By Dennis Polhill
As the possibility of a strike grew nearer, stronger threats against the Regional Transportation District union were made: contracts with private companies might weaken discipline, or break the unruly union. RTD union members missed an opportunity to declare independence. The RTD Board lost an opportunity to increase service and lower cost.
As demand for transit declined after WW II, privately owned trolleys became privately owned buses, and later turned into publicly owned buses. Enjoying the coercive power of government taxation and regulation, publicly owned bus systems passed laws prohibiting competition. Hundreds of sole proprietor suppliers, many racial minority entrepreneurs, were forced out of business to benefit government monopoly. This happened in Denver along with every other major city in the United States during the 1960s.
In spite of the controls, demand for transit continued to decline, requiring that the initially small tax subsidies regularly increase to the point that the average bus-user now pays less than one fourth of the cost of a trip. The nature of the service is that some smart guys in big offices decide where and when the buses will run and where and when they will stop for passengers. Users merely need to shape their lives to fit the schedule. To sustain non-competition, when a route is canceled, customers on these routes are prohibited from having service from any other provider. This Soviet-style command-and-control approach elevates costs and minimizes service.
In 1989, the Florida State legislature inadvertently decriminalized transit competition. Within months independent providers proliferated. To end the evil trend, corrective legislation was quickly passed and the criminals (again mostly racial minorities) were restrained and their vehicles impounded.
These service providers are called “jitneys.” Jitney is the same name used for providers prior to government monopoly. Jitney vehicles can be any size, but generally they are vans that run on semi-fixed routes and semi-fixed schedules. Consumers simply wave an arm to get a lift or to get off.
A 1992 Federal Transit Administration study captured some interesting facts. In Miami an estimated 400 jitney vehicles carried an average of 46,000 passenger-trips per day, approximately 25% of Metrobus ridership. Jitney fares were comparable to Metrobus fares at one dollar, but obviously enjoyed no tax subsidy. Thus, the one-dollar jitney fare covered all jitney costs.
About half of jitney-riders were former bus riders, amounting to about 12% loss in fare box revenue to Metrobus. But the other half were not former bus riders, meaning that close to 20,000 fewer automobiles were on the roads, decreasing traffic congestion and trip times, increasing mobility and decreasing auto-related air pollution.
Jitneys interfere less with normal traffic flow and do not cause excessive damage to pavement structures, as opposed to lumbering oversized, mostly-empty buses. For customers, route and schedule flexibility result in faster service, shorter waits, faster trips and delivery closer to destinations. Centrally controlled fixed-route, fixed-schedule transit can never match jitney service.
During the 1982 strike, carpooling caused traffic counts to go down slightly. Mobility is best measured by speeds. Fewer total vehicles and no buses interfering with traffic flow yielded a noticeable improvement in mobility.
A decentralized problem cannot be solved with a strategy of centralization. Both traffic congestion and mobility are decentralized problems.
A strike would have empowered both RTD and its union to depart from the norm. The union could have demanded a contract with more freedom for its drivers to suggest routes and/or stops, as well as the opportunity for small groups to separate from RTD to service specified routes as independent operators.
Odds are good that 2000 drivers have more knowledge of consumer needs than the smart guys in big offices. If so, then the consumer-friendliness of jitney services would be further enhanced.
By using jitneys temporarily during a strike, RTD would have had the opportunity to elevate service without increasing costs, simply by temporarily lifting the regulatory prohibition. As has happened in the past, leadership might also have come from the General Assembly as a directive to experiment with jitneys.
Lacking the opportunities offered by a strike, perhaps RTD and its union can cooperate to test the workability of a Miami-style system. In a willing community, RTD drivers should be free to provide independent service to that community. Obviously, RTD would waive regulatory prohibitions in that community. If jitneys work well in one area, other areas can be tried. With jitneys RTDs biggest problem might be figuring out how to consume $500 million every year.
INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.
JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.
DENNIS POLHILL is a Senior Fellow at the Institute.
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