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editorial

Getting around rural Canada is straightforward – if you happen to own a vehicle. If you don’t, finding an alternative form of transport can be tricky.

The recent news that Greyhound plans to suspend all but one of its routes in Western Canada and Northern Ontario by late October has made that proposition a lot trickier, if not impossible. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Ideally, the void would be filled by the free market, but current circumstances – dwindling ridership and its disastrous effect on the private coach business model – demand a government response, at least temporarily.

This week, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced that her government will expand an existing four-route pilot project in order to provide intercity shuttle services in central and southern Alberta. It will cost about $1.4-million and serve a total population of about 200,000 people. The money will funnel to municipalities, which will have the option of letting private bidders do the actual ferrying of people.

The initiative is commendable, and Ms. Notley says it will be the first of several steps. But as they look beyond temporary measures, governments should keep the focus on spurring innovation and creating better market conditions, rather than on direct subsidies.

For instance, provincial governments could allow private services that use smaller, less expensive vehicles such as passenger vans. They could also incentivize the expansion of app-based ride-sharing.

Transport to, from and within far-flung places is not a matter of convenience. The disappearance of bus links disproportionately affects the financially disadvantaged and the elderly. In many cases, a bus is the only option for getting to a medical appointment or job, or for escaping a perilous personal situation.

There is also a question of elementary fairness. Every Canadian city subsidizes transit in one form or another. If affordable, accessible mass transportation is a public good (it is), then rural areas should also have it in ready supply.

But in the long run, governments trying to fill the gap left by Greyhound should seek market-based solutions as much as possible.

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