On May 13, Greyhound “temporarily” suspended all service throughout Canada due to a nearly 95 per cent drop in rider demand. In the following months, major intercity bus services across Canada have gradually resumed, but not Greyhound. There’s good reason to believe it never will.
This would be a disaster for many Canadians who rely on intercity buses, as there’s currently no mass transit alternative to take Greyhound’s place. The best way to avoid this outcome is by establishing a national intercity bus service. Here’s why, and how, that should happen.
Affordable and reliable inter-city bus services are essential for millions of Canadians. This includes working-class people, students and transit-oriented millennials. These services are often the only option available to those in rural or northern areas of Canada. Moreover, the motorcoach as a mode of transportation has an incredibly low emission rate, second only to high-speed rail. Even when running on gas, intercity buses generate just one eighth the emission per capita of private sedans.
Canadians are already suffering in Greyhound’s absence, as for decades it had been the only bus carrier with a national network. Yet as of late, even before the service suspension, Greyhound has been failing to adequately meet this need for reliable transportation.
To start, Greyhound has aggressively cut back services over the years. In July 2018, for example, they abruptly exited from Western Canada, ending service on what the government describes as “a network of over 11,000 route-kilometers affecting 583 stops and up to 2 million passenger trips per year.”
The company cited lack of profitability as the main reason for their exit. This left behind a massive transit vacuum in four provinces and two territories. Now, only a handful of Greyhound’s previous routes remain, all of them in Ontario or Quebec.
The experience for customers on the remaining routes has also been diminished. Greyhound has jacked up the bus fare so high that it can be comparable to flying on some routes. Until recently, it had also allowed United States immigration agents to harass Canada-bound travellers onboard their buses in border states. Moreover, Greyhound’s customer service and their infamous bus terminals in Toronto and New York consistently receive horrendous reviews from customers.
The company is also already on shaky ground financially. In May 2019, Greyhound Canada’s parent company, Scotland-based First Group, began to seek buyers to take over the brand. So far, no one has signalled interest. More recently, the federal government has failed to give aid money to Greyhound Canada, indicating that a bailout is unlikely.
It would also probably take months or years for Greyhound’s ridership to rebound, even if it did resume service. For a bus company running on razor-thin margins, this is a fatal combination of unfortunate events. It’s hard to see how Greyhound gets out of this situation, and there’s little reason to believe that what remains would meet the needs of Canadians.
Thus far, Greyhound hasn’t officially acknowledged their intention to exit the Canadian market. However, according to the Amalgamated Transit Union of Canada, they recently “gave workers an ultimatum: either agree to a 15 per cent wage reduction and give up their pension plan – or face a permanent shut down.”
Additionally, Greyhound’s legal department recently informed the Quebec government of their intention to indefinitely suspend all domestic routes within the province. The future doesn’t look good for Greyhound.
If you live in Ontario or Quebec, you may have wondered at some point why in many parts of the provinces there is only one bus line running on any given route. For example, Megabus is the only option for the Toronto to Montreal line, while Greyhound is the only one for Toronto to Ottawa.
The intercity bus in Canada belongs to federal jurisdictions. However, in the 1950s the federal government was unprepared to perform this duty. They chose to delegate the power of regulation to provinces, which later imposed monopolies on the industry, intended to ensure the reliability and longevity of bus services.
Yet this regulation has failed to serve its purpose, now having the opposite effect. Research has shown that ridership is correlated with service frequency. When multiple companies run the same route, offering more options to travellers, total ridership eventually grows. But in many provinces where monopolies are mandatory, intercity bus services remain inadequate, encouraging travellers to seek rideshares instead.
Canada now has a patchy network of intercity bus services composed of individual, separate bus lines. Those systems often don’t interconnect with each other, rendering transfer almost impossible. Moreover, bus schedules are usually far between, not keeping up with the growth in population. As a result the current intercity bus service fails to reach many Canadians or serve them adequately.
Politicians care little about intercity buses, and so the regulatory system has stayed intact for the past 70 years despite its flaws, with proposals for reform failing to get any serious momentum. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
According to a 2002 Senate of Canada report on intercity buses, “This situation could be changed by a simple legislative amendment (on the federal level), as it was done in 1987 (to federalize the trucking regulation).” This would let Ottawa reclaim its jurisdiction over intercity buses.
This could also theoretically allow for more private companies to take up these routes. Yet this wouldn’t solve the problem.
Private companies, motivated by profit, likely have little interest in serving rural or Northern areas, where many communities are desperate for transit links. Greyhound’s withdrawal from Western Canada and the demise of Acadian Lines in the east, offers clear proof of this. Moreover, due to COVID-19, there will be a drop in future ridership, making it even more difficult for private carriers to sustain a profit.
That’s why we need publicly-funded intercity bus carriers to play a central role in Canada’s national bus network. The government must recognize it as a national infrastructure, and perform the necessary planning and coordination to facilitate its development.
A national system wouldn’t have to start from scratch, as publicly-funded bus systems are already a reality in parts of Canada. Go Buses, for example, connect some cities and towns across Southern Ontario. Quebec has EXO, and British Columbia has BC Bus North.
Ottawa could bring these carriers together and offer incentives so that their services can cross provincial lines. For gaps in between, for example from Manitoba to Saskatchewan where there’s an ongoing transit vacuum, Ottawa can start building what is needed.
If Ottawa continues to ignore reality, Canadians will soon find intercity buses extinct at a time where they’re needed more than ever. It’s not too late if Ottawa acts now.