With Little Government Assistance, Intercity Bus Services Struggle to Regain Footing

Although intercity buses provide a crucial service to millions of Americans, the industry has been shut out of recent pandemic assistance programs while riders continue to experience dismal facilities and shrinking service options.

October 4, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Intercity Buses

Philip Lange / Shutterstock

Despite serving twice as many customers as Amtrak, intercity bus service did not receive direct aid during the pandemic from either the CARES Act or the American Rescue Act, writes Jake Blumgart. "For tens of millions of Americans, intercity bus companies like Greyhound, Megabus, and myriad smaller actors are an essential part of the nation’s transportation system." These services "have long served as a lifeline to areas without train or plane service, and for riders who don’t have access to a car. It is an essential service for rural America, for students, and for low-income people."

Because bus travel primarily serves disadvantaged groups, "advocates say that further federal aid should be extended to their mode of travel, as it was for so many others earlier in the pandemic. Failing that, local and, especially, state policymakers could help to fill the gap." 

Unlike other transportation industries, the deregulation of intercity bus travel in the 1980s "did not spur a surge of new entrants or innovation. Instead, Greyhound gobbled up many of its big competitors while downsizing its operations" before going bankrupt in 1990. "Today, very few operators are stopping on the side of a country road. Although Greyhound is still the largest motorcoach company, it is a shadow of its former self and the newer competitors that finally started to emerge in the 2000s were largely non-union." 

This year, as the Delta variant started to spread, only roughly 60 percent of riders have returned to intercity buses, and the companies are still struggling to rebuild. Blumgart argues that "[t]he industry never saw the public intervention that surrounds rail and airline travel because, for the most part, both its riders and its operators are unheard in policy circles." But even in the absence of federal aid, "[b]us advocates say that local officials can ensure riders have access to decent facilities," such as accommodations beyond city sidewalks or parking lots with no shelter from the elements.

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