I write that I'll be away for a bit, and then I see something on the Internet and can't help but comment. Today, it's a piece from The New Republic on private-sector suburban jitneys. A jitney, for the unfamiliar, is something between a taxicab and a bus. They're usually privately-run, following a generally fixed route but able to deviate off that route in order to pick up or drop off passengers. The only place that I'm familiar with in the United States in which they're a common part of the transportation mix is in outer Queens, New York, but they are prevalent in many Asian cities and throughout the developing world. Peter McFerrin, at TNR, believes that they might be the solution to suburban transportation dilemmas.
I disagree, and here's why. McFerrin correctly identifies the problems facing suburban transit agencies and routes: low ridership, low farebox recovery, and high mileage. However, he doesn't get to the root of the problem- that suburban residents by and large own and use automobiles for mobility. It might matter a bit, around the margins, that a new bus on a route is able to detour into a neighbourhood in order to get passengers, but most people are going to continue to drive because that is the behaviour that is encouraged by both our society and our built infrastructure. As I've said before, it's not that the suburbs are impossible to navigate without a car (particularly if you own a bicycle and have some choice in your living situation), but driving in them is ridiculously easy. (As well, some places in the suburbs are more inconvenient than others- even crazy me probably couldn't survive in Eastvale long without access to a car.) So long as that remains the case, transit doesn't stand much of a chance. The area of innovation we need is not in transit service, but in the built environment.
Jitneys in the suburbs will also bring a whole host of new problems that conventional transit agencies don't face. First, they rarely adhere to a regular schedule- not a problem when you have enough demand for frequent headways, but a serious issue for infrequent, suburban routes.
Second, they lose the built-in advertising of the local transit agency. Most people around here know that the catchy little "Bus Stops Here" sign means that that point is connected to a broader transportation network. Many jitneys operate without signage at all, relying on the presence of vehicles to advertise service- and even if they did have signage, under the regulations proposed by the TNR article, a "University Avenue Jitney Stop" sign is much less informative about the service possibilities than an RTA bus stop sign. Further, is every jitney operator about to start up a web site, clearly listing routing, scheduling, and fare policies? I doubt it. People are wary enough about present transit.
Third, jitneys would be hard-pressed to follow an integrated fare policy. Your RTA pass is unlikely to be good on a private van, and the fare you pay on that van will probably not get you access to the RTA system. While I'm sure there are some users who would pay a higher fare to get around (myself included), most transit users in the suburbs are economically disadvantaged. Making them pay for a monthly bus pass (because they'll probably have to transfer to the regular transit system) AND round-trip jitney fare every day is probably going to be a big bite out of their budget.
Lastly, if a route is unprofitable for a suburban transit agency to run, when that agency needs only cover 20% or so of its costs at the farebox, it is unlikely to be profitable for a private operator, who must cover 100%+ of their costs at the farebox. While TNR suggests that such operations could realize significant fuel savings, it is labour, not fuel, that is the primary driver of costs in the transit sector. Most savings that would be realized would be from transforming decent-paying public-sector jobs into uncertain piece-work.
So, no, I don't think the jitney is a solution for the suburbs. I think it's a great fit for under-served parts of big cities, but the success of the model relies on the existence of a great deal of transit users trying to travel in an area. In the modern suburb, there just isn't a big enough transit user base- and it won't be the ephemeral jitney that creates that, it'll be a very conventional combination of dense land use and ordinary transit.