You may have heard that Amtrak is thinking big again, thanks to “Amtrak Joe,” America’s railroad-loving president. The company just signed a deal with a developer to transform the historic William H. Gray III 30th Street Station into a luxe travel hub with high-end restaurants, lounges for long-distance travelers, and snazzy new office space. It’s part of a strategy to compete with the airlines on the Northeast Corridor and provide a climate-friendly alternative to cars. But did you know that low-cost intercity bus service is having a resurgence, too?
Bus travel has never gotten the same respect as rail. (And, of course, rail doesn’t get anywhere near the respect it deserves.) Yet, pre-pandemic, America’s long-haul buses carried twice the number of passengers as Amtrak. Like trains, they’re better for the environment than personal vehicles. But they remain significantly cheaper than Amtrak and serve far-flung towns that have no train service. For low-income people, car-less single parents, college students, recent immigrants, and other budget-conscious folks living in Philadelphia, intercity buses are often the only way to go.
In the early 2000s, the bus industry experienced its version of start-up culture. New companies, like Megabus and the Chinatown-based GoTo bus, muscled into the market, seemingly overnight, offering WiFi-equipped express service at incredibly low fares. It was a time when America’s legacy bus company, Greyhound Lines, was struggling financially. To keep ticket prices low, the newcomers decided not to use traditional bus stations, which tended to charge hefty docking fees. Instead, they moved their operations to city sidewalks and shopping center parking lots.
While their low fares drew millions of customers, the conditions at these intercity bus stops were often abysmal. In Philadelphia, intercity bus riders are forced to wait on city sidewalks in the searing heat and the pouring rain without so much as a canopy to shield them from the elements. The fact that two of the companies, Megabus and BoltBus, had stops only steps from 30th Street Station’s majestic (and air-conditioned) waiting room spoke volumes about the inequality embedded in Philadelphia life.
Boston, Denver, Washington, D.C. — and, most recently, Raleigh, N.C. — have responded to the surge in intercity bus travel by building comfortable new bus terminals close to their rail stations and insisting that all operators use them. Even New York’s famously seedy Port Authority Bus Terminal is getting a makeover.
Here in Philadelphia, bus riders are still treated as second-class citizens. The city does have a bus station of sorts, a grim, concrete-block bunker at 10th and Filbert that serves Greyhound, Peter Pan, and NJ Transit. But the start-up companies, which have proliferated in number over the last few years, still pick up and drop off passengers on city sidewalks. A proposal for a more dignified bus terminal on the north side of 30th Street Station, first floated in Amtrak’s 2016 master plan, still hasn’t moved past the idea stage. ”Philadelphia is really falling behind,” observed Joseph P. Schwieterman, a transit expert at DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
Since building a central bus station will take years to realize, Philadelphia officials should focus on improving conditions for travelers using the sidewalk services. Instead, the city has helped to perpetuate the status quo.
This summer, the Streets Department missed a huge opportunity to raise standards when it moved Megabus from its longtime stop on JFK Boulevard to Schuylkill Avenue. Megabus, which pays the city $5,000 annually for curbside privileges, was being dislodged from JFK because Brandywine Realty Trust needed to take over the sidewalk to start construction of its first Schuylkill Yards tower. After discussions with Brandywine, Drexel University, and the University City District, the Streets Department assigned Megabus a stretch of Schuylkill Avenue between Chestnut and Walnut Streets.
If you have to use city streets as bus depots, Schuylkill Avenue is hardly the worst choice. The sidewalk there had just been widened as part of a $107 million PennDot reconstruction project. And, because Schuylkill Avenue is essentially a glorified highway ramp, it’s a straight shot onto I-76, which helps minimize the time that buses spend traveling in city streets. Yet, in the end, all the Streets Department did was move bus riders from one barren stretch of sidewalk to another.
Like the Megabus stop on JFK, the new Schuylkill Avenue location has no canopy, no benches, no trash cans and, per usual, no restrooms. The only indication that this site is a vital piece of Philadelphia’s transportation infrastructure is a sign that Megabus has stuck into a bucket filled with concrete. How is it possible that the Streets Department could create an entirely new transit stop without building any infrastructure?
Deputy Commissioner Richard Montanez acknowledged that conditions on Schuylkill Avenue are not ideal. He told me the city is hoping to get the University City District (UCD) to provide the missing amenities for Megabus passengers, just as it did for Amtrak on the plaza in front of 30th Street Station, dubbed The Porch, and for SEPTA at the 40th Street Trolley Portal.
The business improvement district would be happy to manage the space, said Nate Hommel, who oversees planning and design for UCD. It just doesn’t want to be the one paying for the improvements.
Montanez argues that Megabus should pick up the tab. The company did not respond to my inquiries, so I wasn’t able to ask them why they think the existing conditions on Schuylkill Avenue are acceptable. Yet I also believe the city is thinking about the problem in the wrong way.
Transportation — whether it’s SEPTA, Amtrak or the airlines — is a public service. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, city planners have pledged to consider equity in infrastructure decisions. Where’s the equity in a bus stop that offers travelers nowhere to escape the elements?
“Bus riders deserve to be treated with dignity,” Hommel said.
Part of the problem is that American policymakers have also tended to underestimate the importance of bus travel to a city’s economy, said Schwieterman, the DePaul transportation expert. “They tend to use trains or fly. Intercity buses are alien to them, and aren’t seen as transportation,” he observed. Yet, bus service to New York, Washington, Penn State and beyond are part of what makes Philadelphia such an attractive place to live and do business. As we emerge from the pandemic, we need those connections more than ever.
If city officials had experienced the sorry conditions that Philadelphia bus passengers endure, I bet they would have demanded that PennDot provide the amenities as part of its Schuylkill Avenue reconstruction. For a $107 million project, the cost of a canopy and seating would have amounted to a mere rounding error.
“No one asked for amenities,” Chuck Davis, the PennDot engineer overseeing the project, told me. Since the agency is still wrapping up work nearby on the Chestnut Street Bridge, he suggested that it’s not too late for the city to approach PennDot about retrofitting the Megabus stop. “We could certainly have that conversation with the city.”
Incidentally, it’s not just Megabus passengers who are left to the elements. Over the last several months, two new carriers, FlixBus and OurBus, have entered the Philadelphia market (while BoltBus has ceased operations). Like MegaBus, FlixBus and OurBus both pick up passengers at the curb (Sixth and Market, Broad and Pattison, respectively). There are also several carriers that run between Philadelphia’s Northeast and New York’s Chinatown now operating from a shopping center parking lot in Mayfair.
In Montanez’s view, the best long-term solution would be for Philadelphia to consolidate all its downtown bus lines in one terminal on the parking lot north of 30th Street Station. But, to make that project feasible, PennDot needs to realign the I-76 exit ramp leading to the train station. That could take years, if not decades. In an interview last year, deputy managing director Michael Carroll told me that, “unless someone in the next administration loves this project,” a new bus station is unlikely to happen.
The city doesn’t have time to wait. Thanks to the demand for life science labs, the area around 30th Street has become the city’s most significant job creator, the engine for its pandemic recovery. Meanwhile, the Greyhound terminal in Chinatown was recently sold to a developer. “There needs to be a comprehensive planning approach to intercity bus transportation,” Hommel said.
Otherwise, Philadelphia could soon find itself with no bus station at all. And everyone who relies on this crucial form of transportation could be left out in the cold.