New York, being New York, gets a lot of press in these parts; one might argue that from time to time it gets a bit too much. Does everyone around the country really need to know that the M train got rerouted this week?
Nevertheless, the city’s announcement last week that it would pilot allowing private commuter van service in place of discontinued bus routes is in fact worthy of discussion because its success or failure may well influence the decisions of decision-makers at transit agencies across the nation.
Here’s the context: because of a decrease in sales tax revenues, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to revise its service patterns to reduce costs (among other things, it decided to route the M subway train to Midtown instead of downtown, Manhattan). A number of bus routes in Queens and Brooklyn were put out of their misery because of low levels of ridership (for New York) and consequently high public subsidies.
The city, recognizing the loss for a not tiny percentage of its population, decided last month to allow private enterprises operating commuter vans to run semi-official services along those routes, something that is typically not allowed in New York, where transportation is a highly regulated thing. Vans will begin $2 routes on six corridors where buses once ran later in the year.
Is this good for a city like New York? Will the privatized provision of what had formerly been public transit provide a net benefit to the population?
For some proponents of increased competition in mass transportation offerings, the interest in using commuter vans can’t come early enough. More transit offerings will help more people choose not to drive their cars. If implemented well, the vans could interface nicely with existing subway and bus services, acting as a lower-ridership complement to other transit offerings.. And if the government is unable to pay for operations of public transit along some routes, why not allow private companies to fill in the gap?
But beyond the question of whether a commuter van operation could technically work is the debate over whether having them as part of a city’s transportation mix is a good idea in the long-term.
The introduction of private vans as a money-saving replacement for publicly operated buses is only possible because of lower labor costs resulting from the fact that while bus and subway drivers are unionized and make solid incomes, frequently ununionized van drivers are often working at minimum wage. Any city’s transportation system could be run more cheaply if only workers were paid less. What kind of precedent is this setting? Will private, poorly paid bus drivers soon be put into direct competition with well-paid municipal employees?
An increasing privatization of public transport, which had once been considered the domain of the public sector, would reduce the wages of people working in the industry. Is that an acceptable compromise if it means cheaper transit and more buses and trains? Cities must ask themselves what role they want their respective transit systems to play. Is their role simply to move as many people around as possible? Or should they also provide valuable, generously compensated jobs for their employees?
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.