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New York’s Shadow Transit (newyorker.com)
239 points by philers on July 2, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 123 comments

This is a great story. It's a look at how people really live in a modern city and the border between formal and informal commerce. One of the key research targets in modern sociology and economics and political science is the emergence of institutions like dollar vans.

It's very difficult to get a public system to cover every route and part of the city that needs transit, but most city authorities are reluctant to license cheap private jitneys. The public system employees are usually well paid and organized to oppose competition and private taxi companies charge much higher than market rates and are very well positioned to spend some profits defending their oligopolies.

There are eight first world megacities -- cities over ten million population. I wonder if they each have an emerging institution like this.

I understand that in Los Angeles, where the busses are awful and the infrastructure is laser focused on exclusive use of private motorcars, has dollar vans in the Spanish-speaking communities. I'd be interested to learn if the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean speakers use those or if they have their own.

In Mexico City, the city has simply licensed dollar vans with just the minimal oversight necessary for public safety. They've all painted themselves green and white and the informal routes have firmed up but there is still -- decades later -- no map, public or private, of the routes of the most common form of transit in this modern city of 22 million. The routes are set and reliable; there's just no central authority to collect information.

Tokyo has built the most extensive rail system in the world by far. I don't know if that has been enough to pre-empt the emergence of informal vans. Seoul has been building fast to catch up building a similarly extensive network.

I wonder about London, Paris, and Osaka.

> I understand that in Los Angeles, where the busses are awful...

This seems to be a common refrain, but it's also outdated. Both the bus and subway networks in LA are massively larger than in San Francisco (which, by the way, has the world's slowest bus fleet at 8.1 mph [1]). LA County is massively larger than San Francisco (including the equivalents of the entire Peninsula, Oakland, and Marin) and has sections of very dense bus service (any of the numbered streets plus Wilshire going west from downtown) and sections of very sparse bus service (Malibu). And it's all 25% cheaper than Muni too (with fewer strikes and many fewer naked people).

There are 13 subway stops under construction in LA and the LAX airport connector finally got approved with an actual train stop directly at LAX.

I'm not saying there aren't holes in the LA transport network, but it's better than many visitors realize.

[1] http://www.sfweekly.com/2010-04-14/news/the-muni-death-spira...

LA's public transit broke every misconception I had about it. It was fantastic. We actually ditched our rent-a-car and grabbed a $5/day transit pass and got to most of the places we wanted to go. All without being stuck in traffic. From Griffith Observatory to downtown, to long beach, to hollywood blvd. And it was super clean. The subway stations were beautiful. I can't wait to visit the city in a few more years after they build out the newer lines.

I used to live in Long Beach, and you're right that the transit is quite good between heavily trafficked points and along major corridors.

But the huge area the system needs to cover means most of the resident population is significantly underserved. As a random sample, I just put the 15 miles between Lakewood to Carson into Google Maps and the transit routes start at 2 hours each way, even during peak hours! It's a 20 minute drive.

A major challenge for people living with limited means is how much slower life is when they're dependent on public transit to get around. LA's limited network removes many seemingly-accessible employment or education options entirely.

Thank you for bringing this up. Transit/transportation difficulties are often a huge strain if you're poor. People often wonder why poor people aren't en masse educating themselves to move up out of poverty, thinking they have plenty of time to spare for most things. When actually if you're poor everyday tasks, getting to and from work, buying groceries, etc. often take soo much longer! Having no money often means having no time as well, not even taking into account the added burden of parenting and cognitive stress from crippling poverty.

NYC's bus fleet is slower than San Francisco's, with some routes netting 2-3 MPH.

Note that urban traffic speeds, net of stops, are often quite modest, and that "dwell times" and stop frequency have a profound impact.

Even BART, with its 80 MPH peak speeds, averages about 35 MPH for longer throughway routes. You can verify this roughly by comparing BART travel times with driving distances in Google Maps.

But cities with slow average transit speeds are also generally pretty dense. Remember, SF is 7 miles square, do even 8.1 MPH gets you from one end to the other in an hour (and that's pretty much a worst case).

Google Maps shows the SF Ferry Building to SF State (a cross-town trip) as 21 minutes by car (good luck with parking), or 39 minutes by transit.

