Peter McFerrin on private suburban transit in the New Republic

One of my favorite people, Peter McFerrin*, has a nice entry in the New Republic blogs about private transit services as a possible means for serving suburb-to-suburb commutes, a trip that municipal transit services, with their orientation downtown, have struggled to serve.

Peter argues that fiscal crisis in recent years has caused agencies to cut back routes that are likely to serve these commutes, and that private jitney services could step in:

Outside of the West, where geographic constraints have resulted in higher suburban development densities than in Midwestern, Northeastern, or Southern metros, transit agencies have had great difficulty making suburb-to-suburb service financially sustainable even in good times. Poor pedestrian connectivity depresses ridership, while high mileage per passenger increases costs, especially for fuel. As a result, many suburb-to-suburb bus routes recover barely more than ten percent of their operating costs from fares. In times of fiscal retrenchment, such unproductive routes represent a serious drain on transit agencies’ precarious finances, arguably preventing resources from being shifted to routes that might benefit more riders.

The problem, described in this way, becomes apparent: how do jitney services make their money if this is the service environment they are working in?

McFerrin is less explicit here (blog entries in real blogs, unlike this one, are usually short), but the experience in other parts of the world suggests:

1) jitney services use primarily nonunionized labor, unlike all the major regional transit agencies in the US, and thus have much lower operating costs for every vehicle that is on the road;

2) they can pursue a flexible pricing structure, unlike transit agencies that have to set fares by policy and thus, must respond to multiple public objectives—most of which mean that fares are kept low; and

3) they can pursue flexible routing, cutting service times, because they are not required to cover the geography as comprehensively as municipal or regional transit companies.

*Because he is one of my favorite people, I am both a) very proud and happy for him and b) hideously jealous. I love TNR!