The Unlevel Playing Field Between Mass Transit And Private Cars

A blog about business and economics.
June 21 2012 9:40 AM

The Unlevel Playing Field Between Mass Transit And Private Cars

If you want to drive a private car from New York City to Philadelphia, what you need to do is have a driver's license and obey the traffic rules. If you want to stop the car and pick up a friend, what you need to do is find a place where it's legal for your vehicle to stop and then stop there. Piloting a vehicle through public streets is, rightly, a regulated activity. But equally rightly it's regulated fairly lightly, with the idea being that driving from place to place on a flexible schedule is a legitimate and valuable activity.

The bills will require "cities having a population of one million or more" (the Legislature's bill-of-attainder legalese for New York City) to set up a permit system for curbside intercity bus pickups. They will no longer be allowed to go where there's space. Now they will have to apply (and reapply every three years) under a process that can take up to a hundred fifty days. The DOT will have to do a traffic study for every. single. bus. stop. and "consult" with the MTA and Port Authority if the proposed stop would "overlap" with an existing facility owned by either agency. The application would have to go through the fucking community board for a "notice and comment period of forty-five days."

There's a lot of other weirdness if you read the bill, which shows that the people drafting it are either clueless about how buses are run, or want to make it impossible to run a curbside bus operation in the city, or both. The bus operator has to include the US or State DOT registration numbers of each bus that would use those stops, a proposed schedule and the number of passengers anticipated, and notify the City DOT if that information changes. They will have to post a copy of the permit in every bus and pay up to $275 per bus.

This completely destroys bus operators' flexibility. But I would also note that the traffic study is an outrageous burden on bus operations. If private car operators had to conduct a "traffic study" before getting permission to drive their cars on a particular route or stop in particular places, there would be no automobile industry in the United States. Buses are a much more efficient use of space, and at the margin shifting people out of single passenger cars and into buses reduces traffic. But if buses need to conduct traffic studies and private cars don't, the regulatory system will always push people out of buses and into cars.

Catastrophic overregulation of bus and van operations is rarely discussed outside of libertarian circles in the United States, and even in those quarters the issue is typically misframed as regulatory strangulation of commercial transit relative to government-operated transit.

The real issue is the wildly different regulatory standards applied to private automobiles and to private mass transit operators. The last time I raised this issue, Kevin Drum shot back with a number of public safety concerns but again look at what's actually being regulated here. This isn't about safety, it's about saying that private automobiles should have privileged access to public infrastructure that bus operators are excluded from. At the moment, this is a somewhat parochial concern of the Northeast Corridor (which in defense of our parochialism is the most economically important region of the United States) but as computer-driven vehicle technology continues to improve the question of when it's legal to drive someone else around for money is going to become more broadly important.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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