Travel News

The land of the free (bus) is getting more expensive

Simon Calder’s Travel

The supervisor of the bus station in Burlington, Vermont, is named Romeo. He arrived in America from Somalia.

Mogadishu, his home city, has its qualities, he said, but life in Burlington is certainly more placid.

While I have not had the pleasure of visiting his corner of Africa, I imagine the bus service may be less well organised than in Vermont.

Romeo directed me to the bus to Middlebury: a one-hour ride through exquisite landscapes of woodland and water, meadows and hillsides, to a small college town huddled prettily around a cascading river.

Value of trip: priceless. Cost of trip: zero.

Early in 2020, two significant locations, each with a population of around 650,000, stopped charging for public transport. One was Luxembourg: a small, wealthy nation that has terrible traffic. The Grand Duchy pays about €1bn a year to keep its buses, trams, trains and funicular running. At the time the decision was taken, farebox income amounted to €40m.

Cut out fares, the thinking went, and the national coffers will hardly notice. Costs will fall (no need to handle cash and ticketing) and efficiency will rise (with no tickets, there is nothing for the driver to sell or collect). Luxembourg is maintaining the abolition of fares in the hope that more people will leave their cars at home.

The other location: Vermont in the northeastern US, 10 times larger. The reason was nothing to do with easing traffic, which is never a problem in this bucolic state. It was Covid.

“With the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, fares were eliminated for all transit services in Vermont,” the state legislature says. The twin aims, according to the Vermont House and Senate Committees on Transportation:

  • “To reduce the risk of Covid exposure by increasing social distancing between drivers and passengers.”
  • “To recognise the trying economic times.”

The policy has survived for four years – but from next week, passengers must get used once again to the idea of paying for the privilege of being professionally driven through a beautiful state.

The state has had enough of subsidising tourists (I would gladly pay $20 for that southbound ride from Burlington to Middlebury), and giving free rides to the local airport for business travellers who have spent hundreds of dollars on their flights to New York or Washington DC.

Even though the fares are pitched way below the…

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