Don’t Buy Greenland—Buy Greyhound

The bus company is for sale. The federal government should nationalize it and expand its low-carbon, affordable services.

Joel M. Batterman September 19, 2019

Greyhound buses provide a vital service to rural and low-income communities—at a low cost to the climate. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post/Getty Images)

This arti­cle is part of Cov­er­ing Cli­mate Now, a glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion of more than 250 news out­lets to strength­en cov­er­age of the cli­mate sto­ry.

When the nar­ra­tor of Simon and Garfunkel’s clas­sic 1968 song goes to look for Amer­i­ca,” he takes a Grey­hound bus. 50 years lat­er, there’s nev­er been a bet­ter time for Amer­i­ca to go look­ing for Greyhound.

In the last three decades, the strug­gling inter-city bus com­pa­ny has gone through two bank­rupt­cies and been passed from an Amer­i­can con­glom­er­ate, to a Cana­di­an con­glom­er­ate, to a British one, First­Group. And in May, First­Group put Grey­hound up for sale.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (who used the Simon and Gar­funkel song in a 2016 cam­paign ad) often talks of nation­al­iz­ing var­i­ous sec­tors of the U.S. econ­o­my, from health insur­ance to ener­gy pro­duc­tion. The next pres­i­dent should also buy up and expand Grey­hound as part of a Green New Deal: The bus ser­vice it pro­vides is essen­tial, pro­vid­ing low-cost and low-car­bon trav­el for mil­lions of peo­ple every year. High-speed rail may be glitzi­er, and it’s cer­tain­ly vital, but any future zero-car­bon trans­porta­tion sys­tem must also rely on a larg­er, green­er net­work of inter-city buses.

The Amtrak Precedent

The obvi­ous par­al­lel to pub­lic own­er­ship of Grey­hound is Amtrak, the gov­ern­ment-fund­ed pas­sen­ger rail author­i­ty estab­lished in 1971. At the time, America’s pri­vate­ly owned pas­sen­ger rail­roads were spi­ral­ing into bank­rupt­cy in the face of com­pe­ti­tion from air­lines, pub­licly fund­ed Inter­state high­ways, and the cars (and bus­es) that used them. Under pres­sure from advo­ca­cy groups like the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Rail­road Pas­sen­gers (NARP), Con­gress passed the Rail Pas­sen­ger Ser­vice Act, which incen­tivized rail­road cor­po­ra­tions to spin off their mon­ey-los­ing pas­sen­ger divi­sions into a con­sol­i­dat­ed, pub­licly fund­ed system.

Unlike the high­ways and the air­ports, which get a con­stant flow of fuel tax rev­enue, Amtrak nev­er got a con­sis­tent, ded­i­cat­ed fund­ing source, and it shows. Across much of the nation, the rail net­work remains skele­tal. Even on the dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed North­east Cor­ri­dor between Boston and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., the upgrad­ed high­er-speed” Amtrak ser­vice (the Acela) is slow­er than the tru­ly high-speed train ser­vice that exists across much of Europe and Asia.

Still, the cre­ation of Amtrak has ensured that some form of pas­sen­ger train ser­vice endures across much of the Unit­ed States. Where states have invest­ed in faster, more fre­quent ser­vice (often with the help of Oba­ma-era stim­u­lus funds), it’s not only sur­vived but pros­pered, with routes in places from Michi­gan to Wash­ing­ton state see­ing dou­ble-dig­it per­cent­age rid­er­ship increases.

Today, it’s Grey­hound that’s on the ropes. After its 2003 bank­rupt­cy, Grey­hound cut a stag­ger­ing 37% of its bus net­work, includ­ing rough­ly 1,000 stops, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rur­al areas. Inter-city bus trav­el did enjoy a small renais­sance around the time of the Great Reces­sion, as gas prices spiked and dis­count car­ri­ers like Megabus entered the mar­ket, push­ing Grey­hound to add more express routes. But now that fuel costs have plum­met­ed and dis­count air­lines have pro­lif­er­at­ed, inter-city bus sys­tems are again in trouble.

Megabus has slashed much of the ser­vice it rolled out scarce­ly a decade ear­li­er, and down­sized its major Chica­go hub. Last year, Grey­hound announced it was elim­i­nat­ing all its routes in west­ern Cana­da, spurring calls for nation­al­iza­tion north of the bor­der. The next series of cuts could be on its way.

The cen­tral obsta­cle to recov­ery is that the fed­er­al sub­sidy for inter-city bus­es is rel­a­tive­ly small: about half a bil­lion dol­lars for rur­al bus ser­vice as of fis­cal year 2017, com­pared to $37 bil­lion in high­way fund­ing and $18 bil­lion for avi­a­tion. Inter-city rail his­tor­i­cal­ly got between $1 and $2 bil­lion, but is now rid­ing high at near­ly $3 billion.

Giv­en the rel­a­tive suc­cess of Amtrak, even on a pal­try bud­get, why hasn’t Grey­hound been nation­al­ized, too? There are a few rea­sons. In the ear­ly 1970s, when nation­al­iza­tion was in the air, Grey­hound was still rid­ing high on the new Inter­state high­ways — pub­lic own­er­ship didn’t seem urgent. By the time of the company’s 1990 bank­rupt­cy, the Rea­gan-Bush régime in Wash­ing­ton had made the idea of pub­lic own­er­ship anathema.

