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Bus stations around the country are closing, leaving waiting riders without shelter

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bus stations around the country are shutting down, and in some cases, that is leaving bus passengers out in the cold. Americans rely on intercity buses for an estimated 50 million trips a year. In some parts of the country, it's the only way to get around without a car. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's a little before lunchtime, and Greyhound bus No. 769 is not quite halfway through its 22-hour journey from the Port Authority in New York to Atlanta. Operator Jordan, who's behind the wheel, has some instructions for passengers as the bus pulls into the station in Richmond, Va.

JORDAN: If you're getting off here in Richmond, look around your seats as always. Make sure you gather all your personal belongings.

HORSLEY: Vernon Pendergrass is on his way from Maine to South Carolina for a family funeral. He has a 10-hour layover here in Richmond.

VERNON PENDERGRASS: Yeah, I'm stuck here till 9:00 - just my luck (laughter).

HORSLEY: The restaurant inside the bus station is closed, so Pendergrass heads to a Wawa convenience store down the street to buy some snacks. Soon, the bus station itself may be shuttered as well. It sits on prime real estate just across Arthur Ashe Boulevard from a minor league baseball park where the Richmond Flying Squirrels play. According to Richmond BizSense, developers have filed plans to tear down the bus station and replace it with two seven-story apartment buildings and 11,000 square feet of retail space. That would undoubtedly raise the value of the property, but not for Pendergrass, who's spent many a layover at the bus station.

PENDERGRASS: It's going to be sad 'cause I actually like that restaurant because their food was actually pretty decent. It's going to suck to see this place go. It's definitely a part of the city.

HORSLEY: Greyhound says it's in early talks with the city about a new location for buses to load and unload, but the prospect of losing this station worries Shirleen McCoy. She comes through Richmond twice each year on her way from Charlotte to her son's home near Washington, D.C.

SHIRLEEN MCCOY: If this station is gone this time next year, I'm not going to take the bus anymore because I'm not going to be outside. It's too dangerous - not doing it.

HORSLEY: Bus passengers all over the country are facing a similar dilemma. Nearly three dozen Greyhound stations have been sold to a company called Twenty Lake Holdings. It's an arm of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which is notorious for buying up newspapers and other businesses and stripping away their real estate. Twenty Lake didn't respond to questions about its plans for the Greyhound properties. But in places like Houston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, the age of the downtown bus station is ending.

JOSEPH SCHWIETERMAN: Bus stations are a huge part of Americana.

HORSLEY: Joseph Schwieterman is an expert on bus travel at DePaul University in Chicago.

SCHWIETERMAN: In many cities, they were the only businesses open around the clock. They had eateries open through the wee hours of the night. And there's always a buzz about them because people were coming and going.

HORSLEY: Some stations became local landmarks with art deco styling, but even the most basic offered passengers a sheltered indoor space to use the restroom, get a bite to eat and wait for their next ride. Newer bus companies like Megabus simply pick up passengers on the street, which might work fine for people traveling between big cities. But to reach the remote rural places where buses have long been a lifeline, Schwieterman says you need a place to make connections.

SCHWIETERMAN: The bus system will get you anywhere, but you may have to take two or three or sometimes four buses to get there. And, you know, if you're deposited at a curb, that's just not a tenable situation. That's why moving to a curb is about more than comfort. It actually takes away options for people.

HORSLEY: Greyhound says it would like to locate bus stations next to other transportation hubs, so passengers could easily connect to Amtrak or local transit, but that takes government support. There are some successful examples in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. But Peter Pantuso, who heads the American Bus Association, says in a lot of cities, protecting bus service that largely serves low-income passengers is not a big priority.

PETER PANTUSO: In a lot of cases, you know, I've got to blame local governments who kind of treat the inner city bus industry as third-class citizens.

HORSLEY: Tyler Haas is in the middle of a four-day bus trip from Putney, Vt., to Fallon, Nev. It's a cool way to travel, he says, so long as you're not in a hurry. Stepping outside the Richmond bus station for a cigarette, Haas says he'd be sorry to see more of these places shut down.

TYLER HAAS: I know it's a lot of upkeep. And I could only imagine what it takes to run one of these places. But the station is honestly probably a big amenity for the bus.

HORSLEY: Ironically, as bus stations have withered, buses themselves have gone upscale, catering to laptop-toting passengers with power, Wi-Fi and free movies to watch on their phones. None of that's much comfort, though, when you're waiting for hours between buses and have no place to go. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.