Thursday, April 30, 2009

Private Public Transportation

Our cities need to make a strong and clear distinction: transportation that serves the public does not need to be provided by the public. We should encourage “private public transportation.”

Nationwide, the current regime penalizes private providers of public transportation services. “Medallion” systems strictly limit the number of taxis in our cities while charging a massive tax on taxi ownership. Bus companies face even stricter limitations: most cities prohibit private bus services unless they serve a strictly private function (such as university transportation).

Sometimes such restrictions are directly discriminatory. In the 1950s (I think) there was a black-owned and operated bus company serving black residents of Harlem and Brooklyn. In the name of “efficiency,” the city outlawed this company. Its services were not replaced; those communities were simply not deemed worthy of “public” transportation.

But even in the absence of such civil-rights violations, limiting public transportation to public companies is a disaster for our cities.

Public transportation is an enormous good for cities. For those who cannot afford a car, it provides the only means of travel: for work, shopping, entertainment, visiting, and more. The freedom of those without cars is strictly limited by the provision of public transportation.

But even for those who can afford a car, public transportation is a great good. Consider this: we would pity anyone who spends more than two and a half hours a day – 10% of their time – in the car. But that means that every car spends 90% of its time sitting unused. What would our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our shopping areas look like if we did not have to provide parking for cars that spend most of their time idle? What would our cities look like if we could eliminate even half of our traffic, with its noise, pollution, and above all, roads?

How would our cost of living change – especially the cost of rent – if most of our parking and half of our roads were made available for other uses? How would our quality of living change if there were half as many lanes of traffic every time we crossed the street? Yet that would require only two people in every car that now carries one.

If anything, we should be subsidizing public transportation—private buses and taxis—rather than taxing them and limiting their numbers. At the least, we should facilitate them.

Here is a proposal. For public safety, private taxis and buses (and any other form of private public transportation) should only be required to register, carrying a clearly visible sign that they have passed a background check. (The background check should be provided free of charge, as a minimal form of subsidy for this public service.)

For the convenience of riders, public-transport vehicles should carry a clearly visible explanation of fares. The city might register a few standardized fare charts: a red badge, for example, might mean $1.50 for unlimited travel (a bus fare); a yellow badge, $2/person, plus .20/mile(taxi fare) —or whatever. But there is no reason that providers should not determine what fare system works best for them, so long as it is clearly visible. If the goal is to get more providers involved, city governments should not dictate terms.

Current bus routes could be maintained – and expanded. Publically operated buses could even continue to run on current schedules, until proven unnecessary. The addition of new providers, however, would greatly improve service. Rather than waiting 20 minutes for the next bus, one might find another provider coming along the desired route in 2 minutes. If the provider is a car rather than a bus, one might even go direct to one’s stop instead of waiting for other people to be picked up and dropped off.

The city could allow private drivers to purchase fare-card readers, for a reasonable charge. Some drivers might prefer to be cash-only, as taxis now are. But others might offer their customers the option to pay by credit card or fare card. I know I would prefer that option – though there are times I would take the fastest car available.

This proposal would cost cities little. If the new system takes business away from the old buses – by providing cheaper, faster service – publically-operated bus companies would lose fares, but could run fewer buses. Since publically-operated buses currently run at a net loss, the city would come out ahead. The city would lose the revenue from the sale of taxi medallions. But if taxis became more widely available, and cheaper, cities could sell off some parking facilities, which are inevitably located in places where people want to be, and thus where real estate prices are high.

Above all, such a system would benefit the people of a city, providing greater mobility, lower costs of living, and higher quality of life. These things are worth the loss of taxi-medallion revenue.

Of course, such a system might not work. Perhaps there is no one who wants to get into this business. But if that is so, there is no reason to outlaw private public buses. If taxi driving was not a good business, there would be no need to limit the number of medallions, and no way to explain the astronomical prices paid for them. Cities would do well to put people first, and give private public transportation a chance.