Above photo: Image by Canadian Dimension
How can the country trust private firms to run frequent, affordable routes for those who need them most?
After serving Canadians with varying degrees of success for the better part of a century, Greyhound Canada has elected to cease serving them at all. On May 13, the intercity coach service ended its routes in the country for good. The national press release discussed the “decision rationale” for closing up shop. The company looked back to 2018 and its suspended services in the west, citing “years of declining ridership and the impact of a changing and increasingly challenging transportation environment, including de-regulation and subsidized competition such as VIA Rail and publicly owned bus systems.” Then, it pointed the finger at the pandemic and a 95 percent drop in ridership along with “negligible” support from the public purse. In short, the private market space was untenable.
Claiming competition is a barrier to operation and then complaining that governments aren’t subsidizing your company enough is classic capitalist logic. Vampiric and inconsistent with the purported values of a “free market,” Greyhound, which has rolled on public roadways in the country since 1929, has at least admitted to market failure. Further parsing the absurdities of the company’s decision rationale is surplus effort to the broader point: it couldn’t extract the desired profit, so it folded. Good riddance. Let its ashes blow away and let’s replace it with a national public intercity operator—perhaps integrated with existing and, one hopes, soon greatly improved, public rail service.
The case for a national, public intercity bus service is clear and irrefutable. Across the country, especially in rural and northern cities and towns and Indigenous communities, we require safe, affordable, accessible, and consistent transportation. Canadians have a moral right to preserve their communities and a legal right to move about the country. But without access to transportation beyond automobiles, that right is undermined in many localities to the point that it has become non-existent.
Bus service is also a matter of personal safety. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in its Master List of Report Recommendations, cited a “need for more frequent and accessible transportation services to be made available to Indigenous women.” The cited theme drew on over a half-dozen reports stretching back to 2003, including the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium Report. Between 1970 and 2020, dozens of women—mostly Indigenous—went missing or were murdered along northern British Columbia’s Highway 16. Indeed, national intercity bus service is essential to protecting women fleeing abuse throughout the country. It is also crucial for many who need to access medical care or other appointments outside their communities. The same holds for visiting family. That these critical needs were ever subjected to the market imperative in the first place is a stain on the country. Now we have a chance to do better and we should take it.
Illustration by Evin Collis for Canadian Dimension.
In the aftermath of the Greyhound shutdown, regional bus services across the country have indicated an interest in filling the gap. But how can the country trust private firms to fulfill an essential service that has been abandoned before and risks being abandoned again to the vicissitudes of the market and acts of God? How can the country trust private firms to run frequent, affordable intercity routes for those who need them most, not just to populated centres? We can’t. Full stop. Nor should we try. Instead, we ought to adopt a national service, complemented as needed by regional bus services and a mix of national and local rail.
The Amalgamated Transit Union is now organizing to create just such a thing, calling for “national intercity public transit service now” and organizing a letter writing campaign (I am among the hundreds of senders). The word to watch here is national. While transportation policy within a given province is a provincial responsibility, cross-border travel is a federal responsibility. Naturally, there is no reason that sub-national jurisdictions can’t operate bus services within their territory alongside federal rail and regional commuter transit. Some already do. But the country, quite plainly, needs a more reliable and accessible transportation network and the private sector is incapable of delivering that—certainly without massive subsidies, at any rate. And if the state is going to have to pay for the service to operate anyway, why not go the whole way?
A national public intercity service, especially if supported by regional public services, would make for a welcome system dedicated to the public interest rather than the profit motive. Moreover, it’s a fine moment to adapt and build out our regional and national transit system in the service of meeting—even exceeding—our climate targets. The Pembina Institute argues public transportation—and public support for it—must be part of our decarbonization efforts, citing the fact that a quarter of our national emissions come from the transportation sector. Worse still, those emissions are on the rise.
Canada is already investing in electrifying local public transit buses and school buses. Once more, why not go the whole way? In fact, why not make the effort part of the country’s pandemic recovery plan? At this point, the idea ought not to even qualify as a “big” or “bold” initiative, to draw a couple of adjectives from the centrist technocratic lexicon. Why not adopt a fossil fueled-powered service now for immediate needs and build out an electric service later? Generate local, provincial, and national capacity. Support companies that contribute to social goods. Create and support jobs. The technological capacity is not yet where we need it to be for our national purpose, but the idea itself is nowhere near novel and there’s more than enough capacity to get started.
The details of how we might design a national public intercity system alongside regional systems are important, but for the moment the principle of the idea matters most. So will public support and political will. If we wish to pursue this idea, and we ought to, we will have to sort out jurisdictional and technological issues, not to mention logistical considerations that exceed the paygrade of a politics writer for hire. But lest we default to sleepwalking into “market solutions” that will merely burn us once more down the road, we should toss our cap over the wall and commit to a national public intercity system now.