A Genuinely Sensible Alternative to Light-Rail

Unexpectedly, sanity has finally prevailed and the plug pulled on a wild-eyed scheme to spend hundreds of millions on a Detroit “light rail” project along Woodward Avenue. The Detroit Free Press reports that instead, the city will explore “a system of rapid-transit buses operating in dedicated lanes on routes from downtown to and through the suburbs along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and along M-59.”

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Before this episode of lucidity fully recedes, the city should instead examine a genuinely sensible alternative that could make a real difference in the lives of countless residents: Skip the buses and their special lanes, and just repeal city and state regulations that prohibit “jitneys.”

Serendipituously, the National Center for Policy Analysis has just published a paper called "The Jitney Potential: Transportation for the Poor." Here’s how the Center describes the report:

Low-income families need transportation.  The automobile is the most convenient form of transportation, but it is expensive to own and operate.  Fares for public transit, such as buses, are low, but the service is slow and inflexible, says Jennifer Dirmeyer, an assistant professor of economics at Hampden-Sydney College. 

. . . In an ordinary market entrepreneurs would solve this problem by creatively meeting people's needs.  However, transit is so regulated that even the simplest solutions are often outlawed. 

Competitive private bus or van services are called jitneys — vehicles with flexible schedules and stops (like a taxi) that offer a ride along a route that is fixed (like a bus), but from which the driver can detour, if passengers are willing to pay more.  In the early 20th century, such services were widespread in urban areas.  However, they competed with trolley lines and bus monopolies, and most jitney services disappeared by the 1920s.

. . . Three distinct reforms are necessary to permit jitney operators to provide services valuable to low-income consumers:

  • Eliminate prohibitions on group riding.
  • Eliminate regulations that prohibit commuter vans from picking up passengers without an appointment and from accepting street hails.
  • Eliminate restrictions either on the number of jitneys per route or the number of jitney routes or the ability to deviate from a route.

 The full text of the short NCPA white-paper can be read here.

Incidedentally, perhaps the same outbreak of sanity may extend to Lansing, and cause the Legislature to repeal a bipartisan package of Woodward light rail-related borrowing, spending, and selective tax breaks it enacted last year. Here's a spreadsheet showing how every lawmaker voted on those bills, with a one-line description of each at the bottom.

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