Peter McFerrin, a research analyst for Brookings Institute that published the now (in)famous Missed Opportunities study about transit in US , writes at length about the opportunity for private transit in suburban areas in this article published on The New Republic.
And to an extent I do agree with Mr. McFerrin –private transit initiatives can provide a sound alternative to public transportation. The organization I belong to, ACTC, agreed that to allow a private local provider Lenzner Coaches to replace the service lost as a consequence of Port Authority ‘s recent cuts. The reason why we voted for this alternative service was that since as long as we represent the riders’ interest and we consider the typical rider on those routes a private alternative will be better than none]. And, it is my guess that, unlike the New York pilot program quoted by Mr. McFerrin, Lenzner is running a profitable service.
In my opinion when one considers Port Authority’s continuous hassles with its union, the state and local government and its own past mistakes, one has to look into private or community-based alternatives as one solution to maintain a decent level of transit services in the region. “Well-regulated jitneys” as he calls these private services, as well as typical vanpools are a valid alternative to poor or non-existent public transportation services. But regulating jitneys or privatizing transit in some areas is not really going to solve the problem as outlined by McFerrin. The reason why Lenzner was only interested in talking over just these two routes was because it saw their profitability –they are serving job commuters who are living upper-income exurbs but work in the congested, parking-less downtown . If the same service will be offered to low-income suburb residents commuting to suburban jobs it is very likely that it will be unprofitable but needed just the same and for the same reasons as service for upper-income commuters from wealthy exurbs to the city. Transit reduces congestion and pollution, improves air quality, helps economical development and reduces household transportation costs for rich and poor households equally.
The actual solution to suburban transit services is a virtually different approach to transit altogether. And the first step is to find a solution where we do not talk about private vs. public services but about public-private partnerships. A smart private –public partnership has the advantage to offer a more flexible and diverse supply of transit services which do have the potential to develop new markets for transit while public providers can make better use of their resources by providing better service in the areas where they are most needed.
The next step could be working towards the increase of pedestrian-connectivity which shall result in increased ridership – we should not expect door-to-door service from transit providers but we shall expect to be able walk safely to the bus stop.