Linking US Small Cities and Towns: Time for State Leadership

When I was a boy, the US had a robust network of intercity commercial transit services, run by Greyhound and Trailways.  These services didn’t just link the biggest cities.  They also linked smaller towns and cities, too small or too close for airlines to serve.

In my home state of Oregon, for example,  the network looked like this.

Oregon private sector intercity bus services in 1976. Source: Bill Vandervoort chicagorailfan.com.

 

We often rode Greyhound (blue) or Trailways (red) from Portland to the then-small towns of Central Oregon (150 miles) or on one one of four routes out to towns on the coast, 60-100 miles away.

Almost all of those services are gone.  Private intercity bus companies, including new players like Megabus, stick to linking big cities.  All that remains is a minimal state-funded service called Point, one or two trips a day, mostly to feed Amtrak.

Transit agencies have done their best, but the US habit of organizing transit in county-level agencies means that many obvious services don’t exist.  Consider Eugene, Oregon (metro population about 250,000 with a big university).  It has a city bus line (4 trips/day) to the small mountain town of McKenzie Bridge, 53 miles away, but there’s no line to go the 41 miles to Corvallis (population 58,000 with the state’s other major university).  Why? McKenzie Bridge happens to be in the same county, and Corvallis in a different one.

Australia has similar geography to many US states but features state control of all public transit.  Local governments, including the rural ones that are comparable to US counties, have little role.  This arrangement has big downsides, but it does mean that state government actively organizes the long transit lines linking small cities, often with rail but extended as needed with buses.  As a result, there’s a viable public transit option for intertown travel in many parts of Austraila.

We have worked for several county and municipal transit agencies on addressing this problem. All are doing their best. Some have formed interesting partnerships, such Oregon’s NW Connector, to extend service a ways into adjacent counties and present multi-county networks in an integrated way.  But the mission of a county or municipal agency just does not let them run the long, continuous routes that make sense for these markets.

So bravo to the State of Colorado for a new initiative to expand state-funded service for obviously intercity links across their state.  Oregon is in the early stages of developing more such services, thanks to a new statewide funding source.  What is your state doing in this regard?

38 Responses to Linking US Small Cities and Towns: Time for State Leadership

  1. Waiukuian August 7, 2019 at 11:07 am #

    An advantage of being small is that New Zealand has no state level. It goes from district ( which I think equates to US county) with the next level up being national.

  2. Michaela August 7, 2019 at 2:24 pm #

    Moving between Seattle and Austin, this is one of the big differences between their transit that I’ve always struggled to convey to my Texas relatives. Transit in Austin, for the most part, stops at the city/county line (there’s a few bedroom community commuter lines). Seattle, on the other hand, is at the center of a four county, seven-plus agency interconnected network. I have to be going waaaay out-of-the-way before I start to worry about it being undoable rather than merely patience-requiring.

  3. DL August 7, 2019 at 3:36 pm #

    Why is privately planned and branded transit of any kind a good idea, besides historical momentum? (uncoordinated fares, poor connections, reduced mobility and plenty of other things this blog has covered)

    Also, as Waiukuian points out State level planning is not enough.. In the midwest it can be frustrating because decently sized (10s of thousands) sized towns are poorly connected across states.

    • Dave August 8, 2019 at 8:11 am #

      “Also, as Waiukuian points out State level planning is not enough”

      This may be true. But, what’s the alternative? The next level up is National level planning of transit, which just isn’t going to happen in a country where (1) rural folk living in places that will never sustain any level of transit control one of the two houses of Congress and (2) cities and transit in general are constantly denigrated by one of the only two political parties capable of winning control of Congress in our lifetimes.

      • DL August 9, 2019 at 9:02 am #

        If I’m completely honest I think the real option is to just bite the bullet and work *really* hard on refining national planning. You don’t have to have citizens vote for you to do something nonpartisan like do a national review of transit service connectivity over long distances.. I mean seriously, it’s mostly buses and even in the United States, where I live, I find it incredibly difficult to find this kind of thing being stalled. You don’t have to plan every local bus line from Washington, you just need a strong and disciplined national authority that sets standards for connectivity.

