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Effects Of The Pandemic On Bus Travel Industry

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The wheels on the nation's inner city buses are not going round and round very much these days. Bus travel has fallen by more than 80% during the pandemic. Public health authorities are encouraging people to avoid travel if possible. Those who do have to take the bus for whatever reason are finding fewer options and higher prices as a result. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: On a chilly December afternoon, Greyhound bus No. 3630 pulls into a nearly deserted station in the nation's capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS HISSING)

HORSLEY: The bus is not quite halfway through its run from Richmond to Philadelphia. Andrew Sarkis steps off for a moment to stretch his legs.

ANDREW SARKIS: Service is not bad. It's just long hours of traveling.

HORSLEY: Sarkis is on his way to visit family for Christmas in New York City, a 12-hour trip with two bus changes along the way. The fare from his home in Hampton, Va., is $97.

SARKIS: It's expensive, man. I used to go on another bus for $45 a trip and go straight to New York.

HORSLEY: But that rival bus is shut down this Christmas as a result of the pandemic. Jessica Noguerra, who's on her way to Philadelphia for vacation, also paid more than usual for this trip.

JESSICA NOGUERRA: (Speaking in Spanish).

HORSLEY: The fare has gone up, she says, and there are only a couple of buses to choose from each day. Greyhound says it's operating less than half its normal bus routes during the pandemic. The service cuts industry-wide are even deeper. To be sure, not many people are interested in riding the bus these days, spending hours with strangers in an enclosed space. But despite the drop in demand, those who have to ride the bus are often paying more. Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University, says for many cash-strapped passengers, that's a hardship.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: This is the about a travel that caters to people often who can't afford cars, that need to go the least possible cost from point A to point B. Even filling up a tank may be too expensive for some people, so they hop on the bus. And it's just been ignored.

HORSLEY: While the drop in demand for air travel has been well-documented, the pandemic's impact on bus service has been largely invisible. Peter Pantuso, who heads the American Bus Association, says many companies have simply parked their buses for now in hopes of restarting service next year. Others have gone out of business altogether.

PETER PANTUSO: There's about 100,000 employees in the private bus industry, and about 85,000 of those are currently out of work. Most of them have been out of work since March. Without some kind of help, without some kind of federal support just as a lifeline, we're going to lose a large chunk of the industry, unfortunately.

HORSLEY: It's not just long-haul services like Greyhound that are limping. Traffic on commuter lines that ordinarily ferry workers to and from the suburbs has also dried up since many people are working from home. The Nitetrain bus company in Nashville offers tricked-out buses for touring musicians, but Nitetrain's Angela Eicher says the company's 120-bus fleet has gone silent.

ANGELA EICHER: It's been a hard time with concerts not happening. We might have a Christian band that's doing a concert at a church, but other than that - you know, over 200 drivers sitting, no job, no income.

HORSLEY: Nitetrain did send some of its buses to the Gulf Coast this fall to house utility crews cleaning up after the hurricanes. Out west, buses have been used to evacuate people from the path of wildfires. Pantuso with the Bus Association says his industry is a critical piece of the nation's transportation network. But while Congress has offered financial help to airlines and Amtrak, bus companies have been overlooked.

PANTUSO: If more members of Congress took the bus on a more regular basis, we'd probably be at the top of the list for funding.

HORSLEY: If any lawmakers want that experience, the D.C. bus station is less than a mile from the Capitol, and Greyhound bus No. 3630 is about to pull out.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS HORN HONKING)

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF POOLSIDE SONG, "NEXT TO YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.