Home Buses A privatized approach to replace lost buses

A privatized approach to replace lost buses

by Benjamin Kabak

Commuter van stops, such as the one shown here in Queens, could become more prevalent. (Photo via flickr user AllWaysNY)

In five days, the MTA will pull the plug on numerous bus routes throughout the city, and all of a sudden, denizens of neighborhoods with little subway access will find themselves without the buses upon which they rely for everyday life. To fill the void, New York City will try to turn to the so-called dollar vans that have long operated below the radar. The plan, announced yesterday, is a controversial one with labor opposed to it and politicians wary of an unregulated industry, but it just might be the first step toward a better public-private partnership for transit in New York City.

The details are, for now, simple. The city will start a year-long pilot program under the aegis of David Yassky and the Taxi & Limousin Commission that will add three to six new commuter van lines in Brooklyn and Queens. The vans will replace buses lost to the MTA’s service cuts, and the mayor — who erroneously claimed that “nobody has been out there screaming for more money for the M.T.A. more than I have” — hopes the vans will encourage transit use. “The issue here is not whether it’s more expensive or less expensive,” he said at a press conference. “It’s whether the service exists or not.”

This plan is not without drawbacks and controversies. First, as Fernanda Santos of The Times notes, because this is, in essence, a privatization plan not run by the MTA, subway-bound commuters will have to pay for the two-dollar van rides and then pay for the connecting MetroCard swipe as well. The buses provided a free transfer to other New York City Transit-operated modes of travel.

More pressing though are the concerns of labor. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056 represents bus drivers in Queens, and already its officials have proclaimed that private commuter vans are “clearly not the answer.” According to union president I. Dankee Miller, a lack of industry regulation and oversight leaves passengers exposed to safety risks. In essence, the union is concerned that a successful commuter van program will jeopardize the livelihood of its bus-driving members.

On the other hand, the van owners and drivers themselves recognize the need for more government city and regulation. Noting that vans can never replace buses, one owner bemoaned the union protests. “It is unfortunate that the unions have this on an either-or situation,” Hector Ricketts said.

For now, though, the labor battle is neither here nor there, and this first step should be viewed as a victory for transit advocates who have been pushing the city to expand its potential offerings. Over at Cap’n Transit Rides Again, Cap’n Transit has been pushing for expanded commuter van offerings as the MTA’s service cuts have come into view. Today, he pens a detailed post about the new transit offerings. He writes of the plan — which also includes a $6 York Ave. taxi share program:

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 eventually merge with 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.

For those of us who want to see commuter van service emerge as a viable complement to MTA bus services, the Cap’n lays out a list of seven conditions which must apply. These range from tight oversight by Yassky and the TLC; the ability of vans to duplicate existing bus routes; an eventual free transfer between vans and NYC Transit-operated subways and buses; and dedicated lanes for high-occupancy public transit vehicles. The end goal would result in better transit for everyone.

For now, this new plan is but a first step. David Yassky has hoped to expand taxi-like offerings in the outer boroughs, and the commuter vans can accomplish this at a cost to riders that’s lower than a ride in a yellow cab. This move also helps the city pick up the slack that is sure to emerge from this weekend’s service cuts. Only with proper expansion, oversight and control, though, will commuter vans emerge as another viable transit modality in New York City.

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21 comments

Alon Levy June 23, 2010 - 5:10 am

The most dangerous, worst-regulated jitney is still an order of magnitude safer than a car.

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ferryboi June 23, 2010 - 4:11 pm

Can you elaborate?

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Alon Levy June 24, 2010 - 1:37 am

US buses on average, have about 1/20th the per-passenger-km accident death rate as cars. So even a jitney that gets twice the death rate of an average bus is ten times better than a car.

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rhywun June 23, 2010 - 8:05 am

Any “merger” with the MTA is only possible by making those of us who pay a greater share of our ride subsidize those who pay a smaller share; i.e. the same situation that led to the service cuts in the first place.

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Cap'n Transit June 23, 2010 - 9:05 am

Aw, geez, Rhywun, I did not mean “merge” literally! I meant that they should serve riders as a coherent system. That does not necessarily mean that they should be controlled by a single entity, or that revenues should be shared.

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rhywun June 23, 2010 - 9:50 pm

Well… point sort of taken, but the more like the rest of the MTA such a network gets, the less viable it will be – especially if the unions have their way. I’m not even sure what amount “regulation” is necessary – only that the more of it there is, the more $$ it costs.

There’s a quasi-private van service in Hong Kong that I’m vaguely familiar with – if the MTA (or the city itself) ever ventured to look outside its borders, they might learn something useful to help with these experiments.

