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Opinion: The Decline of Greyhound Isn’t A Greyhound Problem; It’s a Bus Problem.

"It’s not just Greyhound: there are no more advantages to riding a bus in most American cities, hence the national bus ridership decline."

Editor's note: this article originally appeared on The Discourse Lounge and is republished with permission.

recent article in the socialist magazine Jacobin discussed a bus service increasingly forgotten in the American mind: Greyhound. Greyhound used to be a primary means of getting around the United States, but today the service is on the verge of death. 

Today’s Greyhound is not your parents’ Greyhound, or the whimsical bus service you rode as a child between the 1960s to 1990s. Even during its decline in the 2000s, I remember boarding Greyhound buses at the Oakland depot — now defunct — for quick trips around California with my parents. It wasn’t an airliner, but it was timely, seldom delayed by severe traffic, service was decent and tickets were economical. That Greyhound is no more.

A private equity firm purchased Greyhound, sold off its valuable real estate assets and now runs a shoe-string operation that’ll collapse any day now. The regular users of Greyhound are almost exclusively the very poor: people who cannot afford a car or the gas to make a long range trip and cannot afford a cheap budget flight. Greyhound customer service is now abysmal. Drivers are understaffed and summoned in the middle of the night with poor pay. They understandably deal with poverty adjacent issues but consequently are very rude to customers. 

Customer service for riders dealing with cancelled and delayed buses, or buses that stop at 3 AM and kick everyone off in the middle of nowhere, is nonexistent — a hallmark of a service whose clientele has no option but to use them. When a driver’s shift ends and another driver is missing (thanks to delays), Greyhound vehicles often stop at the nearest town and make passengers sleep in bus terminals, motels or even the streets. Without compensation or assistance.

Greyhound’s glory days were when Americans rode buses en masse. Flights were expensive, and not every airport had flights to your small town destination. The U.S. was not energy independent until the 21st century, so gas was expensive for long-haul drives. It was common to opt for a Greyhound bus rather than a plane or car for much of the middle and lower class. As Congress showered the airline industry and fossil fuel companies with subsidies to make carbon intensive flights and drives affordable, they expressed zero interest in improving national bus service.

The Jacobin article calls for nationalizing Greyhound into a public agency, but we already have a national bus agency: Amtrak. Amtrak operates a large bus fleet to compensate where its rail lines come short. Amtrak’s problem isn’t a lack of vehicles — Congress refuses to adequately fund Amtrak. The golden rule in national transportation spending dictates that 80% of funds go to highways and 20% to non-airline mass transportation. Libertarian lobbying groups like CATO, the airline industry and car companies propagate to lawmakers that mass transit agencies should be private and profitable ventures. They convinced Congress that the decline of Greyhound ridership and mass transit in favor of cars and airplanes is merely the market rewarding the superior transit mode.

This is a total lie, as anyone who has left the U.S. knows. 

Our car dependency is not the product of market forces but public policy. Cars are the most publicly subsidized transit in the United States, which would have significantly fewer users if 80% of federal transportation funds didn’t go towards its infrastructure. The construction of freeways, the upkeep of car-only roads and parking, and cheap over-drilled gas funded by fossil fuel subsidies constitutes one of the largest public transit programs in the world.

The other big problem facing not just Greyhound but every American bus system is that it’s damn slow. Like all buses nowadays, Greyhound vehicles, despite having a significantly smaller carbon impact per rider versus a motorist, receive zero priority on public roadways. Many American freeways have now reached critical mass in vehicle capacity — inefficiently thanks to private cars — and the biggest losers are buses which become delayed and uncompetitive. 

Slow crawl traffic used to only be a problem at peak hours. Today, it is a problem at all hours; every day our roadways reach critical mass. Most major cities have bumper-to-bumper traffic occurring at various choke points on most interstates at nearly all hours of the day. With public policy causing more Americans to switch to driving, every added car makes the problem worse. One Greyhound or public bus vehicle carrying 10 people sits behind 10 people in 10 cars at standstill traffic.

If you’re going to be stuck in severe traffic, it’s preferable to do it in the comfort of your own car than in a shared space in a bus. If the bus doesn’t drop you off within quick walking distance of your destination and you’ll be stuck in the same traffic anyways, why wouldn’t you opt for a car that handles the last-mile problem? It’s not just Greyhound: there are no more advantages to riding a bus in most American cities, hence the national bus ridership decline. It only works in dense areas like New York or San Francisco because it’s still hard to park a car. If parking is free, all bets are off.

The Jacobin writer correctly picks up on this and notes that the solution would be bus-only lanes on the interstates. This is a wise idea. Intercity transit by bus ought to be perfect in the U.S. because we spent and spend billions to construct freeways which access most suburbs and city centers. Every city in the U.S. should have park n’ rides by highways with one lane in each direction solely for use by bus — both public transit and private operators like Greyhound. 

Unfortunately, anyone who suggests this has never been to a city council meeting where parking or a lane would be removed for any other form of transit. Getting bare minimum bus lanes on a couple corridors in San Francisco — the highest share of bus riders of any city in the U.S. — took decades of defense by transit activists against stubborn driver and business owner opposition. In Berkeley, liberal progressive wonderland, we lost and continue to lose this battle against business owners and drivers who killed bus lanes 10 years ago and a bike lane this year. 

If liberal progressive places who decorate their lawns with climate signs can’t accept dedicating an ounce of space formerly for cars to buses, what hope is there at the national level? Greyhound will inevitably die once private equity plays out the inevitable contradiction of operating profitable bus service and meeting demand to attract more riders. People who can no longer rely on Greyhound will eventually buy cars and drive them around without insurance or maintenance, causing more crashes and deaths.

American freeways and roadways are at complete, critical mass in most major cities in the U.S. The only solution to save and expand mass transit is to let the experience for drivers get even worse and resist freeway expansions. The only solution is a national Amtrak for intercity travel and local public transit with lanes on roads exclusively used by them, not cars.

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