Conservatives love to cast progressive policy as the heavy thumb of government policy attempting to pick winners instead of letting the market do its work. But in urban policy, especially transportation, conservatives are happy to oppose any kind of subsidy to rail or buses while not making a peep about restrictions on the free market in public transportation. Maybe the common thread are the sorts of people that these regulations hurt.
Small scale forms of public transport like shared ride taxis, jitneys and pedicabs provide not only a range of more finely tailored choices than the standard taxi, bus or train options but they create market competition that drives prices down and quality of service up.* If private alternatives can actually compete on quality and price against heavily subsidized government options, there seems to be no reason to push them out of business. Although one would think that lawmakers would welcome the opportunity to increase public transportation options without having to pay a nickel, it turns out that success by these alternatives usually leads to the bad kind of attention and attempts to restrict them or force them to operate more like other forms of transit.
So what gives? One explanation is that government views publicly owned transport like a business that they are investing millions of dollars in. Competition from private alternatives drains ridership, and so revenue, from the public coffers, harming the public. Miami, for instance, subjects its jitney services to a host of restrictions, preventing the privately owned mini-buses from replicating more than 30% of a Metrobus’s route.
This makes no sense from a public goods perspective: if the market can support privately owned public transport, there’s no reason for government to step in and fill in the gaps. Considering most transit authorities run huge operating losses anyway, protecting their profits makes no sense. They should be run to maximize the number of routes available so that more people can get where they need to go. This is best done by not competing where private routes provide similar quality at similar prices. This is an opportunity for progressives to grab the mantle of free market defenders while also providing a positive service for the urban poor and middle class.
*Cabs may seem public, but consider that both licensing and rates are usually tightly controlled by the livery commission or its equivalent.