116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In June 2021, in the heart of post-vaccine and post-graduation euphoria from the University of Iowa, I decided to visit a few friends in Chicago, using Burlington Trailways to do so on account of not having a car myself. From the outset, problems began to arise. The online ticket portal was inoperative at the time, so I had to purchase the tickets in-person at the depot. There was no Sunday service then, so my entire plan had to be shifted. On the day of, the bus arrived in Iowa City 10 minutes past its scheduled departure time, eventually coalescing into an arrival time well over an hour late. And yet, for intercity travel without a car, there were no other options.
Today, intercity travel options for those who do not drive in Iowa — Census data suggests over 70,000 households in Iowa lack access to a car — are more or less limited to those who live in larger cities (by Iowa standards) or along major highways. This is a far cry from the network available even in 1976, when the state was crisscrossed by intercity bus routes connecting small towns and large cities alike, provided by at least nine companies. There are four today. Like many of the issues facing this great land today, at least part of the problem can be attributed to Ronald Reagan.
On Sept. 20, 1982, then-President Reagan signed the Bus Regulatory Reform Act, with the intention of both reducing barriers to entry for people seeking to form new bus services, and to make it easier for bus services to drop unprofitable services. Although there seems to be little evidence of new services forming in Iowa in the aftermath of deregulation (indeed, within a year of deregulation at least one bus company declared bankruptcy), it was certainly used as a license to drop more than 37 stops by January 1983, just four months after deregulation was passed. While it can be argued that the 1982 deregulation act did not itself prompt the decline of intercity buses in Iowa or the U.S. — annual ridership in Iowa peaked at 27 million in 1946 and had declined to well below 5 million by the mid-1950s, where it stayed thereafter — it certainly did not help the conditions that intercity bus travelers — frequently women, rural residents, and the elderly — now faced when trying to travel for errands, medical appointments, or simply to see their friends.
After a flurry of articles published immediately before and after deregulation, there seems to be a startling lack of publicly available data on much of anything for intercity buses in Iowa, whether it be ridership, on-time performance, frequency of service, number of places served or the extent of the state’s intercity bus network in between 1982 to the current day. The only sense is that rural population decline, the continued ascendancy of car and air travel, and fleeting, limited attempts to counteract the impacts of deregulation ultimately served to continue the established trend of decline; a 2005 report from the federal Department of Transportation notes in an appendix that 13 stops in Iowa were dropped by Greyhound in August 2004 as part of a wider series of cuts nationally.
Beginning in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made a bad situation worse. Unlike rail, airlines, or public transit within cities, intercity buses received no direct financial support under either the Trump-era CARES Act or Biden-era American Rescue Plan Act, even as the “intercity bus industry carried more than double the passengers of Amtrak” prior to the pandemic. There are some demographics of note here. The standard intercity bus passenger today is much more likely to be Black or brown, poorer, younger and a rural resident compared to an airline traveler.
Discussions over the size of network maps also obscures the way in which financial difficulties have degraded the quality of service on intercity buses, further reducing potential ridership (and revenues). Where intercity bus service still exists — mostly in larger cities along the Interstate highways — degraded schedules have resulted in increasing trip times due to increased stops, longer transfers and layovers, and in my experience, delays sometimes in excess of an hour. Limited facilities at depots, where they exist, make waiting around a generally unpleasant experience. As some people choose to drive or fly instead of taking the bus, revenues decline, which further degrades services, or results in their loss entirely, for people without other options.
Even if the costs of owning a car more than cancel out the economic opportunities afforded by the mobility it provides, the sheer inaccessibility of navigating Iowa today without a car spurs most people in the state, travelers and local residents alike, into car dependency. The implications go beyond bean counting as well. I remember many of my fellow University students keeping a car in Iowa City — with associated costs in gasoline, parking, tickets, moving it around, and so forth — for little reason other than to occasionally commute back and forth from their hometown. One could imagine all that space in Iowa City used for storing cars to instead be used for more productive (and environmentally friendly) purposes, such as shops and apartments.
Rising oil prices prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine have further underscored the financial precarity of basing our transportation system on cheap gasoline fueling large trucks and SUVs, before implications for climate change are even broached. Certainly more fuel efficient than driving, some estimates suggest that the environmental impact of intercity buses are even lower than passenger rail, especially as most Amtrak trains run on diesel fuel and unlike their Eurasian counterparts, the North American rail network has generally failed to electrify so far.
Finally, limited or non-existent connectivity between rural and urban areas, or an inability to move between places without a car, has real social and economic implications vis-à-vis people’s ability to freely move around and seek opportunities beyond where they are currently located. Even in a place as car-dependent as Iowa, factors such as cost, age, disability or simply mechanical issues can inhibit people’s ability to drive. Without a reliable, practical intercity public transit option, Iowans can be effectively locked out from visiting family and friends, seeking work opportunities, engaging in commerce, or attending medical appointments. I would even go as far to suggest that a lack of decent intercity public transit options has heightened urban-rural polarization in Iowa.
Unfortunately for progressive advocates of public transit, there is a real stigma of the bus compared to rail which leads to contempt for and ignorance of the former. Compared to trains, buses continue to be maligned societally, not coincidentally related to the darker-skinned and poorer composition of bus ridership compared to cars and trains. Indeed, I would not be surprised if bus stigma blinds the nominal political allies of public transit in Iowa — state Democrats — from analyzing the state of intercity bus travel in Iowa, and instead leads them to cast their focus on the mirage of trains which have yet to arrive after decades of discussion.
Perhaps part of this bus stigma is the relatively unwritten history of intercity buses in Iowa compared to interurban railways, which were both less expansive and shorter-lived than intercity buses. I am not completely innocent of this either, having dedicated great space to the CRANDIC Interurban, and little to the humble bus until now. The demise of Iowa’s interurban railways in the 20th century did not necessarily mean the immediate end of intercity public transit in Iowa. Far from it, bus services were often run by the interurban companies themselves, which supplanted, and eventually replaced their rail services with buses. Not unlike how I have written and spoken about how government policies favor highway construction over public transit, I suspect this mode-shift from train to bus was assisted by government policy. While railroads had to build and maintain tracks and trains alike, not to mention pay for the labor involved, buses with a single driver could cruise on government-built and maintained roads for free, especially from the 1920s onward.
Such was the case with the CRANDIC, which ran buses at two phases of its history: from 1930 to 1934 under the moniker of “CRANDIC Stages” and from the 1950s onward as a supplement for, and eventual replacement for its rail services in between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. While the fate of this private venture is unknown, it is worth noting that timetables from back then suggest that service on the CRANDIC bus in 1954 was superior to today’s 380 Express in regards to number of stops, times of day operational, as well as service on Sundays and holidays.
Even at its lowest, intercity buses have a number of genuine advantages over private car travel. It is much less expensive, better for the environment, accessible to those who face physical or material barriers to driving long distances and is safer as well, with a much lower fatality rate compared to that of driving. Compared to rail and air travel, the lower cost of riding the bus place it in a niche frequently used by people to travel shorter distances for social and recreational purposes. However, real limitations with scheduling, reliability, comfort, and last-mile transportation make intercity buses more often than not an option of last-resort for those on the other side of the United States’ sweeping disparities.
I will take a look next time on what is to be done about this situation.
Austin Wu is a Gazette Editorial Fellow.