It’s also like­ly that the dynam­ics of racism and clas­sism in Amer­i­ca have played a role. Although train trav­el­ers are a pret­ty diverse bunch, Amtrak always had a ready-made base of busi­ness-class trav­el­ers on its North­east Cor­ri­dor and Chica­go hub ser­vices. Although exact sta­tis­tics are not read­i­ly avail­able, it’s like­ly that, by com­par­i­son, Grey­hound rid­ers tend to be low­er-income peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or; the com­pa­ny esti­mates that less than one-third of its cus­tomers earn more than $35,000 per year.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, then, that Amtrak rid­ers have wield­ed more (albeit lim­it­ed) polit­i­cal clout. So far, there has been no bus-ori­ent­ed equiv­a­lent of Antho­ny Haswell, the Chica­go-based lawyer who found­ed the NARP and helped bring Amtrak into being.

The Cli­mate Imperative

There’s a clear case to be made for nation­al­iza­tion sim­ply to restore Greyhound’s ser­vices, rather than allow fur­ther cut­backs. After all, inter-city bus ser­vice is still vital for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, espe­cial­ly those who don’t own their own cars. As of 2014, the com­pa­ny had about 18 mil­lion rid­ers per year, about two-thirds the num­ber of Amtrak pas­sen­gers. In much of the coun­try, how­ev­er, Grey­hound is the only option for inter-city trav­el, and even with major new invest­ments in Amtrak, that’s like­ly to be the case for the fore­see­able future.

The cri­sis of glob­al cli­mate change, how­ev­er, is prob­a­bly the most urgent rea­son for pub­lic own­er­ship. The largest share of U.S. car­bon pol­lu­tion comes from the trans­porta­tion sec­tor, with fly­ing and dri­ving the two most car­bon-inten­sive modes avail­able at most dis­tances. By con­trast, the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists (UCS) has called inter-city bus­es the low-car­bon trav­el champ,” stat­ing that they emit less than one-sixth the car­bon, per pas­sen­ger, of a sin­gle-occu­pan­cy car, and are rough­ly two-and-a-half to five times more effi­cient than fly­ing for trips of less than 1,000 miles. They also hand­i­ly beat out trains: Although most bus­es are diesel-fueled, so are most Amtrak trains.

With a Green New Deal, we can hope that much more of the rail net­work will be elec­tri­fied rather than diesel-pow­ered, and that more (even­tu­al­ly all) of our elec­tric­i­ty will come from zero-car­bon sources. For the moment, how­ev­er, even diesel bus­es are a huge boon to the cli­mate. Mov­ing for­ward, a pub­licly owned Grey­hound could imple­ment a fleet of even clean­er elec­tric buses.

Even with a full fleet of zero-car­bon local tran­sit and high-speed rail, fre­quent, reli­able inter-city bus ser­vice will still be an essen­tial com­ple­ment to a mod­ern rail net­work. Amtrak already con­tracts with Grey­hound and oth­er com­pa­nies to pro­vide thruway bus ser­vice” and take rid­ers the last mile” (make that 50 to 100 miles) to pop­u­la­tion cen­ters that lack con­nect­ing train ser­vice. As more peo­ple get on board the trains, these ser­vices will only become more necessary.

It’s also worth not­ing the polit­i­cal val­ue of includ­ing invest­ments in inter-city bus ser­vice as part of Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion. Sup­port for tran­sit invest­ment often fol­lows a pre­dictable urban-rur­al divide, with sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed rur­al areas express­ing less sup­port for tran­sit on the premise that it chiefly ben­e­fits big cities. (Indeed, sev­er­al U.S. states have no Amtrak train ser­vice: South Dako­ta, Wyoming, Alas­ka and Hawai‘i.) But Grey­hound has his­tor­i­cal­ly served small­er towns as well as larg­er cities, which could help build rur­al sup­port for a com­pre­hen­sive green tran­sit sys­tem — espe­cial­ly impor­tant when con­sid­er­ing rur­al states hold dis­pro­por­tion­ate pow­er in the Sen­ate and Elec­toral College.

Pres­i­dent Trump prob­a­bly wouldn’t be caught dead on a Grey­hound bus, even a gold-plat­ed one. But as the seas rise, instead of buy­ing Green­land, we’d be bet­ter off buy­ing Grey­hound, expand­ing inter-city bus ser­vice and tak­ing a bite out of cli­mate change.

Joel M. Bat­ter­man is a Ph.D. stu­dent in urban and region­al plan­ning at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. He lives in Detroit and serves as co-chair of the board of direc­tors of the Motor City Free­dom Rid­ers, an orga­ni­za­tion of Detroit bus rid­ers and allies work­ing for expand­ed pub­lic tran­sit. He also recent­ly cre­at­ed the Grey­hound Rid­ers Union, cur­rent­ly a small Face­book group but with grand hopes of expansion.
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