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Al D June 23, 2010 - 9:20 am

I like the theory that the Mayor is trying to get around an incompetent and incapable state government and that he doesn’t want to fund the MTA more because it is in effect run by the same incompetent and incapable state government. At least someone around here in a position of authority is trying to solve a problem instead of just being a big ol’ wind bag about everything..

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Scott E June 23, 2010 - 10:20 am

True, the mayor is trying to work within his authority (city-level, not state/MTA-level). However, his statement that “nobody has been out there screaming for more money for the MTA more than I have” tends to contradict your theory.

In his defense, he did push for congestion-pricing which would help fund the MTA. However, I don’t remember his stance on bridge tolls (meaning he wasn’t “screaming”), and his unwillingness to fund student transportation is a direct contradiction. He may have asked for more money for the MTA, but he hasn’t screamed relentlessly for it.

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Alon Levy June 23, 2010 - 11:26 am

He was completely silent on bridge tolls, as they weren’t credited as his idea and he wouldn’t get any kudos from them.

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SEAN June 23, 2010 - 10:08 am

Spanish Transportation runs continuous vans from NJ communities along River Road Rt 505 from Edgewater to New York. This is where NJT’s 128, 165, 166 & 168 lines also run.

I’m sure that they run such vans along other routes as well, but I need to question the safety of some of these vans & those who drive them.

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Scott E June 23, 2010 - 10:25 am

I remember, not so long ago, driving on the NJ Turnpike past a clunker of a bus (one of the so-called “Chinatown bus”). It was a hot day, the bus was full of passengers, some windows and the door were open (no a/c?), and the driver was smoking a cigarette. This is what happens when the industry is unregulated. To say the passengers’ ride was unpleasant would be an understatement.

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C C June 23, 2010 - 12:35 pm

But did the unpleasant ride get them to where they were going? Did it do it at a price that was within the reach of those riding? Would the passengers have been able to transfer if the bus was “regulated” up to standards acceptable to you, and the associated cost?

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C C June 23, 2010 - 12:36 pm

“travel” not “transfer”

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Aaron June 23, 2010 - 1:13 pm

Not always. I really do loathe when people imply that all regulation is bad.

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Cap'n Transit June 23, 2010 - 5:34 pm

I would just like to point out that the first goal should be to ensure that the jitneys are well-regulated. This will not be expensive, because the city will be able to use the resources freed up by not prosecuting drivers who operate outside of their “zones.”

Aaron June 23, 2010 - 1:07 pm

Awesome. Replace ADA-compliant busses with vans who will be under no [enforceable] obligation to take ADA customers. Looking forward to this.

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John June 23, 2010 - 3:30 pm

You have to look at it this way: The service reductions would’ve left residents of certain neighborhoods without other options. They would’ve had a long walk to the nearest bus, and would be willing to forgo their free transfer if it meant that they could get to work quicker.
I’m sure the plan to reduce service didn’t say to replace some ADA accesable route with jitney vans, or else they wouldn’t have been careful about network coverage guidelines. It was just trying to ease the pain of commuters by saying: You still have a low-cost form of transpotration, but it isn’t as regulated and doesn’t have the transfer policy, as opposed to saying: You will have a very inconvenient form of transportation and have to deal with it or pay more money for a taxi.

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John Paul N. June 24, 2010 - 12:31 am

Unlicensed vans that cannibalize on licensed routes could be a growing problem. Although the linked article suggests that the licensed/unlicensed commuter van problem is a cultural problem limited among a particular racial group, it will be a cutthroat business for any participant who wishes to join, just like ice cream trucks jockeying for routes or taxi drivers.

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Livery van pilot to target former Brooklyn, Queens bus routes :: Second Ave. Sagas July 20, 2010 - 1:05 pm

[…] little less than a month after the Taxi and Limousine Commission revealed its plan to replace lost bus routes with dollar vans, the agency has unveiled five routes in Brooklyn and Queens that will serve as pilots for a […]

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Loosh July 20, 2010 - 9:24 pm

This is a natural reaction by the economy to America’s total unwillingness to correctly fund public transportation: as our transit system slowly deteriorates, it slowly becomes India’s public transit system, which is lightly regulated and not particularly safe. However, I am for anything that hurts the unions – so, hurrah for that.

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The dollar van debate: deregulation or privatization :: Second Ave. Sagas August 9, 2010 - 1:38 am

[…] before the MTA’s service cuts went into place, word got out that the city would turn to commuter and the so-called dollar vans to replace many axed bus routes. The program — overseen by the Taxi & Limousine […]

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