Public transit in America has been destroyed by monopoly and individualism
I recently returned from travelling the United States from North Dakota to Texas, then along the Deep South to Charleston, South Carolina. That I was able to achieve this without ever driving to a destination allowed me to become overly familiar with the decaying state of inter-city bus transit in the United States.
Even though the inter-city bus network is derided in the United Kingdom, a wide range of people use it at an affordable price. In the US there are three major markets left for this transportation; homeless being shunted from city to city, those who are banned from driving, and those who have been recently released from prison or a mental health facility (the institution pays for the ticket to get them out of sight and mind). Inter-city buses are also a significant drug trafficking route, and myself and fellow passengers were regularly questioned by police at stations over our identities and reasons for travel.
Compounding the problems is there is usually only one bus company for each route, either Greyhound or one of their regional affiliates. This system acts like any monopoly, enabling inflated prices and disregard for customer satisfaction. At best the journey on a Greyhound is a grubby and overlong experience, at worst you can be decapitated and cannibalised.
The state of public transit in the US comes from a decades long attitude that owning a car is a symbol of freedom and prosperity, while public transportation represents personal economic failure. The most obvious connection between buses and poverty can be found in Los Angeles. Here the Greyhound station is based in the centre of Skid Row, which has one the highest concentrations of homeless people anywhere in the United States. Throughout my travels, the Greyhound station was a magnet for the poorest and most maligned in society who have nowhere else to go.
The alternative of Amtrak rail is beset by its higher ticket price compared to bus, and a limited network outside the ten largest metropolitan areas in the US. It may be fortuitous that passenger rail exists at all in the United States, as Amtrak was only formed as a last resort in 1970 following the bankruptcies of companies Pullman and Penn Central.
The dominance of automobile began to affect the Greyhound around the same time as the Amtrak was formed, and it began the slow transformation into the beast it is today. Tim Park, a resident surgeon in San Antonio, said; ‘as a recent Korean immigrant in the 1970s, my father spent a lot of time on Greyhound buses. He recently got one again to see what it was like, and after his experience promised never again.’
A solution on the horizon may be Megabus. On its routes equivalent Greyhound prices are slashed thanks to the competition, and in my experience, Megabus offered a cleaner, more efficient service. However, Megabus only stopped in eight of the seventeen cities I stayed in. If Megabus continues to expand, it can easily undercut and outperform an antiquated and exploitative public transit system.
The great distances between locations in the United States mean that public transit is always going to be prone to delay and the longer option than taking a car. But bus remains a viable option for travel, and one far more environmentally conscious than renting a car for one or two people. I can only hope that American attitudes can shift in time, aided by competition with the Greyhound and the need of bus companies to reform or die.