Worse are trips between less-travelled areas. The Marina to SF Zoo is a 21 minute drive, but 1h2m by bus.

Driving from the Ferry Building to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate park is only 5.8 miles but would take 21 minutes -- that's 16.5 MPH, by car. Access to highways vs. surface streets makes a big difference.

Most parts of American cities (and their suburbs) are covered with nothing but hundreds of blocks of dreary, monotonous, cookie-cutter single-family homes. Outside the city center, the population density drops dramatically. How many people do you think in a block full of single-family homes? A couple hundred at most.

Contrast this with a city like Seoul, where nearly every block is filled with condos and apartments, right up to the edge of the green belt. Each block could house at least a thousand people. Seoul has a population density of 43K per square mile. New York City has only 28K. San Fran has 17K. Tokyo has 16K. Los Angeles has 8K. Dallas has 1.4K. Even the suburbs of Seoul have higher population density than most American cities.

Near every street in Seoul has a bus route going through it and/or a subway line below it. There is no gap for private shuttles to fill. But this convenience comes at a price: everyone must live in dreary, monotonous, cookie-cutter apartments and condos. Maybe that's better than living in dreary, monotonous, cookie-cutter single-family homes; at least the buildings are better maintained, and it's certainly better from a carbon footprint point of view as well. But it does get a bit suffocating, and the tightly packed structure leaves little room for experimentation and disruption.

But it does get a bit suffocating,

Doesn't Seoul have a huge belt of mountains to go skiing and hiking in just a couple miles outside the outer subway stations? Maybe even closer around places like Seouldae? That's a pretty good option for open space.

I agree that US suburbia is stifling in its own way and hostile to transit and dollar vans. Still, LA, SF, Chicago, and NYC have plenty of places they could work.

Those density figures are misleading. You've chosen San Francisco County, LA county, and the five central NY counties, but included only the populated part of Seoul and most of the Kaanto for Tokyo. The populated parts of Tokyo and Seoul are of similar density (as is Mexico City), around 40k/mi^2, fairly consistently through their metro areas. New York varies from 110k in central Manhattan to miles low density 4k sprawl on the outskirts. SF tops out around 17k and then sprawls. LA is similar but slightly more consistent. The pretty parts of Paris are at 80k but everyone finds them liberating and exciting rather than stifling -- maybe because it's done without high rises.

> Those density figures are misleading ... The populated parts of Tokyo and Seoul are of similar density (as is Mexico City)

I'm not disputing that. The difference is that the "populated parts" of Seoul comprise the entire habitable area of the city, which is what makes public transit so affordable even for those who live in the outskirts.

There is no low-density "sprawl" in or around Seoul. It's all high-rise apartments and condos until you abruptly hit some sort of obstacle (like a mountain). It makes little difference which counties and districts you pick. Of the 25 wards that make up Seoul, the one with the lowest population density has 25K per sq mi. The highest has 74K. So the peak is lower than NYC, but the standard deviation is much lower as well. In other words, there's less diversity of living arrangements.

A random residential area in the outskirts of Seoul looks like [1].

A random residential area in the outskirts of NYC looks like [2].

[1] https://www.google.com/maps/@37.564524,126.846419,3a,75y,186...

[2] https://www.google.com/maps/@40.706197,-73.754464,3a,75y,172...

One person's "dreary monotonous" is another person's paradise. Be careful with the value judgments. Plenty of people want the room to spread out and raise their family away from the urban density.

Any major Indian city has this kind of informal unregulated public transit system, which is a pretty big business. Nothing fancy and cozy like those Vans though. But you will see 7 seater auto rickshaws, Tempo travelers, Vans, and discarded old second had buses given some make up and reused.

The price is generally lower than the government public transport system buses.

I was/am generally a frequent user of these means of transport. Largely because of the price and frequency of availability and they just work. They will even stop by places the metropolitan buses wouldn't give a stop. The city outskirts have this almost as their default means of transport. I've even been autos with goats and calves.

One more great thing about such buses is they generally stop at places where there are a lot of hawkers. So you can also get to buy cheap shirts, socks, slippers, FM radios, miscellaneous toys and other cool stuff. Which are also like some kind of a under ground market, they operate evading and running from the police- Generally when they get caught a bribe of 100-200 rupees comes handy.

