Goodbye BRT: Or, How I Learned to Love Private Transit

Provo may have killed a major bus rapid transit project recently. The project had been in the works for years but floundered when the city council reject the transit authority’s route selection.

I’d been excited for this project for several reasons. For one, BRT has much lower construction costs — $150 million for an entire county in this case — than analogous light rail so it potentially offers a lot more bang for taxpayers’ dollar. Due to geography, Utah also suffers from crippling air pollution in the winter. And if nothing else, the costs of the BRT were vastly lower than the massive numbers of car subsidies we spend all the time.

Which is why it was frustrating to see BRT defeated. There’s still the possibility that it’ll survive, but that possibility is shrinking.

In any case, while this was going on I read James Bacon’s post on private minibuses, or matatus, in Nairobi, Kenya. Bacon writes that in a city without official transit, “the private sector has arisen to meet the demand for shared ridership services.”

Minibuses known as matatus, which seat between 14 and 24 passengers, run along established routes with their destinations imprinted on the side. Individual buses are readily distinguishable by their paint schemes, often highlighting favorite football teams, hip-hop artists or even President Obama. Competing for business, many are equipped with powerful sound systems and television screens to attract more riders.

These buses — including the associated safety concerns — sound quite similar to what I’ve used in Brazil. There, just as in Kenya, strong demand for public transit has spurred private enterprise.

As I think about these two systems, it’s hard not to see the latter as superior. Aside from actually existing — remember, Provo killed BRT — the private system is cheap and responsive. It also doesn’t take years of planning and NIMBY wrangling to create.

So why don’t we just let the private sector respond to all of our transit needs?

There are a whole bunch of reasons — the need to serve lower income areas irrespective of demand, for example — that I’m not going to get into here because I think the biggest problem is simply that we’ve made it practically difficult to do. At least in my city, we have layer upon layer of regulation on taxis and shuttles that would make it nearly impossible for a widespread private system to emerge organically. Small systems could sprout up, but they could never become sufficiently robust.

Bacon’s post touches on this, pointing out that “domination of U.S. public transit by municipal transit systems and taxicab cartels” prevents competition “by anyone with a better idea.”

Another big regulatory reason we don’t have private minibuses in the U.S. I’ve experienced is density, and the demand density creates. In Provo, where the BRT was supposed to go in, much of the city has developed into single family neighborhoods because it was aggressively zoned to prevent anything else.

That means there simply won’t be enough people to use private transit.

Together, these two types of regulation amount to both explicit and de facto laws against private transit. That would be fine if our public transit was working great, but the length, cost, and ultimate failure of Provo’s BRT emphasizes that the cracks in our system sometimes only get bigger. So, maybe while we get our public transit act together it’d be worth clearing some of the hurdles for people who might be willing to fill those cracks.

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