Curb Rights: Eliciting Competition and Entrepreneurship in Urban Transit

Article excerpt

Urban transit in the United States has long been dominated by government ownership and regulation, and has been declining steadily in ridership and productivity (APTA 1995). An economist-cum-policymaker would seek to inject competition and entrepreneurship into the sector by privatizing it. The two types of privatization often advocated are contracting out and "free competition" (Department of Transportation 1984; Lave 1985; Gomez-Ibanez and Meyer 1993). Experience has shown, however, that each approach has serious shortcomings.

Contracting out allows government officials to set routes, fares, and the types of vehicles to be used, while putting production and operations in the hands of cost-conscious private companies. Small cities and counties have increasingly contracted out bus service. Larger transit agencies have a harder time establishing major contracting programs, in part because of privileges granted to transit unions. Contracting has reduced costs significantly (Teal 1988, 218ff; Perry, Babitsky,. and Gregersen 1988, 134ff), but contracts, even when competitively let, preserve transit monopoly and service regimentation. Transit agencies use various contracting schemes, which Williamson (1976) and Goldberg (1976) have criticized because the methods tend in practice to resemble regulated monopoly.

The second proposal, "free competition," promises on-the-road competition, perhaps in the form of freewheeling jitneys, which are small vehicles that pick up and drop off passengers along a route but do not necessarily follow a schedule. The deregulation or "free competition" precept is incomplete, however, when applied to a service that operates on government property, namely, the roadway, curbspace, and sidewalk areas where passengers congregate in waiting. Bus operators must invest in cultivating passenger congregations and must be able to appropriate the returns on their investment. Depending on how "free competition" is governed, it might give rise to parasitic interloping on routes, where jitneys run ahead of scheduled buses to pick up waiting passengers. Such interloping might undermine any scheduled service and inhibit the development of transit markets. All this activity takes place on public property where market mechanisms are lacking.

Calls to merely privatize the buses and to deregulate bus operations have neglected crucial issues rooted in the management and utilization of the public domain. They ignore curbspaces as a fundamental resource of the industry. In fact, the rules -- property rights -- governing passenger pickup areas are a determining feature of transit markets. Variations in curb rights explain the differences in transit markets seen in the United States and elsewhere. An appreciation of curb-rights issues leads to a better understanding of transit markets.

We proceed by first examining four case studies of transit markets with deficient property rights: the jitney episode in the United States, 1914 to 1916; jitneys and route associations in less-developed countries (LDCs); illegal jitneys in New York City; and the British experience of bus privatization and deregulation. These case studies help us to develop a logic of transit operations and to formulate a theory of transit markets. Finally, we propose a system of "curb rights" that promises to improve transit markets.

Transit Markets with Deficient Property Rights

The U.S. Jitney Episode of 1914 to 1916

When the automobile came on the scene, so did freewheeling competition in urban transit. Jitneys charging a nickel per ride picked up waiting passengers along the routes of the electric streetcars. The jitneys were usually just the sedans of the day, serving as shared-ride taxicabs along loosely defined routes. They quickly became popular because of their flexibility and speed -- almost twice that of the streetcars. They were more comfortable and less crowded, and sometimes they would deviate from the main route to make courtesy drop-offs. …