Israel has always had 'Sherut' taxi vans. These usually follow regular bus routes and actually pot the bus route's number. The biggest use case is Saturdays, when public busses don't run, but it's not unknown for a 'sherut' van to arrive in some terminal trying to put together a route for any potential travelers sitting around or even to go along a long haul bus route 5 minutes ahead of the official bus and pick up passengers.

Different areas/routes have different conventions. Price is sometimes by negotiation, sometimes the bus fare and sometimes twice the bus fare.

Makes sense to the people who use it regularly but very hard to penetrate for a newcomer. Virtually impossible for tourists. Ironically, a lot of guide books tell tourists to use these.

Hi there! I'm Aaron Reiss, the author of this map and article for the New Yorker. First, thank you so much for reading and discussing it! Second, I'm actually going to be in Israel next week and would love to ride some sherut... If you (or anyone) would be willing I school me a bit in where to catch them and where they go, I would love to hear from you. My email is reiss.aaron at gmail dot com. To any one else who reads this, I'm excited I respond to the rest of hear comments once I'm back in states and in front of my trusty laptop later this month!

All my best, Aaron Reiss @erinreiss

It's been a very long time since I last used them so others may have better advice than me.

Option 1: Go to high traffic bus stations along major North-South roads (roads #20,#4,#2 are good choices) or the Jerusalem-TV highway on Friday evening or Saturday before sestet.

Option 2: Go to central stations (eg 'New Tel Aviv Bus Station') area and ask around.

Option 3: Find backpackers/teenagers with bags (it's summer break) & at regional central stations.

Option 4: WB or eat jerusalem settlements (it's a bad week for these). I think many of the smaller settlements have semi-private or informal bus networks on some different informal system.

Option 5: is transport to and around Arab towns int the Sharon/triangle region. There are spots in Raanana, Kfar Saba, Netanya and the rest of the big towns in the area that serve as Terminals for Sherut Taxis to nearby arab towns. These will usually have a station master type of guy. He will most likely be smoking a nargilla.

Watch for Taxi vans with route numbers. These are the Sherut taxis

Most places in the world have this concept. I used shared taxis all over the Middle East. The biggest issue I think is poor documentation and standards, which can make it challenging for visitors to know how to get around.

I've probably done 6 of these types in my travels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Share_taxi#Traditional_systems_...

...didn't know they were so prevalent. Love the Jeepney's though they're just like little Chicken Bus'


Whoops, thanks Bran! You beat me to the punch! I'll be free to roam all over the country for about 6 days.

Where in the country is he?

Yes, the "Sherut" taxi vans(that hold only 10 people) in Tel Aviv are great and far more frequent than the buses that travel the routes with fewer stops.

There are frequent Sherut taxi vans that travel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As soon as there are 10 passengers, they go.

I wish NYC had Sherut vans. People would probably taking far fewer taxis and be much greener if it did.

NYC does have these. Called commuter vans. I know of at least one that I used to take down to Wall Street from the Upper East side. It was great. Fast service and a fraction of the price of a cab.

There are also Taxi shares in NYC, which are similar, but hold less people (4). These are somewhat informal affairs and you have to know where to go / stand. But if you're going downtown anyway, why not split the fare with 4 strangers?

I loved those, but the payment mechanism was confusing as hell the first time - you have to pass your money to the person in front, who passed it on until it got to the driver, and then your change got passed back the same way. People would just tap you on the shoulder and hand you a bunch of shekels...

Please see above reply to @netcan. I am seeking some advice on Sherut vans on behalf of the author of the article.

This doesn't exist in London. The London underground, overground and bus routes are extensive, and the black taxis and minicabs fill in the gap for a moderate fee.

You will however find something much like this well established in large cities in Sub-Saharan Africa under the name "Matatu" or "Minibus taxi" : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Share_taxi#South_Africa

I recall a documentary on coaches a bit like this in England. There're something like 20 private coach companies running between London and Luton, and in practice they're segregated by race (I mean, anyone can get on any of them, but they don't).

(But yeah, within London the public transport is good enough to push out this kind of thing)

Birmingham UK: I used to see the 'Polska' coach outside Moor St Station every Friday for some years. Haven't seen it recently. Birmingham- Krakov- Warsaw. Always had the idea of catching it for a long weekend...

