The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) is inundated with chronic bus maintenance problems, labor issues, an aging fleet, unreliable schedules, high operating costs and overall bad service.  Shielded from market forces by huge tax subsidies, DDOT engages in petty turf wars with the equally inefficient and subsidized Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) system.

Detroiters deserve liberation from a public transit nightmare.

The answer is not more money-losing short or long-haul bus operations sustained by large tax subsidies. The first step toward deliverance and meeting public demand begins with getting rid of the barriers that prevent the operation of private ground transit systems. A case in point is the senseless restriction against jitneys embedded in the Detroit municipal code.

The origin of this ancient ordinance is unknown. Speculation is that it is a Depression Era law intended to keep trolleys and buses from collapse. This relic may also have been added to the municipal code as a means of protectionism for taxis. Whatever the foundation, the provision is outdated and harmful to the economic well-being of Detroit residents who are in desperate need of inexpensive, reliable transportation.

Smarter, more sensible “jitney freedom” legislation was recently introduced by Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills. House Bill No. 5724 defines jitney as “a privately owned, shared ride service using a vehicle that is capable of carrying up to 12 passengers, traveling a semifixed route at least once per week.”

Municipalities would be banned from limiting their operation except to ensure the safety of passengers, such as requiring the purchase of a franchise or surety bond.

Transportation-deprived Detroit passengers would be better served by this legislation that allows responsible jitney operators to ply their trade to a targeted clientele. Permitting min-buses or small vans to pick up passengers even along bus routes would mean improved services, possible lower prices and more flexible schedule for Detroiters.

The fear of competition may explain why city transit officials jealously guard their monopoly and are reluctant to deregulate transportation-for-hire. It might also be that what little integrity DDOT has left is being preserved for a possible merger with SMART.

A city/suburban bus merger, however, would still require a massive commitment of taxpayers’ money. And there’s no hard evidence justifying larger taxpayer subsidies for regional mass transit in any form. Nor is there evidence that a merger would get inner-city residents to the places they need to go.

What is apparent is that the anti-jitney choke-hold that prevents new operators from entering the public transportation market has served to make DDOT and taxi operators complacent.

Because the bus system doesn’t have to compete for customers, transit officials have little incentive to provide timely service and courteous bus drivers. Passengers have few options during the occasional work stoppage, for example, and are stranded in the cold or rain waiting for a bus that is late, doesn’t stop or never arrives. Cabs don’t have to be safe or clean.

Private vans and mini-buses present opportunities for local entrepreneurs to create jobs, contribute to the tax base make buses compete for riders.

Free-lance vans and other vehicles already operate in the city, picking up passengers under the radar. Almost every supermarket in Detroit, for example, has a person with a car waiting and available to transport grocery shoppers to their homes for a small price. Often, the drivers are retirees seeking to make a few bucks on the side. While they are illegal, patronizing them is not, and jitneys have the potential to rapidly increase their market share with the blessing of the city and the law.

Given the public demand for better transit services at lower costs, it’s difficult to justify keeping the antiquated prohibition on the books and jitneys out of the transit market.

 

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