Back 2 Busing Basics

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 James A. Bacon

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.

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  1. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Jimmy is my ex-brother in law. Great project…Great guy.

  2. the dirty little secret with transit is that quite a bit of it is justified on the basis of “serving the undeserved” rather than seeking out other needs and other business and they let the govt run “competitors” out of business.

    We have a small transit service in Fredericksburg. To call it “convenient” would evoke screams of rib-hurting laughter.

    It charges 25 cents even though it is very costly to operate. They make almost no attempt to be more cost-effective and they are almost entirely uninterested in making it more convenient and when they do consider it.. it’s going to cost the locality that wants it the full boat arm and leg.

    This might be a lot of things – but it really not “transit” in the sense of a reliable and convenient service.

    It is, even from their own words, service of a last resort.

    in other words, if you have almost no other option and you are willing to wait (literally hours) to get to/from your destination then it’s for you.

    This blog post touched on an exceptionally important aspect of transit these days in that many jurisdictions make it entirely un-possible to run any kind of competing service by hostile policies.

    One thing that is a secondary big killer of private transit is liability.

    This is such a problem that the hundreds of van pools that run in NoVa can only run because the state has provided subsidized liability pool insurance.

    that’s a problem. The first time Mr. Porter has an accident might be the end of his service.

    1. I didn’t mention it in the article, but Porter said that his No. 1 operating cost (outside of labor, I think) is liability insurance.

  3. I see this as the Google approach to bus service.

  4. Imagine if anyone (with proper qualifications and insurance) could provide a taxi service that was callable by a smartphone app.

    you would receive a price and an ETA and go about your business until it arrived.

    but there are huge government and regulatory barriers to this that are primarily there for the same reason other professions have such “barriers” – to maintain the prices charged by a limited set of providers.

  5. Seeing AZ how it is now proven that he does not need city council approval, they may as well give the approval.

    That said, that first $6300 bus must have been a doozy.

  6. My trucks run on farm tags, but they still have to get insured. Regular tags are a nuisance but the insurance is a necessity.

  7. I keep asking for tips and contributions to help support the farm, which operates for less than free.

    So far, no takers, in spite of the popular demand to save our farms. And I even have a license. If I got ten percent of his revenue, it would make a huge difference around here.

  8. If the demand isn’t there, he will move the bus to another ( publicly owned) route.

    How does that work with a ( privately owned) farm? I’m pretty certain there is a whole lot more demand for a truck stop in this location than there is for a farm.

    How do I go about getting a “new route”?

    You think if I opened a free truck stop, running on tips, that I could get away with that?

    Hell no, this is private property, not a publicly supported thoroughfare.

  9. I might be on to something. Put the word out on CB that there is a free place to park. Let them camp out in the fields, for free. I can’t sell fuel, but the fuel delivery truck could bring . They can be a corporate sponsor.

    Hmmmm. Freaking anything would be an improvement over bucking 300 tons of hay every year.

  10. Lets see. If a truck takes 1220 feet by 10 feet, including access, that is over 200 trucks per acre.

    If the give me a $1 contribution, that would equal the farm income.

  11. Think about it. In one night that one acre would double its income for the year.

    If I use each acre for one night and rotate my crop of trucks, it would triple the farm income, and I could still sell my hay.

    Now, that would be sustainable agriculture.

  12. Incidentally, you can do a similar thing with private pilots. If you want to fly up to Martha’s Vineyard or down to Myrtle Beach, just go down to your local airport and put a note on the bulletin board.

    These guys love to fly, but it is expensive. It is also strictly illegal to offer or discuss any kind of compensation or gift in kind.

    But, if you get out of the plane and a couple hundred dollars falls out of your pocket…….

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