Some companies run small coaches or minibuses to out of town work areas (e.g. Fort Dunlop) that are hard to get to by public transport. I think they are employer run rather than locally organised.

Very nice piece of writing that article, well done. Could be a book in that.

Minibus systems appear everywhere, especially in poorer developing countries with fast-growing cities. They tend to be inefficient by dint of the market equilibrium creating a single, vastly overserved "downtown hub".

There are some projects to map them, for example:

[0] http://lusakapublictransportmap.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/and...

I didn't know these existed until a coworker of mine told me he takes one to New Jersey every day.

Reminds me of the poda poda taxi system in Sierra Leone which has no official public transport and also the matatu's all over Rwanda and Kenya which are alternatives to the official public lines.

Interesting to see that in NYC they deck out the inside of the vans/buses with TVs and other things (to stay "undercover") while in other countries the matatus and poda podas are decorated on the exterior with all sorts of amazing paint jobs, graphics and slogans. Usually they are either inspirational, religious or in homage to a favorite premier league team.[1][2][3]

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=matatu+rwanda&tbm=isch&sa=X&... [2] https://www.google.com/search?q=poda+poda+freetown&tbm=isch&... [3] https://www.google.com/search?q=motor+bike+naorobi&tbm=isch&...

Hong Kong has thousands of minibuses, which are -- surprisingly -- more expensive than the bus or subway, but can often be twice as fast. (In part because they are notorious for driving dangerously.) The drivers and vehicles are actually licensed these days, but in almost all aspects they still operate in a very "informal" way; there's no route maps, for instance.


"Twelve dollars, twelve minutes" (to Mong Kok from Kennedy Town), as a local said to me about the red minibus :-)

12 HKD is 1.5 USD. The route is this on Google Maps, which notes that the distance of approximately 8 km should take "13 min without traffic". So 12 minutes is basically dangerous driving!


$10/22 minutes Causeway Bay --> Stanley. Hang on to your hat!

That's scary, for sure!

Paris has great public transport. This is the subway (metro) map: http://media-cache-ec0.pinimg.com/originals/12/56/aa/1256aa0...

The numbers are subways, the letters are trains. There are busses too, but I never use them. And there are rental bikes in the streets: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A9lib%27

I don't think Paris needs shadow transit.

> There are busses too, but I never use them.

Don't forget the trams above ground too (6 lines running, 4 more planned).

The official public transport organ has a (flash :() map which you can switch between rail (trains, subways and trams), day bus and night bus: http://www.ratp.fr/plan-interactif/carteidf.php

There's no equivalent in Tokyo.

In Moscow they exist and are official. I've caught one today while heading to work - 317м to be precise.

Vans changed transportation landscape massively in late 90s, and for good. Some villages which had like five busses per day now are served by a van every half an hour.

> In Mexico City, the city has simply licensed dollar vans with just the minimal oversight necessary for public safety. They've all painted themselves green and white and the informal routes have firmed up but there is still -- decades later -- no map, public or private, of the routes of the most common form of transit in this modern city of 22 million.

http://www.viadf.com.mx/directorio/Microbus looks like a good directory of microbus routes.

That's the best start I've see to a route map. It looks like the data was collected by GPS, which is a good idea. Still, a lot of routes that I've used are not mapped and the maps that exist are of variable quality.

I think that organized projects based on smartphone users should be able to solve the problem eventually.

This does not exist in London or Paris.

The UK did have something similar, in Belfast, though.

The black taxi cabs during the 'Troubles' there were sort of similar, I believe. It was a shared ride system, required due to the difficulty of getting around the different parts of the city, with Catholic and Protestant areas divided by the 'peace' walls and a lack of public transport.

I've commented before on HN with this important cautionary tale from South Africa: In the late 1980's the apartheid government (which was taking very tentative steps towards reform) decided to cheaply "solve" the problem of public transport in poor, black areas, while encouraging small business. Thus was born the unregulated minibus taxi industry.

It all started off well, but soon, instead of a Free Enterprise utopia of owner-operators looking after their vehicles, as was envisaged, owners bought fleets of taxis and "the miracle of the 80's became the nightmare of the 90's" as they engaged in brutal "taxi wars" over routes.

