megabus saw a big growth in ridership, which is largely younger singles or budget-conscious families. When fuel prices later went down, ridership remained above earlier levels. She attributes that to lower car ownership among the younger generations, which bodes well for lowering transportation emissions.

I asked about on-time behavior, since my Megabus arrived late enough in San Jose for me to miss the last train. Chamberlain said “well over 95%” of buses in the California network depart within 20-25 minutes of the scheduled time, but traffic can impact arrivals. They set their published intervals to be tight, but not so tight that it puts pressure on the driver. They regularly monitor adherence and adjust the published times as needed.

Megabus currently serves over six million customers a year. As a result, they have fairly centrally located stops, but Chamberlain would still like to see stronger support for these buses. Cities like San Francisco, for example, should provide bus stops by stations or other sheltered space, rather than have passengers wait at curbs.

I hope this helps to demystify these buses a little. I would love to hear from people who have taken them more frequently, since my experience is limited. I learned to expect some amount of lateness, and to hope for a newer bus. If I were to ride Megabus again, I would opt for the first floor, which would be cooler and may also be safer. If the schedule works, though, I would probably opt for Greyhound based on their newer buses. I don’t love taking the bus, but I also don’t love the emissions emitted by planes. So I will keep experimenting to see what works.

Notes and References

1. The plane estimates are from this offset site, which is the only one I have found to incorporate the (significant) impact of contrails, ozone, and more, and to refine to a specific carrier. The plane specified in this case is one used by Southwest for this trip. Diesel fuel emissions are from this site, and diesel bus highway mileage is estimated at 4 mpg for a 50-seat bus and 3.5 mpg for a double-decker 80-seat bus. It may be somewhat higher due to real-time feedback some buses display for the driver. Gas emissions for passenger cars are from the EPA.

2. There are cheaper ways to get to Santa Cruz, such as the Highway 17 Express, shown here. It is just $7 each way with no fees (you pay on the bus). The Greyhound round-trip was more like $25.

Incidentally, does this marketing make anyone else nuts? The italic print on the right says “Powered By Natural Gas”. Argh!!

Current Climate Data (June 2019)

Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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