The news that Megabus in early January ended service linking Cleveland with Columbus and Cincinnati was not the first time that the cut-rate bus line has retrenched in the Cleveland market.
Back in March 2013 Cleveland was one of 10 Megabus hubs with service to 15 cities. You could have traveled to Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Akron; Buffalo, New York; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Detroit; Toledo; Chicago; New York; Columbus, Cincinnati; Lexington, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and State College, Pennsylvania.
But now most of that service is gone. The only Megabus route left in Cleveland travels east to New York with an intermediate stop in State College and west to Chicago with an intermediate stop in Toledo.
Unlike Greyhound, which makes frequent stops on its routes, including in small towns, Megabus operates much like an airline with limited intermediate stops and relatively few cities served.
In Ohio, it serves Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo, linking all of those cities with Chicago.
The route from Columbus makes intermediate stops in Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
Launched on April 10, 1996, as a brand of Coach USA/Coach Canada, Megabus offered low fares and curbside pickup rather than using brick and mortar bus stations. In some cities, Megabus stops outside railroad stations, transit centers or shopping centers.
The initial route network fanned out from Chicago and included service to Cleveland.
Four years later, the Megabus business model began making a transition from a hub and spoke orientation to a point-to-point model.
Also like airlines, Megabus uses yield management to set fares. Although it has attracted much attention with its $1 tickets, Megabus imposes a $1.50 per transaction fee for tickets purchased online. Tickets can also be purchased by phone, but cannot be bought from bus drivers.
Shortly after it began serving Cleveland, Megabus added a stop in Toledo on Sept. 11, 2006, to its route M3 between Chicago and Cleveland.
Megabus extended the route to Pittsburgh on April 2, 2007, but ended the Pittsburgh service that September due to low ridership.
Cleveland-Pittsburgh service resumed on May 2011 with a stop in Akron. Service was six roundtrips with connections in Pittsburgh to such eastern points as Washington, New York and Philadelphia. The Pittsburgh-Cleveland route continued west to Detroit via Toledo.
The Akron stop was dropped on March 13, 2012. However, the next day, Megabus began a route linking Cleveland with Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The high water mark of Megabus service in Cleveland came in August 2013 when it launched a route to Atlanta that included stops in Columbus, Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
It took 15.5 hours to get to Atlanta and one of the two buses making the trip left Cleveland at 2:30 a.m.
At the same time, Megabus also launched service to Erie, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York.
The Cleveland Megabus stop was initially behind Tower City at West Third and Frankfort. It also picked up passengers on the north side of Prospect Avenue.
On August 1, 2013, it began using the Cleveland RTA Stephanie Tubbs Jones Transit Center, at 2115 East 22nd St. That enabled passengers access to public transportation and to have a sheltered place to wait for the bus.
Megabus said it was handling 13,000 passengers a month in Cleveland. Some buses used in the service were operated by Cleveland-based Lakefront Lines.
Service to Ann Arbor, Detroit and Pittsburgh ended in May 2014. “Unfortunately due to insufficient ridership service, the Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit-Ann Arbor route was discontinued on May 6,” said Sean Hughes, associate director of corporate affairs for Coach USA/megabus.com North America, in an interview at the time with The Plain Dealer.
By then, service had also ended to Buffalo and Erie.
A check of the Megabus website revealed that the company favors large cities and large colleges.
In West Virginia, for example, the only city served by Megabus is Morgantown, the home of West Virginia University.
In Pennsylvania, Megabus serves Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and State College. The latter is the home of Penn State University.
In Michigan, you can catch Megabus out of Ann Arbor (home of the University of Michigan), East Lansing (home of Michigan State University) as well as Detroit and Grand Rapids.
Nonetheless, Megabus serves just one city in Indiana (Indianapolis) and one in Kentucky (Louisville).
Indiana is a curious situation given that the bus from Indy to Chicago goes up Interstate 65 right past Lafayette and West Lafayette, the latter the home of Purdue University.
The Plain Dealer article reporting Megabus was ending service from Cleveland to Columbus and Cincinnati said lower gasoline prices was a contributing factor because many of the company’s passengers are affluent enough to own a car.
High gasoline prices and air travel hassles had just a few years earlier fueled a rise in intercity bus ridership.
A study by the Chaddick Institute of Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago said the rise of discount city-to-city bus carriers had accounted for much of the increased ridership.
The head of the Chaddick Institute, Joseph Schwieterman, told The Plain Dealer in 2014 that for Megabus to leave the Cleveland-Pittsburgh market meant “Demand must have been intolerably weak.”
“Megabus doesn’t pull out of many markets,” said Schwieterman, a professor of public service management.
The Chaddick study found that the emergence of Megabus and other low-cost carriers had prompted Greyhound to upgrade its buses and emulate their business models.
Yet there remain many key differences between passengers who ride Greyhound versus those who ride the so-called curbside bus lines.
Greyhound passengers are 39.8 percent female versus 52.3 percent female on the curbside carriers.
On Greyhound, 36.1 percent of the passengers are ages 18 to 25 compared with 47.8 percent on curbside carriers. Business is the purpose of 23.5 percent of those on Greyhound compared with 16.4 percent of those on curbside carriers.
An overwhelming percent of passengers on both types of carriers said they planned to use computers or mobile devices during their trip, 84.9 percent on Greyhound and 91.3 percent on curbside carriers.
Megabus has been in and out of markets before and every time it pulls out, it says it might come back.
In an interview with The Plain Dealder, Mike Alvich, vice president of marketing and public relations for Megabus said the company continually assesses its routes.
“There are no guarantees,” he said. “We are a private business. We live or die based on ticket sales. We start routes based on our best research. Sales have to support operational costs. That’s one of the city pairs that did not work for us. But that doesn’t meant we won’t come back.”
Megabus dropped California service in 2008 and returned in 2013.
Schwieterman said Megabus has done best in heavily urbanized areas, between cities that are between three and six hours apart, and in places where parking is scarce and expensive.
“The Cleveland to Pittsburgh route might have been a little short to lure people out of their cars,” he said. And both cities are automobile-oriented towns.
Greyhound in 2010 launched its “Greyhound Express,” offering nonstop service between urban centers, guaranteed seating and such on-bus amenities as wireless Internet access and electrical outlets.
A visit to the Greyhound website leaves the unmistakable impression that this isn’t your grandfather’s bus company.
Nonetheless, Greyhound continues to have the image of being the transportation choice of last resort for travelers who cannot afford alternatives even if the number of small towns served by Greyhound has greatly diminished over the past three decades.
Megabus has a younger, more affluent clientele than Greyhound but Schwieterman said the differences between the two companies “are becoming more blurred all the time.”
Although Schwieterman said in that 2014 interview that the growth years of bus travel were behind the industry, “plenty of travelers are still discovering the bus. And millions of travelers have yet to discover the bus.”