A publicly owned intercity bus service with dedicated highway lanes could do for travelers what the US Postal Service does for letters and packages: let them criss-cross the country cheaply and quickly at their own convenience.
An old-model Greyhound bus. (Charlie Day / Flickr)
When I was growing up, I could walk from my parents’ place to the Greyhound station in East Lansing, Michigan. There was another one ten minutes’ drive from there in downtown Lansing. At either station, I could buy an inexpensive ticket on the spot and wait inside until my bus came to take me to, for example, visit my sister in Oberlin, Ohio.
Neither East Lansing nor Oberlin are anything you could possibly call a “hub,” but it didn’t matter. The Greyhound went everywhere.
That’s becoming less and less true. As of the last time I was in Michigan before my parents moved, the East Lansing station was long gone. The Lansing one was still there — at least for the moment.
Greyhound has stopped service to Little Rock, Arkansas, a city with a significantly greater population than Lansing and East Lansing combined. Service was shut down for a year in Jackson, Mississippi. They’ve even shuttered downtown stations in Houston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Tampa, Louisville, Charlottesville, and Portland. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get a bus to one of those places, but it might mean waiting in the rain for curbside pickup — or having to find your own way to an area way beyond the reach of public transportation.
A new CNN report about Greyound’s woes mentioned that thirty-three stations around the country have recently been sold to Twenty Lakes Holdings — a subsidiary of hedge fund Aiden Global Capital. Twenty Lakes isn’t planning on starting up a rival intercity bus service. They just want the real estate.
When passengers who can afford plane tickets are stranded by travel snafus, the media treats it as a scandal. But even though the tens of millions of Americans who use Greyhound and other intercity bus services for many hundreds of millions a trip a year skew much lower income and have far fewer options, coverage of their travel problems is rare.
A full quarter of Greyhound riders have told pollsters that they wouldn’t be able to make some of these trips if the bus wasn’t an option. Right now, that means a lot of people just not having a way to travel. If you can afford to rent a car or take a very long Uber trip, flying to a hub near where you want to go might work out fine. But one of the chief advantages of Greyhound is supposed to be that it goes everywhere and does it on the cheap.
As Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara wrote two years ago in the Guardian after a previous round of the service’s contraction, which was executed to turn a short-term profit for shareholders, Greyhound is locked in a cycle that ultimately eats away at these selling points. For one thing, they’ve had to jack up prices, diminishing their long-term advantage over alternative forms of transportation. For another:
Greyhound alone still services some 2,400 station stops. Unfortunately, this practical strength is also a business weakness.
A daily roundtrip from Newport News to Norfolk is significantly less profitable than hourly trips to and from a major hub such as New York City. Lacking extensive regulation and government subsidy, Greyhound executives are forced to focus their investments on the most profitable schedules while ditching small-town and rural communities. Yet this is another bind: while coastal schedules have the highest ridership they also face the stiffest competition from budget and Chinatown bus lines such as Megabus and from Amtrak and regional rail. The profit squeeze is tight and it will only get tighter.
The shape of the problem is similar to the ones that would face the US Postal Service in a libertarian dystopia where the USPS was privatized. It would no longer be enough for the service to make enough money to pay for its operating cost, pre-fund pensions, and so on. Shareholders would need to see returns. It’s a safe bet that, in anything like this scenario, rural delivery would be severely cut back and it would certainly no longer be possible to send a standard-sized letter from, say, San Bernardino, California, to Fairbanks, Alaska, for 66 cents.
So why not nationalize Greyhound as well? As Sunkara pointed out in 2021, Greyhound’s problems mean that the government could buy it up cheaply, build dedicated lanes on the “already nationalized interstate highway system,” and soon have it be financially self-sufficient like the USPS. This would be very good for the climate — buses are one of the least emission-heavy forms of practical intercity travel — and “the buses would effectively advertise themselves: individual motorists, watching buses zoom by them, will soon realize that if you want to get somewhere fast, the bus is the way to go.”
The idea might sound extreme, but it absolutely shouldn’t. Sports stadiums are often built by public domain seizures against the will of the sellers, and remarkably few commentators seem to have a problem with that. After two years of Greyhound’s prospects deteriorating considerably from where they were in 2021, it’s a safe bet that the current owners would be all too eager to sell.
The USPS in its current iteration has existed since 1972. We’ve had a public postal service in one form or another since 1775. Is giving people a cheap and easy way to transport themselves across the country really less important than transporting letters and packages?
The juxtaposition of CNN’s new report on the long, slow death of Greyhound and the approach of Christmas makes the stakes clear. Last year, airline passengers being stranded over the holiday was (appropriately) treated as a scandal and a massive embarrassment for Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
But what about the passengers who couldn’t visit their loved ones at all without a bus to take them cheaply from one non-hub to another? Do they matter?
If so, it’s time to consider nationalization.Original post