        • John Miller August 16, 2019 at 8:28 pm #

          As Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

  4. asdf2 August 7, 2019 at 7:24 pm #

    I’ve ridden a bit of small-town rural bus service in Washington State. The coverage map looks surprisingly good, although the frequency and span of service is very limited. The is especially an issue when making connections. If you’re lucky, the connections are timed and you only have to wait 10 minutes. If you’re not lucky, your connection might require waiting an hour – or multiple hours.

    Also, between limited span of service (rural bus service out here generally shuts down for the night around 6 PM) and connection overhead, you typically can’t get nearly as far in an out-and-back daytrip as you could with a car. Once transit requires an overnight stay, it becomes almost impossible to justify, as the hotel bill would almost always cost more than a rental car.

    In general, I feel like the agencies are mostly doing as good of a job as they can with their very limited budget, but there is room for improvement. In particular, I would like to see more coordinated connections, where the wait time to transfer between two hourly buses is 5 minutes, rather than 45 minutes, with the drivers radioing each other so that if one bus is late, the others wait. Service should also focus on connecting the towns together, rather than serving deserted park-and-rides in the middle of nowhere.

    It is absolutely essential that small-town bus services connect with the bus service of the nearest major city, rather than operate in a silo, as big cities have services that small towns don’t have, and it’s important to be able to get there and back without being forced to spend $200 on a hotel night. To be useful, the schedules need to be designed so that it’s possible to ride transit all the way into the nearest major city’s downtown and be able to spend at least a few hours there before it’s necessary to turn around and go back to avoid missing the last bus.

    • John Miller August 8, 2019 at 10:30 am #

      Caveat: I’m not a Professional. In planning a recent transit tour, I found that I could not get off for a little while in Newberg or Dundee, I would have had to commit to over 3 hours at either place. By looking at the (usable) “time on the ground” between buses at different towns I was able to piece together a fun day out, with Lunch in one town, a shot of Rye in the next town and Dinner before taking MAX back into the city. OF COURSE pleasure trips are different from commuting. I learned that were Express / commute hour runs made as well. I had all your same thoughts in planning this tour. More fun on the way, for me! Go to dialectrix dot com slash TransitTours for details. Anyone know of diagrams similar to the crude one I came up with?

  5. Steven August 7, 2019 at 11:09 pm #

    The problem doesn’t not exist in Australia, it’s just less common due to the pattern of settlement with large cities (mainly) not being near state borders.

    The 2 major issues involve New South Wales:

    – Gold Coast (Qld) and Tweed Coast/Tweed Valley (NSW)
    – Canberra (ACT) and Queanbeyan/Murrumbateman/Yass (NSW)

    although in both cases those are metropolitan systems rather than regional ones

    Logically the small, regional NSW bits adjacent to much larger and more urbanised systems across the border should be part of the larger system with integrated ticketing, planning, branding etc and with a revenue sharing agreement between NSW and Qld/ACT. Unfortunately that just seems to be too hard, or not worth bothering with, despite there being cross-border commissioners whose duties are to work on this stuff. The weird way NSW sets its public transport fares probably doesn’t help.

    The towns adjacent one another on the NSW / Vic border seem to work better because they are both fairly small (Echuca/Moama, Albury/Wodonga etc).

  6. Alon Levy August 8, 2019 at 7:07 am #

    How fast were these bus connections? Buses have a big stop penalty if they need to get off the highway to stop in city center – this is how Megabus, GoBus, etc. are so much faster in the Northeast than the traditional Greyhound connections.

  7. John Charles Wilson August 8, 2019 at 7:43 am #

    I remember when Greyhound quit serving small towns. I really thought most of the cutbacks were unnecessary; they could have at least saved the small town stops which were directly on highways between major cities by turning them into call-ahead stops. That way, no stop would have to be made when no one wanted on or off, but the stop would have been available as needed.

  8. Scott Albrecht August 8, 2019 at 7:45 am #

    Jarrett, how do the principles you have laid out in network planning relate to this? It seems like this would be very much akin to the coverage services you describe for suburbia. We should expect fairly low frequency, and making connections to be hard.
    In Canada Greyhound shut down most routes in Western Canada, so you can’t even get between big cities like Winnipeg (700K) and Calgary (1M+) except by flying. In southern Ontario, GO transit (provincially run) is doing some connecting of cities in the periphery of Toronto, but nothing beyond that.

