Tag Archives | dollar vans

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.