Monday, April 26, 2010

What we need jitneys for

Back in January I promised you an answer to the question, "What do we need jitneys for?" Recent events have made me think that it's time for that answer.

First, what advantages do private jitneys have over public buses? Jitneys are cheaper. The MTA data released last year show that while some lines are able to cover their operating expenses (fuel and salaries, mostly) with fares, most require some government support, and all of them need the government to contribute towards the cost of buying and maintaining the buses and depots.

Many of the privately operated bus lines are unable to cover all these costs; the State of New Jersey owns over 500 buses that are used by private operators (PDF), and depots to service them. But the jitneys receive no capital support and nothing that is typically called operating support. This is very important with transit budgets being slashed around the country. The State Assembly can't cut its contribution to transit if it didn't contribute anything in the first place.

The second advantage is flexibility. The MTA is required to post notices 30 days in advance and hold hearings in all five boroughs before a bus driver sneezes. That's a good thing when it comes to protecting essential service, but you also want a transit provider who's willing to experiment and take risks (financial ones), and dynamic enough to reallocate resources on the fly.

I can't tell you the number of times I've been standing at a bus stop for ten minutes or more because of bus bunching or someone calling in sick. Or I've waved two standing-room only buses away and watched a third go sailing by. I keep thinking to myself, "Well, this is a missed opportunity for someone to make a buck." A private jitney driver would be able to radio to other drivers that there are busloads of students waiting at the stop, and they could switch from a less-popular route.

Private jitneys can help protect us from the greed of the State Legislature, and they can help ensure higher and more consistent levels of service. So if they have all that going for them, why aren't they everywhere? I'll get to that soon.


Yonah Freemark said...

Do you know how much of the cost savings afforded by jitneys are due to the lower pay their drivers receive? How much do they get paid relative to publicly employed drivers?

Jonathan said...

I would presume that the liability insurance for running mass transit service is quite expensive. The government can self-insure. Private low-cost operators cannot.

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, here are the coverage requirements: PDF. I can't find anything that says how much that would cost.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for doing the research. Now I'm never taking a jitney van; if it crashes while full I get all of $25,000 worth of medical bills paid for.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Capn' they tried out jitneys in Newark back in the 20s. It was wonderful for a short while. Not so wonderful after every Tom Dick and Harry was out there in his Tin Lizzie trying to cover the cost of gas. An unregulated jitney service would deteriorate into that.

Right now it seems to be working because it's illegal. The drivers are able to skim the cream off the pool. Won't be so lush once everyone with a van decides to hit the road.

Cap'n Transit said...

Adirondacker, the jitneys are still going strong (and almost completely legal) in Hudson County.

Who said anything about an unregulated jitney service, anyway?

Adirondacker12800 said...

Who said anything about an unregulated jitney service, anyway?

Um um if you think people are actually paying drivers well, insuring the vehicle properly, paying taxes on their profits etc. I have some stock in a nice bridge you might be interested in.

Cap'n Transit said...

You mean the Brooklyn Bridge? I already fell for that one.

I didn't say that the current unregulated system was desirable. I said that I wasn't proposing an unregulated system.

George K said...

Part of the reason why they are profitable is because they don't have to take transfers from the public transportation system. For example, they can go from the Kings Highway subway station to Kings Plaza Mall and charge everybody $1 and still make money, while a parallel publicly run bus route (in this case the B2) loses money because the B2 is required to take free transfers from the subway, whereas the private bus is not. Also, the private van can make money because it operates during periods of high demand. It can stop running at 6 PM if it wants to. However, the publicly run bus route is required for network coverage, so it might be making a profit at a certain time, but during the time when it doesn't make a profit, it still has to run for network coverage, especially since it has a schedule to keep, whereas the private operator has more flexibilty in adding an canceling bus runs.