As far as I know, drivers pay "rent" to the owners, and then keep the remainder of the takings for the day, incentivising extreme recklessness and lawlessness as they try to complete as many trips as possible (there are some South African libertarian types who claim minubus taxis are safe, but the road safety figures they cite are certainly incomplete and probably wrong).

Attempts to re-regulate have to a large extent, failed, and when Bus-Rapid-Transit was started in Johannesburg, taxi owners got a cut (with the implicit threat that drivers/passengers would be killed if they didn't).

Yes, there was a general breakdown in law and order during the transitional period in South Africa during the 1990's that wouldn't happen in other countries, but it is a reminder that this sort of business needs to be kept well regulated.

EDIT: There was also an epidemic of violence on trains (an old and decrepit network serving the larger black townships) during the chaos of the early 1990's. As far as I know, the perpetrators were never found, even though elements of the apartheid regime were suspected at the time. The taxi industry had as strong a motive to carry out the attacks as any.

There's one data point. One with many special conditions. Calling this a failure of Free Enterprise is to ignore the conditions you are describing -- people weren't free! Violence, other strong-arm tactics, and lack of liability are the opposite of freedom. Of course Free Enterprise doesn't work when basic rights (life, liberty, property, speech, conscience) aren't protected.

And for a counter example, New York is very stingy with its medallions, which has created powerful special interest groups, and a system that serves drivers and passengers poorly in many respects.

"Freedom" has two different meanings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_Concepts_of_Liberty

I'm not sure what your point is. A person being harmed due to law-and-order issues in her society lacks liberty under both meanings.

> a system that serves drivers and passengers poorly in many respects.

but also serves drivers and passengers pretty well in many other respects

It's my understanding that drivers don't have it so great. They generally work for the medallion owners instead of for themselves. They certainly can't experiment with their business model (pet-friendly cabs? credit card only cabs? setting the fare at pickup? multi-passenger, multi-destination schemes?).

On the passenger side of things, aside from the lack of innovation, getting a cab in certain neighborhoods is problematic. Cabbies profiling potential fares is still a problem, despite regulations. There are other availability issues as well, for example when the weather is bad or when you get "upstreamed" during peak commute times.

> As far as I know, drivers pay "rent" to the owners, and then keep the remainder of the takings for the day...

That's how taxis work in many places, including where I live (Austin, TX). Many of the taxi drivers here lease their taxi from one of the few cab companies which are restricted by anti free market cab regulations.

> ...incentivising extreme recklessness and lawlessness as they try to complete as many trips as possible

These two are not necessarily connected. It is the government's responsibility to make sure they are not being reckless or lawless.

If you're in town tomorrow you should stop by the launch party for Satoshi Square- we're building a coop around free-market principles and helping startups navigate burdensome regulations.


"Yes, there was a general breakdown in law and order during the transitional period in South Africa during the 1990's that wouldn't happen in other countries..."

Well, I don't know about that. I suggest you acquaint yourself with Russia in the nineties. :)

"During the 2013 fiscal year, the Taxi and Limousine Commission impounded more than six hundred illegal vans, two hundred and forty of them in Brooklyn."

Imagine the uproar on HN if this were to happen to, say, Uber drivers...

As someone who watches unregulated taxis brazenly evade flat-footed police on a daily basis, take my word for it: you're better off with the government having an iron fist in this case.

Very common in Russia also, the vans usually put the number of the official route on the window, so you'd know exactly the route that's going to be taken. Wish they had this Sydney, but the government is anal on taxing and regulating people. So no micro businesses for Sydney :(

It kind of glossed over the safety issuers associated with these forms of transit. Life is good until there's an accident.

My brother inspects commercial vehicles. These vans and Chinatown busses are often unmaintained and owned by shell companies. IIRC, he takes half of the vans off the road for serious safety violations, and 75% of the busses. Traditional busses and licensed vans almost never have that happen.

It's not just that the immigrant and minority communities served by shadow transit lack access to public transportation - those areas are also severely underserved by cabs.


I don't think that's racism, I think that's business. Taking someone from Penn Station to Grand Central Terminal is pure profit, because it's fast and you're guaranteed a fare once you get to Grand Central. Taking someone from low-density area A to low-density area B is less profitable, so you don't see many cabs in these low-density areas.

