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.