Monday, May 15, 2006

Colby Cosh points to this article on making more roads in Dhaka off-limits to rickshaws. Opponents of the proposal point out that rickshaws carry 54% of the city traffic using less space than private transport does, and that when more roads are put off-limits to rickshaws, their drivers' incomes dip significantly downwards. Overall, I have to say that it's nice to see reasoned debate on the topic of public transport including not only government-managed public transport but also privately-organized public transport. In most North American cities, it's easy to forget that there are many other kinds of public transport beyond the city buses and subway systems.

For a few years I worked downtown, on the close edge of the shopping and financial districts and right near a subway stop. But for various reasons the subway didn't work for me and I took the train. The problem with the train was that the train terminus was a long walk from the office (25 or 30 minutes) and I didn't like biking downtown. City buses were slower than walking! Sometimes I'd wait for a city bus for twice as long as the supposed period between buses, and then of course the next thing I'd see would be a packed full city bus with one or two empty buses stuck behind it (quite stuck, as these buses used overhead wires for power, and couldn't pass one another). Even after catching a bus on-time it was a toss-up whether it would actually move faster than a pedestrian. One day I noticed the jitney.

The jitney is easy miss despite the fact that it's an unusual vehicle, an ancient royal blue shuttle bus with big white amateur lettering. It goes from the train to various points downtown and back to the train. It only operates during prime commute hours and its schedule is carefully tailored to the train schedule. And it goes fast, taking alternate routes when necessary, changing lanes and sometimers letting passengers off on the left of a one-way street if the right side is too clogged. It took 5-10 minutes to take the jitney from the train to the office, was never late, and it cost the same as the city bus.

The problem? It was illegal. It's illegal to offer a jitney service to multiple passengers in most North American cities. That system allows public buses/subways and taxis to monopolize in-city public transport under limiting rules. It would also be illegal for somebody to run a private commuter bus service up and down the major highway here, and the public systems haven't integrated their services enough to do so (or perhaps have decided not to offer a more attractive option, so as to push people towards public commuter trains). It would be hard to change the status quo although some people are thinking about it.

I hope countries that still have creativity and open competition in public transport are wiser than North Americans. Keep those rickshaws on the road!

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