New York’s Dollar Vans: Could they work here?

On the off chance the prior post ruffles too many libertarian feathers, here’s an interesting article on New York City’s dollar vans–small vans (14 passengers) which essentially provide bus service on routes that the MTA doesn’t serve. The vans in NY are quite popular (as are the similar “public light busses” in Hong Kong, some of which run regular routes like the dollar vans, otherw which are essentially share taxis).

Only problem is–they’re presently illegal in the Big Apple. (At this point, enforcement mainly consists of cops writing tickets when they observe a curbside pickup). The vans are licensed and insured (most of them anyway), they’re just not legally permitted to pick up and drop off passengers for hire.

Could such a thing work in Portland, assuming any legal regulations prohibiting the service were deleted from the books? Possibly–there are quite a few routes TriMet runs that could easily be served by a Ford E350 rather than a 40′ New Flyer; and there are plenty of corridors where the existing bus service is either infrequent or nonexistent. Cascade Policy Institute (and many other libertarian organizations) have long praised dollar vans/jitneys, and I’m not at all ideologically opposed to the free market providing this sort of service.

My main concerns and thoughts would be:

  • I’m assuming that the vehicles in question would be held to reasonable safety standards, and that operators would be licensed and insured, etc. TriMet and other public transit operators are held to these standards; there’s no reason to endanger the public safety by permitting rattletraps to be driven around. (To those who think that safety could be a factor on which competing services compete, and that this should be left to the market, I offer a gentle reminder that poorly-maintained or uninsured vehicles operated by maniacs pose a threat to more than just the paying passengers).
  • I see this as an enhancement to regular transit service, not a replacement for it. Jitney service might replace ordinary transit service on social service routes, but many of the routes TriMet runs are better served with larger vehicles. In both the cities I mentioned (HK and New York), the jitneys complement a well-patronized full service transit system; nobody in their right mind would proposed replacing the MTA with dollar vans.
  • Given that, coordinating service with TriMet would be an interesting puzzle–are the vans permitted to self-organize, or assigned routes and/or schedules? Can vans drive the same routes as high-frequency busses? What of the problem, observed in some developing countries where jitneys are a primary mode, of aggressive forms of competition (such as vehicles racing for, or drivers fighting over, particular passengers)? Might we subsidize certain routes or corridors that otherwise would not be profitable?
  • Part of the attractiveness of dollar vans (for some) is the labor costs are lower. Drivers make far less than the unionized operators at public transit agencies such as TriMet. Obviously, some will consider this a bug, others will consider it a feature.
  • New York’s dollar vans, like the so-called “Chinatown busses”, originated in immigrant communities, and then as they became popular started to be patronized more by native-born New Yorkers; a similar demographic pattern might be observed here. (A place I could see such a service arising is out in the Beaverton/Hillsboro area, which has an extremely large Latino population, quite a few large concentrations of high-density housing and ethnic business enclaves, and spotty transit service outside the MAX and TV Highway corridors).

In some ways, this is a hypothetical argument. While those whose political orientations cause them to question the role of government in providing or subsidizing transit love to propose jitneys as an alternative, I’m presently unaware of any attempt to organize or operate (legally or otherwise) private urban transit in the Portland metropolitan area as a business venture. It may well be that we lack the necessary urban density for this to be an attractive business–both of the cities cited as examples where these services are provided are extremely dense megacities; which Portland is not. It may well be that the politics aren’t there–the dollar vans remain illegal in New York, though as noted above, enforcement is pro forma (if the authorities really wanted to shut them down, or at least drive them underground, they probably could).

Thanks to Intersection911 for the tip.

12 responses to “New York’s Dollar Vans: Could they work here?”

  1. What should it cost to actually move people? Don’t small town transit agencies or companies actually have very economical vehicles they can legitimately make use of?

  2. I don’t see any reason not to permit a free market in transit service. After all, we had competitive transit at one time, and cities only started taking over transit because the transit companies could not compete with car use. One of my profs called this one of the few examples in the US of “lemon socialism,” where government takes over a failed industry. If private companies see a niche they can fill, that’s great!

    The only downside I could possibly see is the increased lack of certainty on the part of people making land-use or locational decisions. Hopefully a senior center wouldn’t be foolish enough to locate somewhere with the expectation that the private service would remain forever. On the other hand, if the service lasts long enough to actually affect land use and the company still goes under for some reason, maybe it would make sense for the transit agency to take over the route, just as happened with the old streetcar lines.

