When a city's transit agency gets into funding trouble, it's easy to call on the private sector to whip things into cost-efficient shape. Of course, actually running a private urban transit company — rather, running a successful one — is a lot tougher than it may seem.
While the private sector can cut transit costs on the order of 5 to 19 percent, the result is usually "less service and higher fares than socially optimal," transit scholar Todd Litman wrote early last year [PDF]. A recent case in point: a few weeks ago, just months after taking over the Long Island Bus from New York City's transit authority, the private company Veolia announced $7.2 million in service cuts.
That's not to say a private transit program is never worth the effort, and if there were ever a time and place for a bold attempt at transit reform, it's right now in Detroit.
The city's badly strapped bus system recently halted late-night service (between 1 and 4 a.m.) and even cut off some routes at 8 p.m. Those buses that do run rarely show up on schedule, and 20 to 50 percent never show at all, according to a recent report. In one horror story, riders waited three hours for a bus to arrive, only to find it too packed to board. Detroit riders, understandably, are furious.
Earlier this year Andy Didorosi, a young entrepreneur and lifetime Detroiter, decided he'd heard enough. In January he bought three buses and began to organize the Detroit Bus Company — a private transit operation he hopes can pick up where the city's bus system has left off. The company is completing its regulatory papers now and expects to start service in late April.
"The whole thing was born out of listening to all these solutions we had for Detroit's transit woes come and go," says the 25-year-old Didorosi. "You hear about these over and over and over again and your thought is: why doesn't someone just give it a shot?
The Detroit Bus Company is starting deliberately small. Its launch line will be a circulator route that loops through the neighborhoods of Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown, Eastern Market, Greektown, via the downtown core. Didorosi plans to run the route with just a single bus at first and a limited schedule that reclaims many hours cut by the city: weeknights (6 p.m. to 3 a.m.) and all-day weekends.
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