Bus Lines

· January 16, 2019

I have recently been reading Steven Hill’s Raw Deal, a mix of useful policy recommendations and ranty polemic against the gig economy. During one section he mentions, in an aside, the situation a few folks have suggested, where a private firm cherry picks the best bus routes in a city, depriving transport authorities from much needed revenue and while exploiting the infrastructure maintained by the public. Hill points to San Francisco where this had already started happening.

One company that somewhat followed that playbook in San Francisco, though not the first, was Chariot, who this month announced they were shutting down. Interstingly, the spillover effect is that their drivers may be getting an offer to move en masse to Muni, the San Francisco transport authority.

This is a good outcome if it comes about for the drivers, and highlights a the challenges in reasoning about this stuff: I never saw taxi firms aggressively trying to recruit ride share drivers.

Both the leftist argument against capitalist exploitation and the libertarian entrepreneurial view were off on the bus question: they both made the mistake of assuming that the reason there wasn’t a good commuter option for a specific route was because it hadnt been tried, basically. Offering a differentiated service wasn’t enough though - commuter patterns are complex and just because some routes are underserved doesn’t mean sufficient routes are to build a business around (though Chariot did sell to Ford, so there were some winners). Muni is an active player in this space, not passive background infrastructure.

Its tempting to compare something like Chariot to Uber and Lyft, but there is a significant difference between a vested interest group who offered a not-particularly-good service (which hadn’t responded to changing demand), and an active public transport system doing their best to provide good, affordable service.