Last week I promised you another explanation for the crazy law that was passed by the New York State Legislature, essentially outlawing small curbside bus companies. (For a maddeningly Orwellian take on the legislation, go read this blog post by Tri-State's Nadine Lemmon where she spins it as "a victory for community leaders and sustainable transportation advocates.") I've given one explanation: established companies like Greyhound and Peter Pan raising the barriers to keep competitors out of the market. The other explanation is that too many powerful people want cheap curbside parking.
Of the nine complaints about curbside buses, seven related to illegal activities (idling, blocking the sidewalk, blocking the road, littering, physically attacking your competitors, excessive noise, and parking in city bus stops) that were not being prosecuted. The other two relate to parking:
6. Parked buses "could tie up deliveries, and other businesses in the area will be affected as well" (Tribeca Trib).
9. "People's homes and businesses are being blocked by buses, commercial areas, residential areas," says Senator Squadron (Metro).
If you've been following trends in the worlds of progressive and libertarian transportation policy, you've heard about UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup and his strong case that parking - on-street and off-street - is underpriced. Cheap parking leads to drivers circling for spaces, which compounds street congestion. It also leads to office workers, salesclerks and neighbors hogging valuable commercial spaces, so that they are unavailable for shoppers. And it encourages people to drive - at least, those who can get a space.
Imagine if curbside parking were charged at market rates. Shoup recommends that the rate be set at a level that allows for about 15% of the spaces on each block to be unoccupied at any given time. Rates in Midtown Manhattan would be sky-high, of course, and in Chinatown they'd be pretty high too. If they were still high enough for a bus company to make a profit picking up passengers, they could do that. If not, then they wouldn't pick up there.
If Greyhound didn't like Megabus paying for curb space outside the Port Authority, they could outbid Megabus, and maybe free up a gate in the terminal for another bus company. If a shopper or a delivery truck driver wanted to park in that space, they could outbid the bus company. But I'm guessing that the shopkeepers, office workers and status-seekers who currently take up a lot of the curb space in Midtown and Chinatown would find a garage space or take the train.
Would this price out some of the residents, shoppers and businesses that can't afford to pay so much for curb space? Maybe, but how is the current first-come, first-served system any better, with its circling and space-hogging?
Would market pricing also bump out smaller curbside bus operators? Probably some, but the DOT could institute some kind of incubator program where an up-and-coming bus company could get a discount on curb rates in exchange for submitting to more frequent inspections or something. Others could probably find a convenient corner where they could afford the parking rates, or even rent their own terminal.
Market-rate parking is a notoriously difficult political challenge, and one approach has been to sidestep the resistance by outsourcing the meters to a private company. After Chicago's 2008 deal was panned as a short-term sell-out, many people have been leery of such projects. But if done right, it could rationalize the curbside busing system without the need for a new cumbersome layer of bureaucracy. Imagine if Dan Squadron, Margaret Chin, CHEKPEDS and Tri-State had used that opportunity to push for rational curb pricing instead of giving us this turkey of a law.