Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Setting the "livery vans" up for failure?

We've now got details (PDF) about the City's plan to allow legal "livery vans" to run on routes that have been cut by the MTA. As long as public transit options are being reduced, any expansion of private transit is welcome. I've long argued that privately operated buses can make a profit in some areas where the MTA can't. But as van line owner Winston Williams told the Brooklyn Paper, it may be impossible for anyone to make a profit in this pilot program.

The reasons are as follows: the routes selected for the pilot are already routes that the MTA abandoned. The city has let those routes sit abandoned for a month now, giving the riders ample time to get used to alternatives. There is apparently no flexibility for van operators to propose modifications to the routes. The van owners will not be able to offer a free or discounted transfer to or from MTA service. And although many of the routes are popular with passengers in wheelchairs, the city is restricting the pilot to vans with six to twenty passengers, which are too small to hold a wheelchair and more than a handful of other passengers. Finally, there is no provision to improve travel times to help the van operators make it.

For example, the B39 is a simple shuttle across the Williamsburg Bridge. There aren't that many people who are going from Delancey Street to Bridge Plaza; I'm guessing that most of the passengers were transferring to other buses in Williamsburg. Under the current proposal, the livery vans will not take Metrocard, so anyone transferring will have to pay two dollars in addition to the MTA bus fare.

A slightly different route might attract enough riders to make a profit. For example, if the van went up Bedford Avenue, it might pick up hipsters going to shops and clubs on the Lower East Side. If it went a bit further south it could connect with the Chinatown buses and vans, or even bring people directly to their jobs in the Financial District. A little further west and it could provide connections to the Seventh and Eighth Avenue subways.

There are profitable bus routes that take the Williamsburg Bridge, including the vans that certain Maspeth residents complain about. There are all kinds of possibilities, some of which have the potential to be much more popular than the old B39. But apparently Bloomberg thinks that we should stick with the existing routes, some of which were established more than a hundred years ago.

Of all the possible routes over this bridge, an end-to-end shuttle is probably the least useful. The MTA might have been able to continue service across the bridge by extending one of the existing routes west from Bridge Plaza.

On the other hand, maybe not. The bridge traffic might be too congested to allow for reliable local service. This is where the DOT comes in. Right now, any bus that crosses the Williamsburg Bridge has to take a regular lane with private cars. A bus with twenty passengers has to sit behind a car with one person in it, or a taxi with two. If the DOT set aside an HOV lane in each direction on the bridge, buss could compete with private cars based on time, but there are no plans to do this.

Similarly, the B71 would probably be very lucrative if it went through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Lower Manhattan. The Q74 if it had a better connection to the subway. The Q79 if it stopped at the Bellerose or Floral Park LIRR stations. But I can't think of anything that would make the B23 more successful. Maybe it's hopeless!

The frustrating thing is that I think that Yassky does want to make this pilot project work for New Yorkers, and so do Goldsmith and Bloomberg. But if it's too constrained, it will be doomed to failure.


George K said...

I thought the whole point of the B39 was to provide access for the elderly from Williamsburg to the Lower East Side. Most able-bodied people would just walk up the steps to the J/M/Z trains to travel the same distance without all of the traffic (not to mention it is a 3 minute wait for the train during rush hours vs. a 10 minute wait for the bus)
As far as the B23, an idea could be to combine the 16th Avenue portion of the route with the B69 (I think these routes will probably run weekdays only, as these routes are expensive to run weekends) and have the dollar van cover the whole B69 route. The B103 would cover the Cortelyou Road portion of the B23.
I agree that they should allow the operators to modify the route, especially considering that, if it weren't for this program, you would probably see them doing it illegally anyway.

MRB said...

Good point. I think what may happen is the old-school, unregulated dollar vans will fill this gap and yes, leave the 'legitimate' providers holding the bag.

In the grand scheme of things, isn't the MTA better served by these dollar vans failing?

George K said...

Maybe their logic was that many of those passengers would've left the system anyway.
If you consider the B23 and B71, for the effort that it takes for a person to walk to a nearby route, wait for the bus, and walk back to the destination, the person might as well walk to their destination directly and not give the MTA any money.
Say a person is traveling from 16th Avenue/New Utrecht Avenue to 16th Avenue/Cortelyou Road. They have to walk over to 14th Avenue or 18th Avenue for the B16 or B8, wait for the bus, and walk back to 16th Avenue at the other end. For the same amount of time, they might as well save themselves $2.25.
At the other extreme, you have the Q79, where people would leave the system because the alternative is too inconvenient. Former Q79 customers would have to travel to Springfield Blvd and back to complete the trip, which may cause them to just forget about it and drive or take a car service.

Martin Paints Soldiers Badly said...

I would like to thank you for your interest in the group ride vehicle program. The Taxi and Limousine Commission always welcomes suggestions and comments from the public about our programs so that we can best serve our city. Yet, I feel it necessary to correct some statements made in your blog. You suggested that the “routes” in question were too ridged. In fact, the service that is being proposed is not a route, but instead a service area. Pick-ups can only occur at designated stops, but drop-offs can occur anywhere (including designated stops) as long as the driver and passengers agree. Moreover, in the third paragraph of your blog, you made the incorrect claim that one of the proposed service areas will only run on the discontinued B39 bus route. According to the Notice of Solicitation that we made public via our website, the service area in question will run from Williamsburg through the Lower East Side ending at Union Square. This service area includes the discontinued B39 route, but it serves a larger area than the B39 did. This pilot program was made to offer an alternative to New Yorkers who have been negatively affected by the MTA cuts, and we created this program with those New Yorkers in mind. We are optimistic about it, and are confident that it will be beneficial to those who need it most.

Martin Evelyn,
Taxi and Limousine Commission

jazumah said...

If the program was designed as Martin stated, there would be no need for a new license. You would simply waive preaarangement under existing licenses and be able to achieve this. This is not what is happening.

In 1919, the city authorized jitney sized vehicles (20 passengers and less) to temporarily operate over the territory of a failed street railway company. The city was sued and lost in the six year saga. There is directly comparable case law that would allow the union to punch this program out.

The operators have also been offered no protection against future incursions into their turf. Based on their prior use as a whipsaw against the union as well as the lack of protection from illegal operators in their current service areas, I am skeptical that the city will devote enouugh resources to make it work.

George K said...

By the way, the passenger and driver have to agree on a drop-off point, correct? A passenger can't demand to be dropped off in Brooklyn from the Q79 shuttle van, correct?