    It would probably make sense for the city or region to grant “concessions” to private minibuses for routes not served by TriMet, and to employ the usual anti-monopoly regulations. After all, it is hard for more than one company to profitably run the same routes and it’s easy for monopoly power to emerge.

  3. There are a number of issues with dollar vans that need to be explored fully before encouraging them.

    1. In almost every city where they have appeared, they began by jumping existing public transit on the most heavily serviced routes. That is, they would pull out just before a regularly scheduled bus trip, load up with their 14 passengers, and take off leaving remaining passengers to wait along the side of the road for the bus. As they become more established they increase frequency, causing the public or private conventional bus operator to cut back on service frequency due to reduced passenger loadings. In a number of cases I know of, they forced private operators out of business on a particular route; but local demand required public agencies to step in with a base level of service.

    2. They are not interested in operating on low density routes because they cannot make a profit. (When the MTA in New York City discontinued some lightly used bus routes, the City tried to have vans take ove the routes. Most of the van operators who tried to do so gave up. The routes were not profitable.)

    3. There are issues concerning system integration. They need the full fare from each passenger. How will transfers between routes and between operating entities be handled?

    4. In most cases, the operators work very long hours. Some van drivers admit to woring 14 hour days.

    5. Vans often choose not to operate on busy routes when demand is low (late evenings) when public transit operates as a social need.

    There are other considerations as well. However, if you could get vans to operate on the low utilization routes (perhaps with a subsidy) and feed the high utilization routes, it might be a very useful thing.

  4. Portland had the old Cedar Mills Shuttle, provided by Sassy Cab and provided local and connecting service to the Sunset Transit Center. Six days a week, all day service – it was very popular.

    TriMet did what it did best – bring it in house, slashed the days of service and hours of service…and ultimately killed it off, replacing it with a lackluster fixed-route service in an area that really does not lend itself to a fixed-route bus line.

    Our region is ripe for these sorts of services – much of Forest Grove and Sherwood in particular are forced to be in TriMet’s district; yet no bus goes anywhere near many of the residential areas. Same is true with West Linn and Tualatin, parts of Tigard (think Bull Mountain and the area north of Tigard High School), and parts of Hillsboro.

    What’s worse is that our region barely even has a vanpool service – the service Metro runs is a joke compared to the vast vanpool systems operated in the Puget Sound area – Metro has 700 vanpool vans (not counting vehicles owned by other agencies, businesses or private parties).

    The message in our region is clear: Live near a MAX line, or get used to driving yourself to work. And when you look at the modal share…it’s pretty clear that option A isn’t working too well.

  5. Glad you dug the article, Scotty.

    I share concerns about the spotty safety record of 15 passenger vans. I would like to see this option explored specifically at night when Trimet shuts down. If you want to work or hang out past 11pm in this town, you can’t depend on Trimet. With such a gaping hole in service, it would be great to see a taxi-transit hybrid fill the void.

  6. Jitneys emerged as market competition to the streetcar monopolies as early as 1916 in Los Angeles, and have always been harrassed by local governments precisely because they are so popular. They should be legalized in NYC and everywhere else.

    The only appropriate role for government is to ensure that vehicles are insured, the driver is licensed, and there is some visible ID on the vehicle in case customers feel a need to complain. Otherwise no taxi-style regs need apply.

    They should be allowed in to Gateway transit center and all other TM facilities where there may be willing customers. TM loses money on every transaction, so the more customers they can off-load to profitable vendors, the better everyone will be.

    Many issues people typically bring up in opposition are dealt with quite well in the book Curb Rights, by Adrian Moore et al.

    As a previous commentor noted, TM used Sassy Cab as a contractor on the westside and they provided much better service at half the cost, but union rules prevent that sort of thing from going mainstream. At TM, serving the public is not job #1; it’s all about maintaining monopoly control.

    Fred Hansen once said to me that he did not oppose jitneys, so I asked if he’d be willing to share some of the payroll tax loot by creating transit “vouchers” (think EBT cards that food stamp recipients get) with PR tax money and allowing users (or at least low-income users) to swipe the card with the bus, train, cab, or jitney of their choice. He laughed at that one, of course. He was all in favor of competition as long as TM could kill it off by controlling the subsidies.

  7. TM loses money on every transaction, so the more customers they can off-load to profitable vendors, the better everyone will be.

    I don’t think that’s true. Tri-Met loses money on the whole because they need to serve off-peak and even late-night trips when demand is low, and to serve low-density areas with mostly-empty buses. I read once (although I can’t find it right now) that Tri-Met generates revenue on its busier lines at peak hours, when the buses are running full.

