The Orange County Transit Agency has recently initiated its "Bus System Improvement Plan" to reorganize its bus system. At the same time, OCTA is pondering the transportation needs of "The Corridor," a 28-mile long stretch between Fullerton and Irvine, through the densest part of the county. Despite the county's fiscal crunch, the county Board of Supervisors has only last month begun to consider what can be done to foster private transit services. Yet private entrepreneurship holds great promise for expanding the mass transportation market.
The private automobile is exceptionally convenient and pleasant. Transit has longer waits, slower travel, and less comfort. If transit services are to draw people from their cars, they must provide service more comparable to the personal auto. Rail transit and traditional bus services have proven unable to do so.
Private transit services, such as jitneys and shuttle vans, can compete with the private auto. Shuttle vans have been successful in serving the airports and major tourist attractions around the county. Alert entrepreneurs find opportunities where public transit agencies may not even be looking. They are bursting into the business of providing "kiddie kab" services: carrying children and teens to and from school, sports practice, music lessons, the beach, and the mall. Regulators from the state Public Utilities Commission, alas, have increasingly thrown up roadblocks to these private services.
Jitneys -- private vehicles running along a semi-fixed route but with no fixed schedule --have a history of success in southern California and other cities in the US. They first appeared in Los Angeles in 1915, as soon as cars became widely available. Under pressure from the streetcar companies, regulators imposed restrictions that stamped out the jitneys. Years later, as the weight of the restrictions diminished, jitney services cropped up again in such places as Marina Del Rey and Long Beach. As public transit became more heavily subsidized, however, it lowered its fares, and private jitneys could no longer compete. Yet today jitneys are able to compete with subsidized public transit in cities like New York and Miami, where they are mostly illegal, and San Diego, where they are legal.
The regulations that restrict the private provision of shuttles and jitneys are largely motivated by public transit's dislike of competition. Just as the LA streetcar companies clamored for protection from the jitneys in 1915, most modern transit agencies oppose the introduction of private transit service. California PUC regulations require an applicant for a jitney license to show a "public need" for the service. Of course, wherever there is public transit, there is no "need" for a private service. Application denied.
In New York and Miami, the transit agencies are in a constant uproar over illegal jitneys "stealing" their customers. Yet, many jitney riders would not otherwise ride city buses. A study in Miami found that only 25 percent of jitney passengers were would-be public transit riders. Riders prefer the jitneys to public buses for a variety of reasons. The jitney trip is quicker, there is always a seat, and the driver will not let disorderly or threatening passengers on the vehicle. Also, many minority riders enjoy a jitney whose driver speaks their native tongue. The fact is, these private carriers offer service and innovation that public transit firms cannot compete with.
To improve mobility and reduce solo car driving, public officials should encourage shuttles and jitneys, not harass entrepreneurs. Many at OCTA agree and would like to advance private transit services. Unfortunately, they appear to be fighting an uphill battle. The agency ought to try to convince state legislators and regulators to help free up the transit market. Together, they could work to assist private providers in forming associations to get insurance and provide maintenance. They should require minimal periodic safety inspections, and could offer additional safety inspection certificates and incentive programs to promote safety as a sales point.
Most important, the transit agency could arrange curb areas for jitneys to pick up and drop off passengers. The areas should be along the same routes that county buses ply, and along other routes that show promise. Experiments in Miami have shown that jitneys do not succeed if they are not allowed to operate along the busiest and densest routes. Jitneys should not, however, be permitted to stop at regular bus stops, a practice which creates conflict in New York. Rather, the jitney stops should be interspersed with the transit bus stops. As jitney services evolve and mature, the need for transit buses on some routes may be reduced or eliminated. This could allow the agency to make necessary cuts, or to focus its resources on areas dependent on scheduled transit services.
Steps like these will do far more than anything we have seen to date to ensure service in the dense central county. The debate must turn away from how the transit agency can rearrange or expand its services to cope with job and population growth. The focus needs to be on enabling private entrepreneurs to provide transit services, and reducing the agency's role to serving those whom the market would not.
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