Public bus service best answer to Greyhound’s outstretched hand

Greyhound bus is threatening to pull out of northern British Columbia and many smaller communities across the province, unless it gets a subsidy from the public purse. We think the best answer to their threat is to establish a publicly owned and operated highway bus network across B.C. A public bus company to connect communities is an old idea whose time has come again. In 1946, Tommy Douglas’ first Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government established the Saskatchewan Transportation Company, also known as Sask Bus, to interconnect urban and rural communities across Saskatchewan. Sask Bus efficiently provided essential passenger and freight services to rural and urban residents alike until Canada’s most prominent opponent of climate action, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, shut it down just this past summer. Like BC Ferries and public transit in urban areas, Sask Bus was publicly funded. The people of Saskatchewan thought that was money well spent. According to an editorial in the Regina Leader-Post “readers reacted with almost unanimous opposition” to the idea of shutting Sask Bus down and leaving smaller communities without bus service. If highway bus service is going to be publicly funded, it should be run as a public service instead of handing it over to a corporation like Greyhound with a track record of failure. Like urban public transit, highway bus service needs to operate as a unified network with shared ticketing – seamless transfers are an essential part of high quality highway bus service. The wildfires in the Interior of B.C. last summer illustrate why B.C. needs a public highway bus service. Instead of stepping up to help those struggling to keep safe, Greyhound left people in communities like 100 Mile House without service. When the evacuation was ordered, seniors from 100 Mile ended up traveling overnight on uncomfortable school buses to Prince George. B.C. needs a public highway bus service with a clear mandate and capacity to help in emergencies. One of the benefits of good highway bus service is safety. The recently established BC Transit bus service between communities on the Highway of Tears is largely about providing safe transportation for indigenous women and girls. But the Highway of Tears is not the only place in B.C. where rural women have to choose between isolation and the danger of hitchhiking. The danger of highway crashes is also a crucial issue. Parents in rural areas all know that young drivers traveling long distances on snowy highways to get home to visit sometimes don’t arrive safely, or at all. Many seniors don’t feel capable of long winter driving trips, particularly when medical treatment is the reason for travel. Regardless of age, driving long distances in cars is a hazardous undertaking; leaving more of the highway driving to professionals is just common sense. It is also common sense that we need to reorient transportation away from over-dependence on private automobiles to fulfill Canada’s Paris climate commitments. We must reduce the climate pollution that is threatening BC communities with ever more destructive wildfires and floods. The federal-provincial Climate Framework commits B.C. to shift transportation spending away from urban freeway expansion projects, which is an obvious way to fund a public highway bus service. Climate action in the transportation sector cannot be isolated to the largest urban areas. People need to be able to move safely and efficiently between communities throughout the province. Would you choose to save money and reduce your carbon footprint by living without a car if that meant you could not get to your home town to visit your friends and family? The B.C. NDP won’t be able to meet their promise to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from transportation by 30 per cent in only 12 years without much better highway bus service. Good highway bus service is also essential for the economic health of smaller communities, and the province as a whole. If you need a car to get there, tourism is unlikely to thrive now that so many younger people don’t own cars (many young professionals don’t even bother to get drivers licences). And if you need a car to get to and from your rural town, both seniors and younger people are less likely to want to live there. A public highway bus service would improve the economic, environmental and social health of B.C. communities large and small. Greyhound has shown that they are not up to the job. We know what Tommy Douglas would do if faced with this situation …

R. Joanne Banks is a member of the Council of Canadians Campbell River chapter, Bruce Bidgood is a member of the Council of Canadians Terrace chapter, and Eric Doherty is a member of the Council of Canadians Victoria chapter.

A condensed version of this op-ed was published in The Province on January 19, 2018

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