    Profitable vendors will only be interested in “competing” for profitable routes. They might be able to pull it off, too, at the cost of undercutting Tri-Met’s most profitable service and forcing an even higher overall subsidy-per-ride.

    Face it: if transit were actually profitable beyond a few very narrow uses, there wouldn’t be any public transit agencies. Private companies would still be running the buses.

  8. To echo what Douglas K. says, the marginal cost of an additional transit rider is negative; the more paying customers on the bus, the more money for TriMet. The marginal expense for an additional customer is generally zero–only when a system is near capacity do additional riders cost money. The only way TriMet would lose less money by shedding passengers if they could shed services–and the services that TriMet would gain the most from shedding are not ones that private operators would likely be interested in. I’m sure there might be demand to have jitneys replace the 72, but that route is not a financial problem for TriMet. OTOH, TriMet probably wouldn’t mind not having to run things like the 84, but I doubt that private operators would be interested in that route, unless paid a subsidy to operate it.

    Regarding ATU757–I seem to recall, though can’t find a source, that the current collective bargaining agreement between TriMet and the union essentially prohibits the agency from cooperating with non-unionized transit operators (public or private) above and beyond possibly serving the same stops. While many rural (non-union) transit agencies due pull into suburban TCs and the transit mall; TriMet can’t do things like provide transfers between services and the like. While I didn’t quite go there in the article–I suspect that for many people, their attitude towards jitneys correlates (inversely) with their attitude towards transit unions.

    At any rate, there’s a difference between opposing jitneys, and opposing funding them from one’s own revenue sources. I don’t mind you going out and having a beer, for instance–but that doesn’t mean that I’m buying the drinks. :)

  9. I share concerns about the spotty safety record of 15 passenger vans.

    The safety issue is with a specific model – Ford E350 vans.

    The Freightliner/Dodge/Mercedes Sprinter is a far more attractive choice than a E350 van and is even available as a transit bus (with transit style doors and seating). The Sprinter also has best-in-class fuel economy. Eldorado National (among other manufacturers) make and sell cutaway buses that have sub-CDL seating capacities, the “Aerolite” is basically a smaller version of the Aerotech vehicle TriMet uses for its LIFT vehicle.

  10. Could TriMet reasonably expect to recoup cost of operation of the LIFT service by allowing Dollar Van style operation?
    This would bypass several key issues:
    LIFT vans are already centrally maintained,
    drivers are not fighting for profit,
    standards for driver hiring and performance are already in place.

    As I see it there would have to be an ironclad statement of preferred availability to the disabled up to and including a signed waiver agreeing that this may include getting off to make way for those that need it.

    All that said I expect that there is some unused capacity on the LIFT service that could be utilized to make this service to the disabled and elderly somewhat less unprofitable.

  11. There is NO CHANCE that NYC-style dollar vans would work in NYC. Part of my job relates to commuter van management in New York.

    Firstly, there is very little by the way of special licensing, insurance, etc; safety inspections or driver training are absolutely non-existant.

    * The NYC model, vans are licensed specific drop off and pick-up areas (generally neighborhoods). For example, the will drive people from various chinese residential communities (flushing, bensonhurst, etc) to chinatown in manhattan. They are not allowed to pick-up at MTA bus stops.

    * The vans in NYC cost more than subway service – $2 cash ride each way; no transfers; no monthly passes; etc. The $105 monthly MTA card works out to about $1.50/$1.75 a ride (I generally ride several times a day, so I’m under $1/ride).

    * Competition between providers is intense, and sometimes violent. This is a fact of life in NYC. Existing operators tend to be very hostile towards newcomers.

  12. There is NO CHANCE that NYC-style dollar vans would work in (PDX).

    Sure it could. Would it need regulation? Likely. But given the cutbacks and often non-existent TriMet service in MANY neighborhoods, wouldn’t it be great to get cars off the roads by having a van service that you could call an hour (or less) in advance and provide you with door to door service at a regulated price?

    Such an approach could probably even reduce the need for LIFT service…and even TriMet is going away from the larger cutaway buses and to smaller vehicles (Ford Crown Victorias and Chrysler minivans) for paratransit use, not including the private transportation companies that are under contract to TriMet for medical transports.

    It just won’t happen, because TriMet and Metro won’t let it happen. Look at how “successful” our region’s vanpool system is compared to most cities. It’s a joke.

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