Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A five borough van plan

Last night Andrea Bernstein reported that the the city was planning to announce a radical expansion of private vans, to compensate for the MTA bus cuts. New York 1 has the details from the Mayor's press conference this morning. Of the routes in Brooklyn and Queens that have been cut by the MTA, the city will choose "three to six" as pilot projects.

An hour before this, the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved a plan to replace the X90 bus with a taxi share stand at 71st and York. The taxis would cost $6 per person and go down the FDR to Water Street and end at the World Financial Center. Apparently the share taxi stand at 79th and York is pretty popular.

It occurred to me that this could be the culmination of a longstanding plot to privatize bus service, or some kind of brinksmanship to get real transit funding out of the legislature, but I think the best explanation is that the Mayor has come to the realization that Silver and Sampson will never properly fund the MTA. He sees it as a managerial challenge to provide good transit for the city, and if he gets to boost private companies and weaken a union or two, so much the better.

I have a few concerns with this plan, though. The first is the suitability of the routes. If they've been cut for low ridership, how does the Mayor expect them to work? Jitneys and taxis have lower overhead, but they can't conjure up profits out of thin air. If the routes were eliminated because they duplicated other routes, then the jitneys will probably succeed. If they are the only transit route to a given place, they stand a good chance of failing.

The second concern is that this would widen the existing divide between the "haves" (Manhattanites with $6 share taxis) and the "have-nots" (outer borough residents with $2 vans). It would establish two tiers of transit service to correspond to the existing two tiers of taxi service, and re-establish the two-fare zone.

This would be okay only if these two pilots are eventually integrated with the services offered by the MTA into a single system that would include a range of well-regulated options overlapping throughout the city, from private taxis to share taxis to jitneys to scheduled buses, eventually accepting Metrocards or their smart card replacements and allowing free transfers. Most importantly, it would include quality van service for upscale passengers who are willing to pay a premium to avoid lowest-common-denominator transit.

This has the potential to evolve into a system that could get people out of their cars and lead to an expansion of the constituency for transit. But it won't be easy. The Amalgamated Transit Union already held a low-key protest at the Mayor's press conference, and the tabloids are ready to jump on any problems that might arise. Transit advocates need to press for these conditions, in rough order of priority:

1. The city must pay enough for strict enforcement of all vehicle and traffic licensing, insurance and safety standards. A lot of money will be freed up by not chasing "neutral good" operators who are licensed but operating on unauthorized routes. That should be put to good use keeping riders safe and avoiding bad press.

2. The city must streamline the process of permitting new vans and share taxis.

3. Vans must have a decent chance of obtaining authorization to operate on routes anywhere in the city, regardless of whether there is an established MTA route. However, scheduled bus service should get priority in bus stops, giving them an incentive to anchor the routes.

4. The city and the MTA should institute a process where van operators can accept Metrocards - or whatever new technology replaces them - allowing a free transfer to other van services, or MTA buses and subways.

5. The city and the MTA should allow private companies to bid on bus routes, either existing MTA ones or private ones. These should be fair bids, not sweetheart deals aimed at divesting the MTA of valuable rights.

6. The city and the MTA should work to provide more quickways to help private and MTA buses compete with private cars on subsidized roads.

7. The city should work to find good layover locations for vans. They could work with the Port Authority to allow through-running so that the vans can be stored in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.

If you've got a blog or a newspaper or a PR department, I hope you'll put out stories in support of these goals. Maybe you can find the time to try out the share taxis or the existing vans. If you're "just" an ordinary citizen, I hope you'll talk to your friends, write your legislators, and send letters to the editor in support of these goals.


George K said...

I'm assuming that the MTA would repay the jitneys the transit fare ($2.25) if they were to allow free transfers. If not, no company would want to take a route that connects to the subway (otherwise an efficient route) if they were going to be stiffed a fare.

jazumah said...

The van operators don't trust the city because they realize that the city has been playing them off against the MTA.

CityLights said...


But the vans would get more customers if they provide a more valuable service (a van that goes to the subway and provides a free transfer). The breakeven point here is somewhat less than $2.25 due to economies of scale and other efficiencies. The jitneys might agree to be reimbursed somewhere between $1 and $2.