    • David Huggins-Daines August 8, 2019 at 8:17 am #

      It comes down to state support. Québec unlike the rest of Canada still has regional bus service for the most part, a lot of which is now funded by the regions (though privately operated). For example: https://mrcjoliette.qc.ca/transport-mrc-joliette/circuits-regionaux/

      • David Huggins-Daines August 8, 2019 at 8:39 am #

        Ah, but I have somewhat missed the point – inter-regional bus service (Orléans Express) is also subsidized here. But it’s under threat 🙁

    • Mike August 16, 2019 at 12:12 pm #

      Low frequency, yes, but not bad connections. And “low frequency” should be every 1-2 hours in areas like Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, including Sundays, not once or twice a day, or weekdays only, or peak only. You shouldn’t have to come from Walla Walla, WA to the central transfer point in Ellensburg, and wait a few hours for the Greyhound to Seattle or Spokane, or worse, miss the Geyhound and wait twelve hours for the next one. Or look at Amtrak to Spokane and Leavenworth (a small “Bavarian” town in the Cascades “Alps”). The Spokane stop is at 12:30am both ways. The Leavenworth stop is at 8pm, which outside summer is already dark and so harder to get around if you’re unfamiliar with the area and don’t have a car and don’t want to use taxis. Or take a bus to Vancouver, Washington; sometimes you can’t get there and back without an overnight stay. These kinds of mega-transfers and unworkable schedules are why people don’t take statewide and rural transit more, and it’s forcing them to use cars and airplanes even if they don’t really want to.

  9. Rod Stevens August 8, 2019 at 8:34 am #

    I live on Bainbridge Island, and a bus from Clallam County, serving Sequim, Port Angeles and Neah Bay, meets the ferry here, which is two counties away from the home county. It is an interesting example of the economic necessity of that poorer and older county connecting its people to the Seattle metro area, which they come down to for the airport and medical service. I believe the service may connect all the way to Forks, which is on the opposite side of the Olympics, and in Jefferson County.

    My guess is that as residents in southern Oregon age, they will increasingly need bus service to get to their medical appointments. Many of those residents moved there in early retirement and when federal tax apportionments provided a high level of local government services. Now that those transfer payments are gone, those county governments will inevitably need to consolidate and reconcile their public services. The public transit needs of those residents are probably differing from those living and working in cities. It would be interesting to know their performance metrics.

    • John Miller August 8, 2019 at 10:34 am #

      I suspect this is why Yamhill Country runs its Line 33 up to Hillsboro from McMinnville. to take people to all the medical services there.

    • Mike August 16, 2019 at 1:07 pm #

      That Port Angeles service is one of the best examples of rural transit, and so are the routes on some of the Puget Sound islands. The Whidbey Island route is hourly weekdays and crosses a sixty-mile island with several towns and is timed with the Seattle-area ferry. But next door, while there are highways between the other end of the route and Everett, the bus service is much less. Everett to Mt Vernon is peak only, and I don’t know if you can still get from Mt Vernon to north Whidbey; if you can it’s at limited times.

      The Port Angeles route is only a couple years old and is an unprecedented improvement. it crosses three counties and is funded by the furthest county to get access to the city. It runs twice a day on weekdays and Saturdays, once a day on Sundays, and is timed with the ferry. There’s a statewide route overlapping it, which goes all the way to the Seattle hospitals and the airport, but it’s $80 round trip while the other bus is $20 (plus $8 for the ferry).

      When Greyhound withdrew from small-town segments, it contributed to a state project to launch four statewide lines to replace it and reach additional rural areas. I think this was an additional area. So the state funds the Dungeness Line but Greyhound actually operates it. Greyhound used to run Seattle to Chicago but then it cut east of Missoula. I don’t know if Montana and North Dakota have similar statewide services to replace it, but you can no longer get a through ticket from Greyhound’s site. Greyhound used to offer nationwide tickets using the other Trailways services to fill gaps, but now when I plug in Seattle-Chicago it says “not possible” or “via Denver” or “via Sacramento”.

