Consolidation of intercity stations signals slow demise of bus travel
By Doug Young
NEW plans to consolidate the dozens of long-distance bus stations throughout Shanghai made me slightly nostalgic, reflecting the diminishing use of buses for intercity travel over the last two decades.
Anyone who only reads the news might never be aware of this rapid shift, since the papers are constantly filled with reports on the latest horrific collision or fiery crash involving a long-distance bus that leaves dozens of travelers dead.
But the reality is that shrinking numbers of people are using these buses to travel between cities, and instead many now rely on a much newer generation of airports and high-speed rail connections that sharply reduce travel times.
That means the days of buses as a primary form of long-distance transport are probably numbered, and Shanghai’s latest station consolidation probably marks just the first step in a major transition for this colorful industry.
When all is said and done, I imagine China’s long-distance bus network will look something like the US, where just a handful of national operators with names like Greyhound control the market.
Long-distance bus travel in America is now limited mostly to people visiting smaller cities and towns that aren’t easily reachable by airports and trains. What’s more, a big portion of riders are older retirees who have lots of time and limited funds, and thus use these buses as an economical way to get around the country.
According to the latest reports, dwindling usage has prompted Shanghai to launch the major overhaul of its largest network of long-distance bus stations, which now number more than 30.
The move comes just weeks after one of the city’s major bus operators purchased a rival, though company officials were quick to say such consolidation wouldn’t result in higher ticket prices.
Observers said the current consolidation is likely to see the number of long-distance bus stations in Shanghai reduced to less than 10.
They pointed to the rapid rise of high-speed rail as the biggest factor behind rapidly declining numbers of people using long-distance buses, but private car ownership is also driving the trend.
I would be slightly hypocritical if I said I will miss these buses, which are relatively uncomfortable and very time-consuming, even though I feel a strong sense of nostalgia about such travel.
Many of my earliest memories of living and working in China in the 1980s involve such travel, since buses were often the only way to reach many mid-sized and smaller towns.
Travel back in those days was far more rudimentary than it is now, leading my sister to liken a long-distance bus we took in 1988 to one of the bombed-out vehicles sometimes shown on TV news reports after terrorist attacks in places like the Middle East and Africa.
People often brought live chickens, other small animals and large household items onto those buses, and some drivers even let passengers sit on the roof for short distances if all the seats were full.
My other memory of many of those earlier bus rides was how crazy many drivers were.
Back in those days I was always grateful to make it to the end of each journey without a major accident. Even so, most trips claimed at least one or two minor casualties, often an unfortunate chicken or dog that couldn’t get out of the way quickly enough to avoid one of those speeding drivers.
Used mainly in rural areas
Shanghai may be leading the way in long-distance bus consolidation, though such travel will inevitably remain part of the local landscape in many smaller towns for at least the next decade and possibly longer.
During a recent trip to Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan Province, I easily used up a day’s worth of time traveling on a wide range of buses of different size and quality to travel between several small towns because that was the only way to get around.
By comparison, I can’t even remember the last time I took a long-distance bus in the US.
One of my most recent trips was in the mid-1980s when I used a bus to travel from my hometown of Washington, DC, to the seaside casino resort of Atlantic City to meet some friends. Before that, my last memorable bus trip came in my college years in 1983, when I took a long-distance bus from Yellowstone National Park to Denver to catch a plane back to Washington.
Today’s buses in China are far better than the ones from even a decade ago, offering relatively comfortable seats and rides on a newer generation of highways that make travel times much quicker and safer than in the past.
Many of us who live and work here will inevitably rely on these buses to see some of the country’s less-visited cities and towns, at least for the next decade or so.
But I do suspect such travel will become increasingly rare from major cities like Shanghai, which could end up with just a handful of such long-distance bus stations by the time this new wave of consolidation wraps up.