I see this in action all the time, because I tend to bike late at night when bars are closing and people need cabs. If a cab does end up in Brooklyn, because they were required by law to take someone from Manhattan there, they tend to beeline it back to Manhattan, avoiding streets where they might encounter a fare. Smith St. / Clinton St. is one pair like this. Clinton St. is a residential street that leads to the Brooklyn Bridge. Nobody naturally wants a cab there[1]. Smith St. is one street over going the same direction, and it's all bars and restaurants. It also leads directly to the Brooklyn Bridge (actually, the Manhattan Bridge; they're very close). But you see most cabs opting for Clinton instead of Smith, so they don't get stuck picking up someone in Brooklyn that wants to go even deeper into Brooklyn. Instead, they try to get back to the highly-profitable Manhattan as quickly as possible, even if it means going empty.

That's not racism, that's just the reality of how you make money as a cab driver.

(The cabs that can't pick up passengers in Manhattan all take Smith St.)

[1] Except people like me that have noticed this pattern. I do see cabs stopping for fares on Clinton, since they have to if flagged down.

since they have to if flagged down

Do they abide by this rule 100%? How is it monitored or enforced?

>> "since they have to if flagged down"

hahahahah. They don't; not even close.

If it's anything like where I live it's not necessarily monitored or enforced. If you accidentally tell the cabbie where you want to go before getting in they'll just drive off.

If you're already in the cab when you tell them then they're not likely to tell you to get out.

Yep, a lot of times the driver will ask you where you are going before letting you jump in.

Probably more so than Beijing taxi drivers.


Cabs pull over, look at you, and drive off if you aren't the right skin color. It happens all the time.

They assume black people live in poor or dangerous or remote neighborhoods.

The law about cabs being required to stop is totally moot. Cabs simply don't pull over if they don't want to.

Go find a black guy and try to hail a cab with him for a few days. The data will really shock you.

I'm not saying there aren't racist cab drivers. I'm just saying that the data isn't only explained by racism.

>That's not racism, that's just the reality of how you make money as a cab driver.

... under a bureaucratically-controlled pricing structure that ignores reality by forcing you to price all those routes the same.

Even if you could price "poor area" fares lower, how is that helpful as a taxi driver?

Cab fares don't scale, so working the same time * lower fare = less wage.

No, you price more difficult routes higher, so that they can still be served at all.

Isn't the problem already that the areas in question are of lower economic means, so it's not reasonable to put subsidized transit into them?

I doubt they could afford to pay premium cab fare if they couldn't afford regular buses.

But they're already paying for these underground transit options. So there's clearly some combination of pricing and shared routes at which customers can afford it and the providers can still make a living.

I'm currently visiting Russia where Marshrutka's (minibuses) are commonplace. Coming from the US where one has to drive everywhere, it's quite convenient to pay a dollar or so and get anywhere you need to be. It's a very low-capital and safe way to solve transportation issues and requires no major infrastructure overalls.

It makes you wonder if the US national and local political situation is actually interested in the needs of the people or simply protecting their benefactors (taxi unions, etc). After seeing the efficiency of private transit, I'd be willing to accept gray markets then an overbearing police state if it means reasonable solutions.

I don't know how the regulations worked in Istanbul, but they were very common even with the other transit options, and worked very well. I'd go from Kadikoy to Taksim and back late at night and walk or take the taxi for the rest. For 3 bucks (6 lira) they would leave when full, approximately every 5 minutes, and were pretty organized.

This is one of the areas where we could use a better public-private partnership in our cities.

Yup - dolmus in Turkey, sherut in Israel, servees in Jordan/Egypt - these are common throughout the Middle East, usually using very similar models of vans. A common experience I've had in all three countries is waiting near the start of a route for enough people to arrive to make it worth the driver's gas to head off.

For westerners the most baffling experience is paying in a dolmus: your money goes via the persons in front of you to the driver, and change gets handed back the same way in the opposite direction.

You've never bought a hot dog at a ballgame?

No. I guess that's a US custom? Interesting!

Similar to a Thai Jeepney.

America's effortless transition into a Third-World country continues.

This is a 35 year old system.

Also, the US can't be third-world by definition. Third-world just means not aligned with the US or Russia, and is an anachronism.

Everyone knows third-world pretty much means "developing world" nowadays.