  10. Jeff Wegerson August 8, 2019 at 11:35 am #

    North Central New Mexico has a service ( https://www.ncrtd.org/ ) which is providing service to 10,079 square miles of northern New Mexico. They provide ” free and premium fare-based bus transit connecting communities and pueblos throughout the counties of north central New Mexico including Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Taos.”

  11. Vincent Puhakka August 8, 2019 at 5:11 pm #

    Here in Ontario we have the same problem. The rural bus routes (Greyhound and others) have been whittled to almost nothing, with most bus service limited to connecting mid-sized cities to Toronto and Ottawa. Past Human Transit contributor Shaun Cleaver and I struck out on our own to make a bus map of the province, since the government had stopped publishing one in the 1990’s (with the exception of maps for it’s own, publicly run services: Go Transit and Ontario Northland)

    You can see it here: https://dudewheresmybusmap.wordpress.com/. Bear in mind we had *no* experience at all with mapping and just wanted to kick start a conversation on what’s happened to the overall intercity and rural network. Glad that Jarrett chose to talk about this issue as well, hopefully all across North America, state and provincial governments will work to reverse this trend.

  12. Ron Kilcoyne August 8, 2019 at 6:38 pm #

    I have long wondered what if intercity bus providers could be wholesalers for parcels carriers – USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc. providing carriage from hubs to smaller communities instead of each entity sending their own trucks far and wide. Serving multiple parcels carriers rather than say just the postal service could warrant multiple trips on many routes allowing for both day trip round trips and connections with other services to create a true network. It would require the Federal government to fund a few pilots to see if this even is doable, and then provide incentives at least initially to scale it if it is doable. Yes highways and airlines contributed to the decline in rail passenger service but so did the loss of headend business – revenue generating mail and package express that were carried on passenger trains before shifting to trucks. Labor strife at Greyhound in the early 90’s resulted in a permanent loss of package express business that also hurt Greyhound’s bottom line.

    Greyhound has moved its stops to intermodal transit centers in many cities and has also established a Greyhound Connect program similar to airlines contracted “express” service. These have been good moves but I think Greyhound could be much more aggressive in expanding Greyhound Connect services to connect with its trunk services (including carrying package express). And finally the upcoming Federal Surface Transportation reauthorization is an opportunity to increase funding to support intercity bus services to smaller communities.

    • John Miller August 8, 2019 at 7:15 pm #

      I taught a “General System THeiry” class in the mod 1970’s. Out transportation and distribution model was based on this idea. http://newworldmodel.org/app/transportation-distribution.html

    • Bjorn August 8, 2019 at 9:08 pm #

      Has anyone here used Greyhound Package Express? Internet reviews have them anywhere from basically “will leave your package unrecognizable and days late” to “the best kept secret for cheaply and quickly sending large items between cities if you and your counterpart are okay picking the package up at a station.”

      • Mike August 16, 2019 at 1:18 pm #

        I haven’t used it but I know people who worked for companies that used it. They liked it because the bus runs every day so it’s pretty reliable.

  13. Anton Metalnikov August 8, 2019 at 8:00 pm #

    After Greyhound pulled out entirely of Western Canada, the British Columbia provincial government established the “BC Bus North” service, which serves the enormity of the largely rural northern half of the province, centred on Prince George (metro pop. ~90,000). This was due both to pragmatism (no private services were going to provide 6.5 hour bus rides on a corridor of 75,000 people) and to social factors (a main goal of the service is to connect the many small Indigenous reserves to regional centres). The south of the province now either has a mishmash of private services, or no buses at all.

    In my opinion, intercity travel would be best served by governments. Just as local transit is more efficient/convenient as a government monopoly, so too I think intercity transit would be. As with transit, private operators may have a role in providing specialized services, but I just don’t think it can scale without a monopoly, which we in Western Canada no longer have. It’s too bad Via/Amtrak are thought of as train operators rather than intercity travel operators.

