Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren’t pursuing disruptive innovation.
by James A. Bacon
The GRTC Transit System, like most municipal bus systems, provides a one-size-fits-all transportation service. Whatever the route, time of day and level of demand, GRTC runs a standard city bus capable of carrying nearly 60 seated and standing passengers along fixed routes. Everyone pays the same fare ($1.50 on local routes), regardless of time or distance traveled. We’ve all seen the big GRTC buses driving around with two or three passengers. We all know that, given the cost of paying a driver and operating a vehicle, many if not most bus routes operate at a loss. It would surprise few to hear that GRTC costs U.S., state and local taxpayers $33 million in subsidies to operate in fiscal year 2014.
Many people justify this significant subsidy on the grounds that buses provide a way for car-less poor people to get to their jobs. What the Richmond metropolitan region needs, they say, is more bus service so poor people can reach a broader range of job opportunities. Environmentalists also favor buses on the ground that they generate less pollution and carbon dioxide emissions than automobiles do. Local government officials in Henrico and Chesterfield counties tend to oppose the expansion of bus routes not on grounds of principle but on grounds of economy. Their argument: We just can’t afford it.
If we count on fiscally strapped local governments to loosen up the purse strings to pay GRTC to open new routes, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently: how to expand mass transit without GRTC. A free market in transportation services, I contend, would provide superior service to poor people. It would increase shared ridership and reduce pollution emissions. As a bonus, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars in subsidies.
Yes, mass transit in the United States is that bad. GRTC is reasonably well run by the standards of other government-owned monopoly transit systems. Government-owned monopolies worked adequately for decades when innovation in cars and buses was incremental in nature – installing seatbelts or switching from diesel to natural gas. But the traditional model is hopelessly inadequate when the transportation industry stands on the edge of the most momentous transformation since Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line.
The information technology-communications revolution is sweeping through transportation, just as it is through consumer electronics, building automation, health care, manufacturing and every other sector of the economy. Thanks to smartphones, it is easier than ever for drivers and passengers to locate one another. Thanks to Big Data analytics, it is easier for transportation-service companies to predict where and when transportation demand will occur and to mobilize assets accordingly. New technology is inspiring new business models that literally no one was thinking about 10 years ago.
The heralds of this new wave are Uber and Lyft, Silicon Valley-funded companies that have started competing with taxicab services in many metropolitan regions across the country. These companies are targeting the high end of the transportation services market, charging premium rates for customers willing to pay for a limousine-like ride at a moment’s notice. Predictably, they are getting pushback here in Virginia from taxicab companies. The regulatory future is uncertain. But whatever happens to Uber and Lyft, the new technology is here to stay. Taxi companies are already adopting it themselves.
Bridj, a Boston-area company, charges $6 per ride in comfortable, Wi-Fi- equipped coaches to travel from suburban locations to downtown Cambridge and Boston. Thousands of riders, it appears, are willing to pay a premium price for a premium service that municipal bus companies can’t match with their one-size-fits-all mind-set. As this new industry continues to innovate, it’s just a matter of time before entrepreneurs use the same technologies to serve lower price points. In a free market, there are few barriers to entry; someone will figure out how to serve poor people and do it cheaper than the transit companies can.
Eventually, someone will devise a smartphone driver-rider matching service open to all comers. Anyone with decent credit and a good driving record will be able to fork out $32,000 for a 12-seat van and start his own jitney service. In developing countries around the world – even in countries where $32,000 is a lot of money – jitney service is affordable to poor city dwellers. Surely in America, where we have some of the richest poor people in the world, someone will figure out how to convey them to major employment centers.
The transportation revolution doesn’t end there. Automobile companies are rethinking the idea that everyone needs to own his or her own car. Some think that the future is transportation-as-a-service. Outside San Diego, Calif., real estate developer Rancho Mission Viejo is partnering with Daimler AG, owner of Mercedes Benz, to roll out a service that provides subscribers access to cars, scooters, buses, shuttle vans and car-pooling, primarily for use in its Ladera and Sendero communities. The aim isn’t to persuade residents to go totally car-free, just to go car-lite. The goal is to cut the cost of mobility – $9,000 yearly to own and operate the average car – in half.
Environmentalists and anti-poverty warriors will continue to pressure Henrico and Chesterfield officials to subsidize the expansion of GRTC into the two counties. Given the paucity of walkable, higher-density neighborhoods in suburban Richmond and the lack of congestion – it’s the least congested of America’s 51 largest metros – the economics for mass transit will always be difficult. Rather than throwing money at an antiquated business model, government officials should encourage the emerging free-market alternatives. Roll out the welcome mat to Uber and Lyft. Ask Bridj to check out our market. Sweep away barriers that prevent jitneys from going into business. Beg Daimler AG to bring its transportation-as-a-service to the Richmond region.
We have a choice: Embrace the transportation past or the transportation future. I’ll take the future.
This column was published originally in Henrico Monthly and Chesterfield Monthly this month.