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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

NYC transit: Russia shows a better way

There are several things that the former Soviet countries do better than anyone else--chess, vodka, caviar, ballet--but to my mind their greatest achievement is public transportation.

In New York, which I think has pretty good public transportation, you absolutely must have a map of bus routes, and buses simply don't go between lots of places. No bus, for example, goes from near Times Square to the Upper East Side, or from Park Slope to Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a fact I lamented often while freezing on the three-mile round trip to my girlfriend's work.

Worse, many NYC buses come only once or twice an hour. Bus stops come every two blocks, far too frequently for a bus that holds 50 people. Add in elderly stair-climbers, the insistence on exiting from the front, and the inevitable red lights that stop the bus the instant it pulls away from a bus stop, and it's no wonder than you can walk faster than some city buses. (The Straphanger's Campaign, which tries to improve the New York MTA, recently awarded the M14 crosstown bus the distinction of moving slower than a chicken walks.)

The answer to all our bussing problems is the "marshrutka" ("minibus"--the "utka" is a diminuitive ending). Found in every post-Soviet city from St. Petersburg to Tashkent, it is the opposite of a city bus in every way. Just a small van, it fills up quickly and does not have to stop for new passengers. It allows you to get off at any moment by crying for the driver to stop. Since it takes fewer people, it comes more frequently. And most amazing of all, if there are enough people who regularly want to travel between two places, a marshrutka will soon materialize to work that route.

All of this is because marshrutkas are almost completely unregulated. A man with a van of vaguely correct size, gas in the tank, and a few hours to kill is a marshrutka driver, no forms to fill out and no stamp to get. If he wants to work an existing route he need only write the route number and its landmarks on a sign. If he wants to invent a route he need only find some little-used number and list the places he goes so that riders will know to flag him down.

There is no doubt that this can work in America, because it's already happening. Dollar vans regularly work many routes in New York, especially in the outer boroughs, where they are a cheaper and faster alternative to the MTA buses. It is a testament to their efficiency that they are profitable and convenient despite the lower price, the lack of identifying markings, and the inconvenience of being ticketed for lacking a license. In fact, during the last transit strike, in Queens, Mayor Bloomberg temporarily legalized dollar vans on their routes, which was such a painless transition that it made people wonder why they would soon go back to paying twice as much for half the service.

Of course, one way that dollar vans and marshrutkas are different from city buses is that city bus drivers are unionized and paid decent wages and benefits, and are not subject to the whims of the market and financial crises whenever their vans or bodies need repair.
(There's also the matter of wheelchair access, which I admit is a tough one.) But how much of the extra dollar you pay the MTA goes into the pocket of the driver, and how much to the required massive bureaucracy, six-figure union executive salaries and wasteful, corrupt transportation directors?

The bottom line is that this is a good place for the market to trump state control. Not everyone who wants to practice medicine or be a schoolteacher should be allowed to just pick up and start;certification processes ensure that to get to do these things, you need to show that even if you're not necessarily competent, at least you've invested time in the career and aren't going to piss it away. Driving isn't like that. If you drive a van around alot, you're probably a decent driver, at least decent enough to pass any driving test. Of course, psycho killers just released from prison should not be encouraged to invite people into their vans, but this is easily solved by a simple medallion system with background checks.

Anyway, this would be a pretty easy experiment to try for a year in one of the NYC boroughs. Open a little office to register drivers, hand out medallions, track route numbers; make standard, large, colorful signs that show the price and route, to avoid haggling and encourage first-time riders; charge $500 a year for the medallion and a few hundred drivers will happily cover the staff salaries and ad campaign. When they register, give them an application for New York's cheap, partially state-subsidized health care plan that working people are eligible for but no one knows about, and offer an independent union like the freelancers' union the list of registrees. If it doesn't work out, scrap it.

The best part is the instant reaction to the public's travel needs. Think about it: when a Yankees game is on, passing vans would pull out their "Yankee Stadium" signs and take the overflow people from the 6 train to the Bronx for a few bucks. If a large number of Cape Verdeans settle in Astoria or Russians settle in Red Hook, vans would crop up to shuttle family and friends to sister neighborhoods in Washington Heights and Brighton Beach.

That's what happens in Tbilisi: you can actually see drivers, surrounded by three other marshrutkas on the same line, shrug and pull up the sign for another route: instant redirection of transportation resources, faster than a $2 chicken walks.


Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 07, 08:32:00 PM:
Yep, public transportation is loathsome in the US. I've noticed what might be the result of Russion influence on the excellent public transportation of Prague and Budapest (though I doubt anyone there would think it was worth the occupation.) But at leasat in NYC your subway cars are faster than walking chicken. Not so here in Boston. No matter what the MBTA says, public transportation isn't taken seriously here.
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Feb 09, 02:21:00 AM:
Marshrutka's are living proof of the fact that people are perfectly able of organising themselves when a government is not capable to take up its duties.

Nobody needs them, those burocrats.