    • DL August 9, 2019 at 8:58 am #

      Amen. The national lines in the USA in my opinion are a perfect example of how “rail” is not automatically mobility.. my observation is that people who truly have few travel options use the buses far far more often than the trains due to fares and schedules

  14. R. W. Rynerson August 8, 2019 at 10:03 pm #

    Thanks, Jarrett and others here for taking an interest. Oregon DOT got started on this issue as a result of the legislative mandate in 1969 to conduct comprehensive, multimodal planning, with an added kick by the severity of the 1973-74 Energy Crisis. In February 1975 we published a Preliminary Report titled “Intercity Bus Transportation In Oregon” and on page 21 of the History section — which demonstrated that an industry decline was long underway — a question was posed:

    “The questions which emerge [from history] stem from one which is basic. Is intercity bus transportation being conducted in the manner it is today because of precedent, or because the structure is still relevant? Thoughtful people within the industry ask this question, and this study is evidence that public bodies are beginning to ask the same question.”

    The report went on to recommend state operation or contracting of a network. Work on this and the already-funded Amtrak Cascades / Willamette Valley rail/bus package was halted when the governorship changed hands. We found ourselves spending afternoons in the McDonald’s across from the Salem Highway Building. It became clear that the new administration was alarmed, especially after the governor had a meeting with Bill Niskanen of Pacific Trailways (his son, Bill Jr. was an early leader in the Cato Institute). Niskanen hated Amtrak and Greyhound and the State,

    I left for Edmonton Transit at that point. Niskanen tried to get the report’s main author fired. Other people picked up the ball after that governor’s one term and Pacific Trailways’ demise and in bits and pieces its ideas have been used. One important idea that your essay overlooks is that the state-contracted routes are part of BOTH the Amtrak Thruway and in many cases the National Bus Traffic Association networks. That permits through ticketing and internet sales without the smaller carriers having to operate bigger websites. That was the Oregon idea.

    In 1986 with the death spiral of Continental Trailways some Colorado legislators advanced the idea of having the [Denver] Regional Transportation District operate statewide. We were reluctant to do that, as rural interests would have taken us to the cleaners while complaining that they were being ignored by “Denver”, similar to how highway funding is done in Colorado. However, as I learned in the Army, it’s good to have a plan and I drew up a state network. In checking facts for this post, I found the print shop receipt for copies of the 1975 Oregon study which I had circulated to colleagues.

    Subsequently Greyhound Lines stepped forward, sneered at the idea of a transit district running statewide (although we had package express service, highway coaches and drivers and management with intercity experience) and advised the legislature that the problem was solved — they bought what was left of CTS. Subsequently they deleted much of the CTS network, which had been stronger in Colorado than Greyhound Lines at one time. In 1991 Colorado DOT was created and we at RTD happily turned over our unofficial role to that agency.

    We continued to collaborate with CDOT and I provided a copy of the 1975 Oregon study to their staff. John Valerio of CDOT and I spent hours of Saturdays in a Panera’s on Capitol Hill with maps, old bus guides, state data, etc. After getting several rural 5311f services started, John was taken by cancer, but as in Oregon his ideas were picked up and improved on by his successors.

    In working on this, it became apparent to us that intermodal terminal development was a role that the state could play that was also politically acceptable, as the money would be spent on a physical creation at a specific location. The new Portland Greyhound Station (now threatened by developers), The Dalles Intermodal Station (which has lost Pacific Trailways and Amtrak) and the intercity bus gates in Denver Union Station evolved from this idea, but as experience has shown the concept can help, but not cure the problems.

    The idea of a state network turns out to have been accepted by some libertarian thinkers. We did not know that in 1975. Those were the days of Republican administrations that just tried to find practical solutions, with the idea that instead of using the regulatory power to force cross-subsidies from interstate bus routes, it was more honest to openly subsidize basic service and let the creative free market deal with the new types of service evolving on the Interstate highways.

  15. Shaked Ofek August 8, 2019 at 10:53 pm #

    In Israel we have the opposite problem – all transit planning is controlled by the Ministry of Transportation. It might have been right 50-70 years ago, but now the 4 big metropolitan areas (Tel-Aviv, Haifra, Jerusalem and Beer-Sheva) can’t control their own planning.
    Around the city of Tel Aviv – Jaffa for example there are 8-10 adjacent cities that don’t have a county entity that can coordinate the planning for the specific area needs. Luckily, things are changing and Haifa and Jerusalem metropolitan areas will have their own transportation authorities soon.

