Have you just read another article claiming that public transit would be better off if we unleashed private innovation? Ask whether they're talking about privatized operations or privatized planning. These are totally different things, but it's currently fashionable to confuse them.
Graduate student August Ruhnka, writing in the Denver Post, is the latest in a series. After reviewing the real cost and quality control issues plaguing US bus systems, he goes on to propose a fatal confusion between privatization of operations and privatization of planning.
The remedy is simple. The city awards a route bus contract after a competitive bidding process, thus entering into a private/public partnership.
So far so good. This is the standard model of privatized operation. But then, OMG:
By privatizing our bus system's day-to-day operations while still providing public oversight, private operators will be able to change routes, schedules and fares as frequently as necessary without the need for lengthy public hearings and political approval.
"Change routes, schedules, and fares?" This is the privatization of planning. It features the abolition of "political approval," which is a polite term for the abolition of democratic controls over spending the public purse. It's also produced some of the worst bus systems — in terms of both disutility and waste — that I've ever encountered in 23 years doing network planning. Ruhnka goes on:
Today, successful privately operated transit projects like the Sydney Metropolitan Bus System, Hudson-Bergen Line in New Jersey and the JFK Air Train in New York are chugging away.
Only one of these examples is even a bus service, where route changes are an issue, and none of them are examples of the privatization of planning that Rohnka proposes. They are all examples of privatized operations.
The Sydney example is more apt than Rohnka knows. Planning was controlled by private operating companies over much of Australia and New Zealand when I started working there in 2006. Now, all over both countries, planning is being moved back into the public sector, while operations remain private. That's happening, in part, because transit planning by operating companies produced fantastically inefficient bus systems such as the one in Auckland, New Zealand, which I have been helping the new Auckland Transport to redesign.
The problem was not just privatization but turf. Private companies who control just certain bus routes may optimize their own bus routes, but that doesn't optimize the whole taxpayer funded network and can in fact make it worse. (The same problem can afflict turf-bound governments, of course, but turning them over to the private sector does nothing to solve that problem, while it does remove our ability to hold elected officials accountable for it.)
In cities across the world, major bus corridors are becoming important redevelopment areas. Bus service has a huge nexus with a range of important government activities, notably road design and land use planning. To give up control over the design of bus services is to give up control that's needed to do those jobs well.
Public hearings are a drag, and the approval process for bus service changes in America is exhausting for both elected officials and the public. Preparing for this process is central to every project I do. My job is to help elected officials (or their appointees) make clear decisions about the real tradeoffs that transit planning requires. These are hard choices that must reflect a city's ambitions and values, and that must be linked to a city's decisions about land use, urban form, and social policy.
All these thoughts are supposed to give way, of course, to the romantic idea that we could "Uber" our bus system.
In light of our Uber-dominated downtown, it is time for us to make this switch. Private-route contracts establish a sustainable procedure to constantly test the market to achieve the lowest cost. Commuting in downtown Denver requires three things that currently RTD lacks: demand-response (paratransit) operation; experimental services; and remedying routes that have low ridership. All the above situations require a level of flexibility that the private sector can provide.
Uber is big and new and financed and sexy, so how could this not be better than our old bus services? (A dismissive view of "political approval," too, is part of the Uber mystique.)
Uber today is a taxi and (limited) shared ride service using small vehicles to carry small numbers of people at once. Assuming you pay the driver decently (a big assumption in the private sector) the cost-effectiveness of transit is going to lie in passengers per driver, because pending driverless vehicles, the driver is most of the cost. And the only way to get that number high is to run large vehicles in fixed-route services that are so well designed, and optimized over so many purposes, that lots of people ride them. The Uber model does not scale to large-vehicle fixed-route transit, which is also known as cost-effective transit.
Why, then, does downtown Denver require "demand-responsive operation"? Downtowns are big, dense, and need to use street space efficiently, so large vehicles are the key. Compared to big buses with decent ridership, demand-responsive service is a way of carrying very few people at a high cost. There is no way that a demand-responsive solution, in a place where fixed routes could work just as well, makes any sense as a way to make transit affordable to low-income people, one of Ruhnka's alleged concerns. Affordability is scalability. If a solution doesn't scale efficiently — in terms of labor cost, energy, and urban space, it will naturally be expensive.
So to the extent that some people think they need a demand-responsive service downtown (apart from paratransit for the disabled) by all means let Uber and Lyft do that. Demand-responsive is such an intrinsically inefficient form of transit that deploying it downtown can only be for the purpose of serving relatively fortunate people at fares much higher than transit fares. That's a great role for the private sector. There is also a role for demand responsive service in suburban areas where development patterns preclude efficient transit, through contracts between demand responsive providers and transit agencies. But not downtown.
Another way of describing all of the "demand responsive" or "Uberization" fantasies is that they are predicated on moving large amounts of steel and rubber per customer trip, compared to big-vehicle fixed-route transit. Even without considering the economics of labor, this can only be less efficient, in terms of energy and urban space, then what crowded big-vehicle transit achieves. (And yes, you've probably read that a lot of big buses run around empty, as though this means that buses are a poor tool. The refutation of that argument is here, and here.)
Transit is full of opportunities for private sector involvement, including in operations, infrastructure, and my own job, professional advice. The private sector is always welcome to innovate, and there are markets — generally for higher-end services and higher fares — that the private sector will probably take over. There are also fascinating opportunities to use Uber/Lyft models to improve the efficiency of services to low-demand areas — that will require partnership with suburban communities or transit agencies.
But privatize planning? Let private companies re-arrange transit services without regard to the impact on the city and its values? That's the opposite of democracy.