Sunday, May 23, 2010

When buses are outlawed, only outlaws will drive buses

Anti-jitney NIMBYs, including Comet and the Queens Crapper, often point to dangerous behavior on the part of van drivers, including speeding, cutting off other drivers, overcrowding, and driving buses that are badly maintained or under-insured. There's no question that these are problems. The question is what to do about them.

Comet sees no value in the buses, and therefore accepts the legal fiction that they should only pick up passengers by prior arrangement, in zones approved by the Taxi and Limousine Commissioner and the relevant community board, along routes approved by the Transportation Commissioner. They badger the TLC and the NYPD to keep ticketing the drivers, trying to harass them out of the neighborhood.

What about us - people who see that private buses can supplement existing MTA service, make up for service cuts, and provide innovation where it's been lacking? What do we do to help the private buses succeed? Take it from a private bus operator who tries to play by the rules, Joel Azumah:
Throw in the fact that both legal and illegal vans are harassed in Brooklyn and Queens. Since the legal guys get no protection, many who started legal decided to become illegal to save money.

Quite simply, the market has to be structured (told you I wasn't a libertarian) to provide incentives for bus operators to work safely. Let's imagine a driver (call him Lawful Steve) who has all the proper licenses, registrations, inspections and insurance, keeps the vehicle clean and never carries passengers over the maximum, obeys all traffic safety laws and pays extra attention at all times. Steve also follows the "commuter van" rules to a T. He has received permission to operate in a particular zone on a particular route, and he follows that scrupulously, only picking up people who have called ahead to arrange trips.

Now let's imagine another driver, Neutral Jane, who also has all the proper licensing and insurance, and is just as safety-conscious as Steve. But rather than following the commuter van regulations, Jane picks up street hails and travels on popular routes.

Finally, we've got a third driver, Chaotic Dave, who has a Class D license and drives like a maniac in an uninsured, badly maintained van. He practices the absolute minimum in safety that he can get away with while still filling up his van with passengers.

What do you think will happen? Lawful Steve will go broke sitting by the phone. Neutral Jane will make money, but she will still be fined for picking up passengers without prior arrangement, operating on an unlicensed route, and operating outside of the designated zone. Chaotic Dave will too, but at least he'll be spared the expense of getting all the proper paperwork and maintaining his vehicle, and the hassle of trying to follow all the safety rules. In fact, Dave won't get busted that often, because the TLC and the NYPD are so busy going after Jane, and maybe even stopping Steve because he's running a commuter van and must be up to no good. Eventually Steve and Jane will realize that it just doesn't pay to be safe, and either join Dave or else get out of the transportation business and open a Boston Market franchise.

If you don't want to hear it from me or Joel, how about Jay Walder?
The point to be stressed here is that an integrated transit system with commuter vans does not have to cause the city to sacrifice its concern for public safety. At the state level, an adequate regulatory structure already exists to satisfy these concerns. Alternatively, the city government could handle this function. What is required in either case is a cooperative, rather than combative, regulatory atmosphere.

In other words, if the city were to pass laws that make it easy for private operators to get permission to transport passengers, then the NYPD and the TLC wouldn't have to waste time going after Neutral Jane for operating outside her zone. They could concentrate their scarce resources on Chaotic Dave and the safety issues that really matter. Lawful Steve and Neutral Jane can get on with the business of providing quality, safe service without worrying about getting busted for picking up street hails.

More transit, safer vans, less drain on the budgets of the TLC and the NYPD. It's a win-win for everyone! Right?


Alon Levy said...

I approve of your use of the terms lawful, neutral, and chaotic.

Now, here's an exercise: why would a lawful evil regime legalize conduct that reduces its power?

George K said...

I agree. It is cheaper for the MTA to leave the private carriers alone and let them take the passengers (since they are often going to places such as train stations, and local buses are effectivly free if you are going to a train station, because of the transfer).
If the carrier wants to fill a void in the transportation network or timetable, they should be allowed to do so. The passengers get to their destinations faster, the MTA saves on operating expenses, and the carriers make money.

jazumah said...

"Now, here's an exercise: why would a lawful evil regime legalize conduct that reduces its power?"

Your word economy is staggering. This is the nexus of the whole issue. Remember, the MTA isn't just a is a bureaucratic tool. The MTA only receives adequate funding for major "sexy" projects. BRT is "sexy" bus service. A new subway line is a "sexy" rail project.

In essence, the MTA is both a cause and victim of today's transportation policy. The MTA is underfunded because the politicians note that the MTA will take the beating for them. The only thing that will reduce their power is a crushing global depression that makes borrowing more expensive. Since we are in the midst of a global depression that has yet to be acknowledged, you will see the MTA's grasp begin to slip.

They will get the East River bridge tolls as a joint MTA & NYC bailout, but it will come at the expense of dedicated city & state funds.

Cap'n Transit said...

Interesting question, Alon. But to answer it I need to know what exactly you're referring to as a lawful evil regime. The MTA alone? The state government as a whole? There are many players in state government, and I don't think it's productive to label the entire thing without making some distinctions.

Alon Levy said...

The lawful evil regime I'm talking about is Albany, and increasingly also city hall. It's not the MTA that's forcing jitney drivers to break the law.