Abstract: Trans-Atlantic Public Policies: The Role of the State in the Development of Long-Distance Bus Transport

Margaret Walsh


This paper raises contested issues of government policy in shaping the growth of transport in the twentieth century by using the lens of the long-distance bus industry. These issues include free competition, the relationship between public and private transport, the desirability of a national transport policy, the maintenance of services that are not purely economic, but which provide a public service, and the role of subsidy. Policies in the United States and the United Kingdom suggest that the weakening position of intercity public transport stems from both the popularity of the individualistic motorcar and the difficulties facing governments in managing policies to coordinate different modes of transport. Despite a greater capacity to plan public transport in the United Kingdom and despite a greater awareness of environmental issues in all advanced industrial economies, the long-distance bus has not flourished. Notions of public service and communal well being faded before the popular demand for individual mobility. Both the US and the UK moved toward regulation of the bus industry in the 1930s and abandoned that process in the 1980s. Concerns about monopoly and about the threat to established rail networks brought some recognition of the need for public intervention. Yet in the United States authorities could not reconcile the fear of monopoly within one transport mode with the economic possibilities of intermodal cooperation. More important, they failed to acknowledge the impact of automobility on public transport. In the UK there was more interest in government ownership of transport, and eventually part of the bus service was nationalized. But even here the global move toward laissez faire in the 1980s brought back privatization and the promotion of more competition. In neither country did this competition restore prosperity to long-distance bus transport. Travelers frequently preferred to drive themselves for distances up to 400 miles, while cost-cutting airlines increasingly offered more attractive services. Any possibility of fully integrating bus transport into national and international networks never got off the ground.