Civic entrepreneur Jim Porter has discovered a new niche in the mass transit realm — free bus rides for students and other weekend revelers. Chalk up another victory for private-sector transit.
When Jim Porter was looking into the practicality of operating a private bus service in Richmond, he was told he would have to get City Council approval for his routes. But if he didn’t charge a fare, he could run his bus where he wanted. He decided that charging passengers wasn’t worth the trouble. His goal was simply to run a loop between Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond’s nightclub district in Shockoe Bottom so students would have an alternative to drinking and driving.
Little did he imagine in 2009 when he launched To the Bottom and Back (2BNB) on capital of $6,500 that his free service would be transporting thousands of people monthly and generating $220,000 in revenue by 2011. As it turned out, Porter discovered that he could support the non-profit operation with tips, contributions and corporate sponsorships. With an entrepreneur’s nose for business, he has added two circulator routes — one connecting the University of Richmond, another serving Richmond’s museum district — and he has forged relationships with fraternities, sororities, festival organizers, food banks, athletic leagues and others.
“We listen to our passengers, our drivers, our sponsors,” says Porter. Word of mouth has led to numerous opportunities. It turns out that there was a vast market not served by the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) or commercial bus companies. Established competitors would gladly provide the service but they cannot match Porter’s fares – free – or his cost structure. He has purchased his fleet of four buses from county school systems, never paying more than $3,500 for a bus, and he hires school bus drivers for part-time work. Maintenance costs are minimal. “When I have maintenance on the bus,” he says, “I can go to the nearest junkyard and get what I need.”
Oh, yeah, all that, plus he doesn’t pay himself a salary.
2BNB has a unique business model; there is nothing else like it in the country. It is a classic example of what a civic entrepreneur can accomplish with creativity and a shoe-string budget. And it shows the kind of innovation in transportation services that that could be unleashed by the private sector if only it were given more lattitude in an industry dominated by government-funded monopolies.
The dominant player in the Richmond market, the GRTC, is regarded as one of the better-run transit companies in the country, but it pays 10 times what Porter does for new buses, pays its bus drivers 50% more, plus benefits, and must convince affected municipalities to pass an ordinance every time it wants to add or drop a route. GRTC management has had a plethora of good ideas for expanding the service across the region but local politics and federal regulations make it impossible to respond nimbly to market opportunities.
To Porter, running the bus service is more than a job, it’s a passion. He tells stories about how he grew up in the bus business. His grandmother ran a tour company for senior citizens, and as a youngster he would help out by hauling luggage and handing out BINGO tickets. “I was raised with the idea of customer service,” he says. Later, crossing the picket line during a Greyhound strike, he drove the route between Richmond and New York. The gregarious Porter says he loved that job, which allowed him to interact with riders.
For 15 years Porter, now 45, had nursed the idea of running a bus to serve Richmond restaurant patrons but he couldn’t get any interest. He talked to Mothers Against Drunk Driving but drew a blank. He investigated taking his idea down to Nags Head during the tourist season but couldn’t pull it off. It wasn’t until he was in a West Virginia traffic accident – he was hit by a drunken driver and his car tumbled down a hill – that he raised the money he needed. He drew upon his settlement to finance the start-up of To the Bottom and Back.
Porter bought his first bus, painted it lime-green and black, and started carrying VCU students. The free service was a huge hit and drew hundreds of riders. It wasn’t long before he began attracting restaurant and corporate sponsors like Sticky Rice, the Hat Factory, Loveland Distributing and the Emroch and Kilduff law firm. Riders didn’t pay fares, but they did leave tips. Says Porter: “I would meet parents, and they would write me checks and say, ‘Thank you for looking after my daughter.’”
As revenues rolled in, Porter added new buses. Although the routes are fixed, drivers aren’t required to abide by strict schedules. Porter likes his buses to dally in Shockoe Bottom so they can pick up more riders, and he would rather have a bus run behind schedule than go faster and risk an accident. The lack of minute-by-minute precision doesn’t hurt, he says: Riders can keep track of the buses’ locations on free, smart-phone so they know when their ride will arrive.
Porter may have to stick to tighter schedules to pull off his next big idea. He sees another under-served market – West Broad Street, a commercial corridor flanked by hundreds of restaurants and retailers that supports thousands of entry-level jobs. When people need to get to work on time, keeping schedules is important, he concedes, but it would cost GRTC a lot more to serve the route than it would cost 2BNB. “For a few thousand dollars, I can drive a bus anywhere.”
Porter doesn’t have to conduct expensive marketing studies to determine if demand for the service exists. He’ll just buy a bus, paint it and put it on the street. If the riders materialize, so will the sponsorships. If the demand isn’t there, he’ll move the bus to another route — exactly how mass transit needs to operate in the future if it’s going to gain market share from automobiles.There are currently no comments highlighted.