Can You Get There from Here?

Long-haul travel between small communities

One of the rarely talked-about benefits of living in a major city is that transport between that city and other major metropolitan areas is relatively easy. Not always cheap, but usually easy. Take traveling between Washington, D.C. and New York City: an online search reveals multiple bus companies such as Megabus and Greyhound, both the Amtrak Northeast Regional and Acela trains, flights into and out of a combination of at least six regional airports (BWI, DCA, or IAD to LGA, EWR, or JFK), and last but not least, driving your own car (just kidding, of course that option is least – who wants to sit in traffic on I-95 and then worry about parking in either of those two cities?). For the sake of this piece, let’s assume that driving is not an option. Without a car, the options for traveling between Washington, D.C. and New York City are plentiful – and the same is true between other pairs of cities such as Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin or Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

Outside of major urban centers, however, intercity travel becomes more complicated. Even though America has 300+ commercial/passenger-service airports and 500+ Amtrak stations, most rural towns and small communities don’t have one. For example, Charlotte has an airport (CLT) and an Amtrak station, as does Raleigh (RDU). But Wilkes County and Currituck County in North Carolina have neither. Even if you use these main options to go from one minor city or small town to another, public transportation options once you arrive may be nonexistent or grim.

The Greyhound bus does the lion’s share of the lifting in these areas, with 3,800 destinations and serving over 18 million passengers per year.1 Greyhound does an excellent job connecting smaller towns and providing connecting service from other modes to areas without those modes, often locating next to Amtrak stations or at local bus terminals. Over its century of service, the iconic Greyhound bus has also earned a place in America’s folklore. What other bus service could have inspired Weird Al Yankovic’s classic, “Another One Rides the Bus”?

Let’s consider North Carolina’s intercity travel options. For example, a resident of Salisbury, NC who wants to travel to Elizabeth City, NC has only one non-driving option: take Greyhound. No regional transit or Amtrak route exists, and flying would take a circuitous route from Winston-Salem to Norfolk VA. The Greyhound route is not as quick as driving (the trip would take over a day) but it could cost as little as $50. Greyhound provides a lifeline in connecting destinations or providing direct service to final destinations large and small in North Carolina, including: Ahoskie, Asheville, Boone, Edenton, Gastonia, Henderson, Kinston, Lincolnton, Lumberton, Smithfield, Whitefield, and Wilson – to name a few.

Route Map - US 2014 EXPRESS and GH routes only 1-17

Map of Greyhound’s Service, not all stations shown. Source: Greyhound

So what is the future of intercity travel for smaller areas? The current administration proposed cutting Amtrak funding in its initial federal budget, which would cause 200 stations in smaller towns to close.2 In North Carolina, the towns of Fayetteville, Gastonia, and Southern Pines would lose Amtrak service. Other southern and midwestern states would see even bigger cuts. On a more positive note, Greyhound bus service competes with newcomers like Megabus and Bolt Bus to provide less expensive and more convenient travel between large and small cities. Startups like Cabin, a San Francisco to Los Angeles overnight bus service that provides sleeping pods, aim to make riding the bus sexy again. And low gas prices mean that driving is cheaper, if you own or rent a car.

However, most transportation revolutions (or supposed revolutions) are still focused on the big cities: Elon Musk’s recent proposal, for example, for intercity rockets (yes, really) is still solving a problem for big city residents to go from one big city to another. Presumably, if this rocket service ever launches (pun intended), its first markets will be in major international cities like New York, Paris, and Shanghai. Even Megabus and Bolt Bus focus primarily on providing a cheaper option for travel between medium-to-large cities, rather than serving smaller communities. Options are particularly slim in the Mountain West and the Great Plains.

There is some hope for small town travelers. Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have tech-ified how people get around locally, making cab trips easier and cheaper. This technology can help people in smaller communities reach regional transit hubs, where intercity travel is more feasible. There is the potential for this technology to be used for lengthier trips. In the U.K., for example, crowdsourcing brings together people wanting to make the same long-distance trip, and the companies provide a bus to take them there – a cross between a taxi and a bus.

Intercity travel between small towns is an understudied area of transportation. Although the market is smaller, regional transit service, train service, and intercity bus service provide a vital lifeline to residents of these places – particularly to those who cannot drive or cannot afford a pricier plane ticket. Many of the transportation innovations happening in larger cities can be applied to improve the mobility of smaller-town residents as well, which is increasingly important as funding for traditional transportation services gets cut. Transportation planners take note: we need these innovations in smaller cities, where they can have a major impact.

McManis, Sam. 2013. “Greyhound and Megabus Competition Tightens on Long-Distance Bus Travel.” Travel. Skift. November 11.
National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). 2017. “220 Cities Losing All Passenger Train Service per Trump Elimination of All Federal Funding for Amtrak’s National Network Trains.” Mass Transit, April 4.

Featured Image: Oldtimer Mercedes Bus Classic. Source: Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons.

About the author: Katy Lang is a Masters student in the Department of City & Regional Planning specializing in transportation and land use. She spent seven years in the Washington, DC area and as a result, she has a love-love relationship with DC’s Metrorail and all things urban. She is passionate about pedestrian safety and the pedestrian’s right to the city and the street. Prior to coming to UNC, Katy worked in change management. She likes long runs on Carrboro’s short bike trails and eating popcorn.