Dollars and Dodgems: Brooklyn’s Move Toward Transit Privatization

Facing the unsustainable cost of its public transportation system, Brooklyn recently slashed several bus routes from its MTA service. Unsatisfied with the gap left in its public services, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission discretely approved a new partnership with local van operators. Under the pilot plan, so-called “dollar vans” would operate on recently closed routes, picking up commuters at designated stops. While some van operators are skeptical of this requirement, Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky is confident that businesses will seize the opportunity:

If they can make money transporting people, they will do it. Our market research tells us that there are providers willing and eager to serve the market.

However, community groups are unsatisfied with the cost-saving measure since it would introduce vans in several new neighborhoods. Maria Pagano, President of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association, offered a measured response to the plan: “Oh my god, it’s insane. . . You’ll have guys dive-bombing in and out on Union Street between school buses.” However, it’s unclear how the “clearly-marked” and city-licensed vehicles would pose any additional risks over large buses and ubiquitous taxis.

Others fear that the van program will spell the doom of traditional MTA services. Roy Sloane, President of the Cobble Hill Association, stated his objection to the public-private partnership: “The government should be providing essential services that don’t necessarily make a profit. . . The government and this administration seem to be keen on privatizing all the services that [they] used to provide.”

If only the government were so determined. Sloane and others fail to recognize that public-private partnerships can realize savings for cities and citizens. In fact, Brooklyn’s dollar van program is expected to save riders over 10 percent on their daily commute, offering more affordable and available transportation. Ultimately, city governments should be less concerned with which sector provides these services and more concerned with the cost, quality, and efficiency of public transportation.

For more information on the MTA’s fiscal problems, read CUNY professor and privatization guru E.S. Savas’ “Competition’s the Key.” For more information on transit privatization, see the Transportation Research Board’s “Contracting for Bus and Demand-Responsive Transit Services.”