Intercity bus travel was born in the 1920s, and intercity bus terminals, as historian Margaret Walsh writes, “were both the core of a systematic service and were architectural features of some repute.” It may surprise the young bus travelers of today to learn that many U.S. bus terminals were once beautiful. In the interbellum bus boom, Art Deco stations in the central business districts of America’s biggest cities were points of civic pride.
Walsh notes that these structures’ opening ceremonies were very much a thing:
The civic opening ceremonies that welcomed bus terminals throughout much of the twentieth century, whether in small and large urban centers, were not simply gestures of public relations towards business or voters. These stations were perceived as notable symbols of progress and commerce. The intercity bus industry brought travelers and trade to the area and stylish terminals were at the core of that enterprise. Sometimes they were more when they became a nucleus for local community activity.
These terminals were stocked with amenities: restaurants and quicker food options, clean restrooms, newsstands, telephones, information desks, and well-lit waiting areas.
The decline of America’s bus terminals accompanied a number of larger cultural shifts. Large, new and modern stations suffered when populations shifted to the suburbs, leaving bus managers with sunk costs that prevented them from following potential riders to the edges of the crabgrass frontier. As city centers transformed into centers of poverty, crime followed, and bus travelers—many of whom were women—began worrying about arriving in downtown stations in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, the rise of the personal automobile and air travel made the bus seem unsophisticated.