Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dollar vans - an (illegal) alternative to the public transportation monopoly

I came across this article on The (Illegal) Private Bus System That Works and instantly wondered if something like this might make more sense than TARTA for Toledo and Lucas County.

The article highlights 'dollar vans' in Brooklyn. They're sort of a cross between a taxi cab (plentiful, available, convenient in terms of being willing to wait for you if you're just walking your child to the door of their day care center) but with a set route like the bus.

As the article explains:

America's 20th largest bus service -- hauling 120,000 riders a day -- is profitable and also illegal. It's not really a bus service at all, but a willy-nilly aggregation of 350 licensed and 500 unlicensed privately-owned "dollar vans" that roam the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, picking up passengers from street corners where city buses are either missing or inconvenient. The dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit to include privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs, giving people alternative ways to get around, and creating jobs.

One of the major complaints about TARTA is that the routes are not convenient to riders and, despite multiple plans, probably millions of dollars for studies, and numerous public hearings, the complaint continues - over decades. It's not that the routes don't eventually get you from place A to place B - it's the time it takes to get you there, with too many requiring a trip into the downtown Toledo hub enroute, despite the fact that such a stop adds time and often requires a transfer.

Another complaint is the cost of the tax levy that member communities pay, with many finding that they pay more than their usage because of the above issue.

So could a private company provide - either entirely or as a supplement - the service the county needs? Would such a system work in a larger area than Brooklyn? I'm sure it wouldn't be identical to the example in the article, but could a private company better meet the transportation needs of our residents?

TARTA obviously believes there is such a need because they implemented their Call-A-Ride service. But because of the way TARTA funding is structured, this means that residents of Toledo are helping subsidize a service they cannot use since the Call-A-Ride is only available in the suburban communities. Conversely, suburban members realize that they're subsidizing the regular bus service within the city of Toledo. Ah - the complications of a public transportation service that relies upon taxpayer funding rather than the cost charged to actual users of the service.

Could a private company provide a better call-a-ride type of service? Probably. But without the income from the suburban communities, TARTA would face problems. Of course, as a Toledo resident, I want to know why I'm paying taxes for TARTA and don't have call-a-ride available to me.

So if a private company could provide this type of service, why doesn't it? What would prevent a private company from recognizing (years ago) the need and meeting it?

The article explains that as well:

"You might want to know why, exactly, jitneys or dollar vans are illegal in most states. The answer lies in the history of public transit. Until the early 1950s, most transit systems in the U.S. were privately owned companies that operated as regulated monopolies (like electric utilities today) and expected to provide transit service to an entire city. In exchange, they got the right to be the city's only transit service. Transit ridership peaked during World War II, but the transit companies slid into bankruptcy afterwards, as they were expected to serve greater suburban areas, service declined, and more and more federal money went into highways -- all of which tempted people to buy cars and abandon the trolleys and buses. Most of the country's 200 private transit franchises died in the 1950s. (Roger Rabbit had nothing to do with it. I swear.) In the late 1950s, cities took over the bankrupt transit lines and tried to make a go of them, retaining for themselves the monopoly on the right to provide service. In the early 60s the feds became involved in propping those systems up, but without much enthusiasm. Meanwhile, private transit were prevented from driving the streets even when they offered serviced different from the public transit agencies.

What's interesting about dollar vans, if they're properly licensed and insured -- and reasonably legal -- is that they could gravitate to where the riders are and where they want to go faster than public transit, which requires more infrastructure and meetings. In some cities, bus routes have histories going back decades, and they don't change to reflect how people's lives and work habits have changed. (They certainly don't stop at daycare centers.) Dollar vans are out there to make a buck, and that's not bad for passengers."

So government has a monopoly and doesn't want to let it go. I guess the hypocrisy of government restricting monopolies in the private sector completely escapes the politicians and bureaucrats.

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