Thinking Entrepreneurially about Transit

Kudos to the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) for thinking entrepreneurially. The GRTC has identified an unmet market niche: Richmonders who commute to Northern Virginia. The public transit system is soliciting bids from private bus companies to run express buses from Richmond-area Park ‘n’ Rides to the Virginia Railway Express station in Fredericksburg, where the riders would take the VRE to complete their trips.

VRE estimates that 100 regular riders who board the VRE in Fredericksburg come from the Richmond region. Some ride in van pools, others drive by themselves. CEO John Lewis Jr. told the Richmond Times Dispatch that he thought express buses could attract as many as 130 riders. Bids from the private bus companies will determine if the service can be operated with passengers picking up the entire cost.

Two points to be made:

First, that’s exactly the kind of thinking we need from our public transit companies — and from private bus operators as well. (Question: Why haven’t private bus operators spotted spot this opportunity already? If they did, what prevented them from acting on it?)

Second, as traffic congestion gets worse, more long-range commuters will find it worthwhile to shift to shared-vehicle transportation. Economics 101. Traffic and congestion will not increase in a straight-line projection, as the Virginia Department of Transportation assumes in its long-range traffic and budget forecasts.

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5 responses to “Thinking Entrepreneurially about Transit”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    A few years ago I was involved in a plan to offer service from Richmond to Washington using a twelve passenger light airplanes. The trip to National airport would have taken around 35 minutes and cost less than $0.60 per mile. We figured there was demand for 200 trips per day and we could capture ten per cent of them, which would support three round trips, morning and evening.

    So, yes, there is a demand for travel, and it would appear that there is money to be made.

    There are 30 cities within 250 miles of Washington DC that have no air service. Many of them have passenger situations similar to, but not as large, as Richmond. Charlottesville, Pax River Air station in St. Mary’s County, Hagerstown, Winchester, Harrisburg, Easton, and several other cities have demand high enough to support several flights morning and evening. It would have taken as many as fifty airplanes to meet the total accumulated traffic. We would have contracted with chartered buses as backup for bad weather days.

    Imagine if you could park for free at your local airport and hop a flight to Baltimore for a cheap connection elsewhere.

    After 9/11 our investors backed out, but it is obvious that there is demand for short haul flights/long distance drives that is not being met. However, shared vehicle systems are a very hard sell. You must have consistently high load factors and convenenient, frequent service or else the economies fall apart pretty fast. The preferred, and usual mode of travel for Pax River officers traveling to the Pentagon is rental cars, and we would have been hard pressed to compete.

    If you consider a bus for example, that thing is going to either wait all day for the passengers to return, or else drive back home empty, and return empty later to pick up the return trip. Right off the bat, your load factor is only 50%, at best. If you can put two people in a reasonably economical car, you are almost as well off.

    By using 12 passenger airplanes we cut out operating costs increased fequency, and we needed only four passengers to break even for the trip. And, we could divert to another (normally unserved) location for pickup or delivery on request. It would have been sort of an aerial Jitney, if you will.

    I believe that most transit systems would do better with more and smaller vehicles.

  2. Here’s the dream: walk down from my house to Shockoe Bottom and grab a high speed train to Dulles or Union Station to anywhere in the world.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Even better if it was an auto-train, right. That way you really could get to anywhere in the world.

    If only trains weren’t so expensive: they make airplanes look cheap.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Isn’t VRE full already? What’s the point if you get there and can’t finish your trip?

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Well, you can finish your trip, but you may have to stand up. You get to trade one kind of congestion for another kind.

    If you pay $5.60 cents for your trip, someone else is paying over $10.00. It comes out of a gas tax. And yet, some people still claim that cars are highly subsidized. In fact, autos pay a higher percentage of their own full costs than most transit lines, whether rail or bus.

    Scott’s dream of taking a high speed train anywhere in the world is just that: a dream. In order to do that you would pretty much have to duplicate the highway system, but in steel. Then you would have a lot more stops, and the high speed train would not be such high speed.

    What you would really like is high speed trains that go a bunch of places, but not anywhere. Then, at those places, you would like to have a bunch of inexpensive ZIP cars or bikes to rent to take you where you really want to go.

    In other words, a tansportation SYSTEM that includes multiple modes.

    But, if the true costs of the trains is three times what we pay to ride, and we have to still support the street and road system, then it is going to take a lot more money than the legislature is willing to provide.

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