There are many reasons for Greyhound’s impending exit from the bus business in Western Canada.
There is the steady rise of car ownership, the expansion of regional airlines into smaller communities and the generally plodding nature of bus travel.
If you happen to have a lot of time on your hands and not much money, the bus is for you. Fast, it is not. Greyhound’s soon-to-disappear Winnipeg-Calgary run takes 19 hours, with 46 stops along the way, including Sinatula, Sask. (pop. 98, and falling). By car, you’ll get to Calgary six hours sooner.
The existential challenge for Greyhound and other intercity bus carriers is the steady emptying out of rural Canada. In 1929, when Greyhound and its ubiquitous running-dog logo began service, half of Canadians lived in rural areas. Today, fewer than one in five do.
That is only part of the depopulation story because Statistics Canada considers urban dwellers to be anyone living in a community of 5,000 people or more. Nearly half of small communities that are located a long way from major cities – just the sorts of places served by Greyhound – are also shrinking rapidly, according to the 2016 census.
The result has left Dallas-based Greyhound with too many unsustainable routes sprinkled across the vast landscape of Western Canada, including buses serving remote Northern aboriginal communities. The company’s buses, which can typically carry up to 55 passengers, are often doing runs with fewer than 10 people on board. Across the country, Greyhound ridership is down nearly 41 per cent since 2010 – a grim warning for customers in Ontario and Quebec, where the company will continue to operate.
Greyhound isn’t alone in its struggles. The bus industry has been shrinking, and ailing, in line with depopulation for years. There were 13 intercity and rural bus companies in 2015, half as many as in 2008, according to the latest industry data from Statscan. And the sector lost money in all but two of the years over that period.
As recently as the early 1990s, virtually every city in Ontario was served by at least one daily intercity bus connection. Many of those routes have been cut in the decades since, leaving dozens of communities without bus service of any kind.
As small remote communities shrink, communities within the orbits of Canada’s largest cities are growing. Cities that surround large urban centres – so-called “peripheral municipalities” – grew significantly faster than the country’s largest cities between 2011 and 2016, according to Statscan.
And these cities are generally much better served by buses and other modes of transportation. In central Canada, for example, there are still plenty of options for travel in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor – including air, rail, bus and various shuttles. And there are curbside rivals to Greyhound, such as Megabus, which offers easy online booking and on-board wi-fi.
So what’s the solution for more remote areas? Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley want Ottawa to step in – presumably with federal cash and more regulation.
Canadian taxpayers should know what they would be getting into. Most of the routes being abandoned by Greyhound are money losers with dwindling ridership. Government involvement means heavily subsidizing private companies to operate intercity bus service, or getting directly into the bus service.
Saskatchewan learned its lesson the hard way. A year ago, it shut down provincially owned Saskatchewan Transportation Co., which had provided bus service to 170 destinations, in the face of years of losses and dramatic declines in ridership. Ontario Northland, a provincial Crown corporation, which connects dozens of Northern communities to Ottawa and Toronto, lost $14-million last year in spite of $35-million in subsidies from the province. The jury is still out on public ownership in B.C., where the government last month launched a new service serving some Northern communities abandoned in an earlier round of Greyhound cuts.
Several niche operators, including Kasper Transportation of Thunder Bay, Ont., and Calgary-based Red Arrow Motorcoach, have already expressed interest in taking over some routes abandoned by Greyhound. Smaller bus and van services will no doubt fill other voids.
That’s an encouraging sign that the private sector is ready to step up.
But unless governments are committed to repopulating rural Canada, subsidizing uneconomic bus service to remote areas will prove to be a losing game.