The vans really are MIA.
I realized yesterday that I have not yet actually seen an official "Group Ride Vehicle" on the street. Now I've spent more than three hours looking for them at various times of day on six separate days over the past week and a half.
I thought I saw two last Wednesday, but they definitely didn't have the official stickers. It's been suggested to me that they were "poachers" - commuter vans that were not authorized for this particular program.
At first I thought it might have just been Community Transportation that was either uninterested or incompetent, but then a reporter for the Brooklyn Courier waited for two hours on Monday without seeing a single B23 van. Okay, I thought, those aren't very promising routes; maybe the new and improved B39 "Hipster Shuttle" will have more luck.
Yesterday I went to try the B39 and found this van in the stop at 14th and Irving. Needless to say, it wasn't going to take me to Brooklyn, and it wasn't there to cover the new van service. There were two guys standing nearby, probably Con Ed office workers on their coffee break, and they told me they'd been there for ten minutes and hadn't seen any "Group Ride Vehicles." I waited for fifteen minutes after that, but no vans showed up.
So if the vans weren't thee, where were they? I'm guessing on illegal runs where they knew there would be higher ridership. That would guarantee them a certain minimum income per hour.
Well, okay, but by doing this they're essentially guaranteeing that there will not be enough vans to provide frequent service, and as a result people will not wait for the vans, and these lines will fail, and they will lose an opportunity to expand their market to new customers. Why would they do such a thing? Why would they do absolutely no marketing? And why bother signing up for the pilot project if they weren't prepared for even a single day without customers?
I've been puzzling over this for the past week and a half. I've come up with some likely reasons, but I'm not sure that all of them apply, or that they're the whole story. My best guess is that it's the interaction of three facts: these van owners have never started a new route, they're used to keeping a low profile, and the structure is very decentralized.
For a lot of this explanation, I'm going to draw on the excellent analysis by Klein, Moore and Reja (PDF), particularly the notion of minimal scheduled service as an "anchor" that brings in customers. But really, the concept of an anchor should be familiar to anyone who's started or expanded a business. Basically, you can never be sure that customers will appear out of nowhere, no matter what you're selling, and you need to be prepared to go for six months without any income, and a year or two without any profit. So you keep your restaurant open for the full hours even if it's empty, until word gets around and it stays full. Judging by the number of restaurants that I've seen close within a month or two of opening, it's not uncommon for people to fail to plan for this possibility.