Sunday, June 10, 2012

Will Doig on Chinatown Buses

Salon's Will Doig has a piece on the intercity Chinatown buses that were recently shut down by the feds.  Rutgers' Nick Klein's work is featured quite a bit. Here is a bit from Klein:
But perhaps even more extraordinary is that, even amid the new upscale competition, the Chinatown bus ridership has continued to surge as well, a phenomenon so strange that Rutgers doctoral student Nicholas Klein co-authored a study to try to figure out why. Klein discovered that, among other things, grabbing a seat on the Fung Wah still provides a ping of urban cred. “The reasons [the Chinatown buses] are appealing are both operational — they’re cheap, frequent and easy to access — and emotional, because they provide what people describe as an authentic urban experience,” Klein learned.
“By staging operations outside the bus terminal, they created a psychological distance between the old model of bus travel and this new idea,” says Klein. “If you and I were to start an intercity bus company, all we’d need is a bus, and if it didn’t work out we could pull up stakes and try somewhere else. It’s in line with the economic entrepreneurialism that we associate with the Internet era.” 
I am quoted regarding some of the work I have been doing with Columbia PhD student Eric Goldwyn on a Group Ride Vehicle project in New York and a one sentence summary of the academic literature on the subject:
“There was this expectation that these vans would be a perfect substitute for conventional transit,” says Columbia University assistant professor of urban planning David King. But, “There are a lot of real problems when you try to formalize informal transit.” 
And the exciting conclusion with quotes from Nick and me:
All those little problems are annoying — it’s more fun to think big, to ponder how the Chinatown buses that ultimately improved intercity travel could be replicated elsewhere in our cities. “I think the Chinatown buses are sort of a blank slate,” says Klein. “People don’t know much about how they work, and they can draw their hopes and desires onto them for how they can solve urban problems. We think to ourselves, They’re so great, why not have them everywhere?” But in a city with buses, taxis, ferries, bike share and a 24-hour subway system, are we absolutely sure we need to add dollar vans? “It ends up being technological fetishism, which is rampant within transportation,” says King, “with less thought toward actually getting people around.”
My comment about technological fetishism was aimed more broadly at transport planning, not specifically at vans. I actually think the vans should be incorporated into conventional transit provision, but am not sure how to do so. Nick is right, we just don't know much about these modes at all, and we absolutely need to. We do not know the optimal types and amount of regulations for these services, the role of niche markets, how people ride, safety issues, etc.

Cap'n Transit makes related points about whether some of these non-traditional services can even be supplied by conventional transit agencies here as he discusses a new Korean van service.
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