Surprising moves by intercity bus lines in 2022 have ushered in a period of accelerated disruption and technological innovation in this ground transportation sector. “From the rollout of first-class services and reserved seating on Greyhound on to the integration of FlixBus and Greyhound, it is clear that the industry is amid a metamorphosis,” notes DePaul University’s Joe Schwieterman, the principal author of the newly released study New Directions: 2023 Outlook for the Intercity Bus Industry. “The industry is becoming more data-driven and open to experimentation,” he notes.
The study estimates that U.S. intercity bus travel, excluding commuter routes, has now reached about 70 – 75 percent of pandemic levels. Ridership would be higher if driver shortages were less severe. In the Sunbelt, traffic appears to be back to pre-pandemic levels but is well below this level on busy Northeast routes. The study predicts traffic to rise to about 85 percent by year’s end if driver shortages abate in the manner the study expects.
The industry’s competitive dynamics, however, are rapidly changing.
“Our prediction a year ago that FlixBus and Greyhound would keep separate stations and distribution channels because of their differing branding, marketing practices, and customer bases was off the mark,” Schwieterman noted. Flixbus, a powerhouse in Europe and other international markets, launched in the United States in 2018. The brand does not own buses or terminals and uses a contracting model emphasizing curbside stops and public transit hubs. Both it and Greyhound are owned by the German-based FlixMobility.
Signs that the FlixBus/Greyhound integration was picking up speed emerged last summer when FlixBus routes throughout the West Coast became widely available on greyhound.com. By late autumn, most FlixBus routes in North America were on that platform. Last month, Greyhound schedules began being sold on flixBus.com.
A FlixBus service for Midtown Manhattan is curbside in Washington’s D.C. Dupont Circle neighborhood on January 9, 2023.
“The integration appears motivated by a desire to build synergy and give customers more travel options,” noted Allison Woodward, a study co-author. “FlixBus offers more desirable boarding locations in more cities than Greyhound.”
Also significant is creating a new reservation platform for FlixBus, Greyhound, and Greyhound’s many interline partners. This system will largely replace TRIPS, which has long been a Greyhound mainstay, for travel after February 22. The rollout coincided with Greyhound’s introduction of reserved seating for all passengers, the ability to pay extra to travel “neighbor free” (next to an empty seat), and an easier process for changing tickets—conveniences previously only available on FlixBus. “Training drivers to enforce the reserved seating policy is going to require effort, but it could markedly improve the rider experience,” notes Woodward. More restrictive baggage allowances are also being rolled out.
The DePaul team expects connections between Greyhound and FlixBus to be increasingly sold as single-through tickets. Amid the transition, Greyhound’s expansive interline agreements, which include arrangements for “through” ticketing with any other carriers, such as bus lines using the Trailways brand, are poised to continue. However, there will be changes, and some connections could be lost. Schwieterman expects Greyhound to retain its distinct identity—and familiar blue livery–for some time.
FlixBus and Greyhound also made moves suggesting that using common stations and curbside stops is a priority. FlixBus, for example, now uses Greyhound’s dedicated gates at Washington Union Station. When Greyhound relocated a station, it often moved to the same location as FlixBus. The study also expects much of FlixBus’s technical capabilities, such as its virtual assistance to customers and passenger-management tools, to be increasingly used for Greyhound.
Amid all the changes, some regional carriers, such as Miller Transportation, Peter Pan, and Southeast Stages, have begun offering reservations on the megabus.com platform, which has been long associated with Megabus’s double-deckers.
“The industry could look much different in a couple of years than it does now,” Schwieterman noted.