Jitneys have two advantages over public buses: they're cheaper and more flexible. Privately run buses that don't use the jitney model (i.e. that run on a fixed schedule or don't pay their drivers per passenger) may not be quite as cheap or flexible, but they're more so than public transit. They may be the only way to expand transit if the Legislature refuses to provide adequate funding.
Even in this economic downturn there is significant demand for transit in the New York area, and whether due to labor costs, government inflexibility or lack of funding it is clear that the public transit agencies are incapable of meeting that demand.
We know that private buses can meet some of that demand. Full-service bus companies with fixed schedules are making profits right across the river in New Jersey. Private jitneys (aka dollar vans) are making profits in Jersey, in Brooklyn and even here in Queens.
Private buses can help fight global warming, make our streets safer, make our energy supplies last, and give people access to homes, jobs and stores that they couldn't get to with a car. So why aren't they already running on your favorite bus route, and what can we do to change that?
Well, it turns out that it's really hard to start a new bus route in the city, much harder than, say, a restaurant. There are intercity buses like Greyhound, tour buses like Grey Line, and school buses, but they all have restricted stops. The "private" companies that were absorbed into the MTA a few years back were all legacy companies that had been established in the era of trolleys, and were operating buses owned by the City of New York under franchise agreements with the Department of Transportation. Under a similar arrangement, two Staten Island express bus routes are operated by Atlantic Express under contract to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
As I read the law (and I am not a lawyer), the Transportation Commissioner has to personally approve every city bus company, every bus route, and every bus stop. They don't do it that often. There is only one bus line in the city that operates legally with private funds. That is the Williamsburg-Boro Park express bus that connects two Brooklyn neighborhoods with large Hasidic Jewish populations. Unfortunately, the company that runs it doesn't seem to be doing well, and the city is looking for another company to take it over. But it's notable that this one route was established by a community with a reputation for political clout; the Chinese and the Jamaicans have had no comparable success.
In the absence of full approval, most jitney companies are operating illegally. As far as I can tell, very few operators are just some guy who happens to own a van. Most are chartered as commuter vans. The legal way that commuter vans are supposed to operate is this: a company that owns a properly registered van applies to operate as a commuter van in a particular "zone." If the application is approved by the TLC, the company is authorized to pick up passengers - but only by "prearrangement," that is, when requested by the customer by phone, or by a standing agreement, in advance. The vans are not allowed to duplicate an existing bus route used by the MTA. If they followed all these restrictions, only a handful of companies would be able to make a profit.
It could be worse: from 1994 to 1999, the City Council had the right to veto commuter van applications - and did so 98% of the time. That part of the law was found unconstitutional.
In practice, commuter vans operate outside their designated zones and pick up passengers on the street. Since they do not have designated stops outside these zones, and they are not allowed to duplicate public bus routes, they often simply stop wherever they are hailed. This arrangement seems to satisfy most of the customers and yield profits for the van operators, but it can block car traffic, which seems to be the main complaint of Comet.
Unfortunately, the current system also seems to make it difficult to expand to new markets. That's what will help us towards our goals. For that, the laws will have to be changed. That will require a coalition that would either include the TWU or be powerful enough to overcome it, and at least some TWU members have negative opinions of jitneys.