    Nonetheless, this control of the entire state ensures that even the smallest village have bus service at least once or twice a day, rural as it may be.

  16. Peter Brown August 9, 2019 at 1:15 pm #

    A UK example of government funded long distance bus service is TrawsCymru. This network fills the gaps in the rather sparse rail network and is funded by the West Government. These are limited stop bus routes that do not require advance booking to travel. To promote the network and boost ridership the Welsh Government made all weekend travel free in July 2017 until further notice.

    http://www.trawscymru.info/routes/

    The UK also has three private sector networks of intercity coaches comprising National Express, Megabus, and Scottish Citylink. The first two are advance booking express services concentrated on the principle inter city corridors. Scottish Citylink also provides the facility to buy your ticket on the coach

  17. David Brook August 11, 2019 at 11:32 am #

    As I recall, once upon a time in Oregon, ODOT Public Transit Division made an attempt to show all the local intercity bus & shuttle schedules. They published a quarterly (?) booklet with the timetables of all the services. Of course it required flipping back and forth to figure the interconnections between services. Their online attempt had a few advantages but was still quite clunky. From what I can tell, they seem to have given up on the whole idea. Perhaps because there are other websites offering versions of it. For example, Google Maps is able to do some intercity trip planning, Another website that works all over the world is Rome2Rio.com. Try it.

  18. Martin H. Duke August 11, 2019 at 10:43 pm #

    Washington’s public intercity network is actually decent (https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/transit/intercity) if you consider it complimentary to commercial service. But there are big chunks of the state it leaves out.

  19. Steve Dunham August 13, 2019 at 7:05 am #

    Virginia has made some small progress in connecting cities and towns, but the rail and connecting bus service is almost all oriented to Washington and, except for Washington-Richmond, limited to one or two trains or buses per day. The commuter rail service, Virginia Railway Express, is a great example of county politics limiting service: for about the first 20 years of service, the Fredericksburg line trains operated to the maintenance base in Spotsylvania County but ran empty south of Fredericksburg because Spotsylvania was not part of a local multi-county transportation authority. Eventually Spotsylvania joined and got a station.

  20. Matthew da Silva August 13, 2019 at 7:40 am #

    New Jersey’s statewide administration of public transit has left intercity transportation in good shape, albeit in what is a geographically small state with a blurry line between intercity and commuter transit.

    You have express intercity bus routes from New York and Newark down the Garden State Parkway serving Atlantic City as well as the shore communities of Cape May County at the southern tip of the state.There is similar service radiating out of Philadelphia and Camden to small towns throughout South Jersey. NJ Transit also has two bus lines connecting New York with the “Skylands” in the Northwestern reaches of New Jersey.

    The westernmost regions of the state are connected to New York by private intercity bus lines. NJ Transit only runs local buses out there.

    • James L August 16, 2019 at 8:29 am #

      But as I recall, NJT doesn’t publish a system map. So frustrating.

  21. Michael Escobar August 16, 2019 at 4:34 pm #

    “the US habit of organizing transit in county-level agencies means that many obvious services don’t exist.”

    This is the hell of my daily commute from San Francisco to San Jose.

  22. Peter Brown August 18, 2019 at 1:00 pm #

    One advantage of having bus services run by private companies on a commercial basis (no revenue support needed from local governments), is that bus networks do not recognise local government boundaries. The link below shows the network map of the Trent Barton bus company. It serves the area surrounding the cities of Nottingham and Derby in the East Midlands geographic area of England.

    https://trentbarton.co.uk/network-map

    Nottingham still has a municipal bus company running urban services within its boundaries. Derby had a municipal bus service but sold it in 1994 and it is now run by Arriva. The Trent Barton company was once part of the UK government owned National Bus Company (NBC), and is the only one still owned by the management team that bought it on privatisation. Prior to bus deregulation by the Thatcher government most interurban bus services were run by subsidiaries of the National Bus Company (England & Wales), and the Scottish Bus Group, whose territories did not align with local government boundaries.

  23. Raymond August 20, 2019 at 4:33 pm #

    I’m actually curious to see how other countries do it, like Japan, Europe, and such. And I do wonder how it connects with intercity rail too.

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