Many northern British Columbians are isolated because the inter-city transportation infrastructure that was lost when Greyhound discontinued its BC routes has not been fully replaced. The BC government is trying to fill the gaps with new private providers—but is this too narrow of an approach?
Where did Greyhound Go?
Greyhound discontinued all of its Canadian service routes west of Sudbury, Ontario as of October 31, 2018 because they were no longer financially feasible. In British Columbia specifically, ridership decreased by 46 percent between 2010 and 2017. As a result, Greyhound’s passenger services in the province were losing $35,000 per day in 2017 and ran a $70 million deficit from 2011 to 2017.
Greyhound attributed its losses to the following challenges:
High overhead costs of navigating and meeting provincial government regulations
New market entry of BC Transit buses making round trips from Prince George to Smithers with heavily-subsidized fares
Increased competition from ride-share programs, budget airlines, and personal cars
How has BC’s government reacted?
The main thrust of BC’s strategy has been to seek private operators to replace Greyhound. The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) tasked the Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) with appealing for, and fast-tracking, applications from private transport companies to service regional areas and remote communities. This process is supposed to wrap up in January 2019.
BC is providing subsidized bus service on some of Greyhound’s former routes. BC Transit began offering $5 bus rides along notorious stretches of Highway 16, which has come to be known as the ‘Highway of Tears’ for the 18 (or more) women and girls who have been kidnapped, and in many cases murdered, while hitchhiking along it since 1969.
BC Transit is also involved with ‘BC Bus North’, a partnership with Pacific Western Transportation that offers limited service to northern communities. This pilot project was intended to be a temporary placeholder until a more permanent solution is formed, and it is slated to end in May 2019.
So, what is the problem?
This response has been insufficient because:
Gaps in infrastructure remain. Though 83 percent of Greyhound’s general routes have been covered by new private operators, only 45 percent of the communities that were ‘stops’ on the old routes are serviced by the new providers
The BC Bus North service is due to end in six months and a successor has not been established
Even if the MOTI achieves its goal of replacing all Greyhound bus routes with new private operators, these companies will face the same challenges that put Greyhound out of business in BC—regulation and competition
The result of these shortcomings is that a significant proportion of BC residents do not have access to inter-city transportation, or may lose access soon. This transportation is essential for safety and access to medical care, education, and work opportunities.
What can public policy do about it?
Problems have a way of growing back unless they’re cut off at the roots. So let’s look back at the reasons Greyhound gave for its exodus from BC:
Excessive government regulations
The government’s stated intention is to replace Greyhound with new private operators, but these companies will be subject to the same regulations that Greyhound felt were so unwieldy. I haven’t studied the MOTI regulation for private operators at any length, but I’m sure that if one were to do so they could identify some inefficiencies that could be amended to ease the burden. I suspect, however, that these would be improvements at the margin. Transportation regulation exists to protect the safety of passengers, and this protection should not be negotiable.
BC Transit’s heavily-subsidized fares on Highway of Tears routes
Similarly, this service was put in place for the safety of the British Columbians. When the market was left to its devices, the options available left citizens exposed to danger. I think it’s right for the government to address this market failure. The program has been positively received and should not go anywhere.
With a shift in perspective, this challenge becomes its own solution. If British Columbians are opting for individualized transportation solutions in increasing numbers, why swim against the tide? Provincial and municipal governments should start thinking creatively about how they can support and expand community-driven initiatives.
In the absence of Greyhound’s services, community members have stepped up to bat. The Prince George Citizen reported that Quesnel service groups began coordinating volunteers to drive locals to medical appointments, and coworkers began to carpool to out-own-town job sites.
In a 2017 eleventh-hour attempt to remain viable, Greyhound pitched the idea of a “Connecting Communities Fund” to the PTB. The idea was that MOTI would provide public funding to rural and First Nations communities, who would use this funding to secure private intercity transit operators. MOTI declined on the basis that it did not want to subsidize commercial operators.
Greyhound’s motivation was clearly self-preservation, but with broader terms of funding the idea has potential. Rather than taking on the mammoth task of coordinating transportation infrastructure across the province, perhaps the BC government should be providing communities with capital and a mandate to connect themselves as they see fit. Some regions may opt for private providers, but others may implement formalized carpooling or a Demand-Response driving service. This could create jobs and avoid the redundancies of empty buses trekking up and down routes that are in demand only sporadically. It would provide communities with ownership and a chance to tailor solutions to their unique contexts.
A fresh perspective on transportation
Of course, there would be complications. Someone would need to coordinate these efforts, and the funding would have to come from somewhere—possibly at the expense of other important programs. My point, however, is one of perspective. A new type of transportation solution may meet citizens’ needs better than the status quo ever did, so we shouldn’t rush to restore it without taking a good look at the alternatives.
Claire Casher is a first-year student in the Masters of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia and a Research Analyst specializing in gender and politics in Southeast Asia. She has worked with nonprofits in Canada, Cambodia, and South Korea.