Everyone's writing about luxury intercity bus travel today because a new study was released a few days ago claiming that a new breed of "curbside" bus operators has grown their business by 32% in the past year. Matt Yglesias thinks this is mostly new travel, not substitutes for existing travel. Felix Salmon isn't so sure: he suspects that new operators like BoltBus and Megabus are just cannibalizing business from the older breed of "Chinatown operators."
I'm not sure this is really answerable. The first thing I wondered when I saw that 32% increase was how many trips that represented in absolute terms. I figured it might be fairly low, but I didn't expect it to be this low:
Curbside operators expanded daily bus operations by 32.1% in 2011, primarily due to the addition of three new hubs. Curbside operators now account for 778 daily bus operations in the continental United States, up from 589 last year.
So that's 189 new daily operations. At a very rough guess, that represents growth of maybe 3 million passengers per year.
At another rough guess based on available information, airplanes carry nearly a billion passengers per year on intercity travel and cars carry another 2 billion or so. So that means the growth in curbside bus traffic amounts to about 0.1% of total intercity passenger traffic.
That's a rounding error. There's just no way of knowing whether that's new traffic, substitution traffic, or anything else. It's literally below the level of measurability. For now, I think we just have to admit that we're in the dark about this.