Considering the "developed"/"developing" dichotomy is really just "First or Second World"/"Third World", um, duh?

San Francisco has a "Jitney Bus" that attempts to correct the horrendous hole in transit between the Caltrain commuter rail and downtown.


There is also a startup called Chariot that is building a private bus line to downtown SF; this one has a surprisingly different appeal than the ones in the article in NYC: the existing public Muni bus line from the Marina to downtown is notoriously slow and crowded, so perhaps commuting professionals would be willing to pay a little more...

'horrendous hole'? Do you mean the 10-15 minute walk from Market Street to the Caltrain station?

Google lists it as a 20 minute walk, which is consistent with the last time I did it. https://www.google.com/maps/dir/San+Francisco+Caltrain+Stati...

I'd say adding 20 minutes each way to your commute is a pretty big deal.

Does it still take 10-15 mins when one is running a fever of 102? Or when walking on crutches? Or carrying a weekly load of groceries?

Just because you can walk does not mean everyone else should as well. There is nothing wrong with choice, public transport would be a welcome addition to almost every stretch of urban destinations, that does not curtail walking in any way, shape or form.

In short: Walk all you want, just gimme mah ride, is all.

Yep, that's the gap. It's about a mile from the commuter rail to downtown, and the public transit options between are quite slow. It's no wonder that private transportation startups abound in San Francisco.

I guess I'm spoiled by the well-interconnected transit systems in many international cities; step off the (high-speed) intercity rail and downstairs into the core of a robust subway system, or walk to the bus terminal next door.

San Francisco once had such an intermodal transit hub in the Transbay Terminal; the city is seeking $2.5 Billion to rebuild it.

Until then, we'll have to rely on private transportation like the 'dollar cabs' described in the article, or San Francisco's very own Lyft and Uber.

Have you considered the other popular transit option in international cities, riding a bike? In Copenhagen you do not cover 2km distances by Lyft, Uber, or a bus, because 2km is such a trivial distance you just bike it yourself in a few minutes. And yes, even if you have two kids and groceries with you— because cargo bikes are common and easy (http://daneshea.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/IMG_10731.jpg).

Yes! Caltrain is actually very accommodating to bicyclists, with no extra charge for bikes and special bike cars (that are often full at peak hours).

I personally bike about a mile to a train station in Palo Alto, and about a mile from Caltrain to the office in San Francisco.

However, San Francisco has some fundamental problems that make it less hospitable to biking than Copenhagen. It is notoriously hilly, and doesn't have the awesome protected bike tracks that Copenhagen has.

> protected bike tracks

I recently ran across a hard-to-believe, but as far as I can tell, accurate statistic: the Copenhagen metropolitan area has more miles of protected bike lanes than the entire United States combined does. That is somewhat surprising, since the Copenhagen metro area isn't really all that big.

It's not quite the same thing, but Palo Alto (suburban San Francisco) has been turning side streets into 'bike boulevards' that are inconvenient to drive on, and therefore safer to bike on. Roundabouts, signage and even bollards to block car through-traffic all serve to make these side streets quite pleasant bike corridors.

> Caltrain is actually very accommodating to bicyclists

Unless they leave you stranded because they are "full" of bikes. Like most non-local trains during rush hour.

Cargo bikes seem great if you're doing the whole trip in them, but not really appropriate for a trip that involves using a light rail or bus as well, like Caltrain.

Typically you don't have to do that just to transfer from one train system to another.

It's quite the hike. Covered in varying weather conditions. Not nearly as bad as either the heat of the deep south or the cold of the northeast, but rain or just the fog and humidity plus walk make for a damp experience.

Worse is trying to rush the distance catching one of the hourly-only off-peak trains. Or having to carry anything other than a light bag the distance.

Wow - do Americans really consider a 20 minute stroll to be going for a hike? That's incredible.

It really depends on the circumstances.

If you're 1) rushed (have places to be / people to see / work to do), 2) the weather's poor, 3) you're female (the area's improved but it's still not the best side of town), 4) you're risking a 60+ minute wait if you miss the train, etc., it's not particularly pleasant.

Walking a similar distance along a different or safer route, where I've got the time to wander, or where transit service is such that I've only a few minutes wait (or as is more likely the case on much of Muni in SF: you've simply no idea and the wait may be anywhere from 10 seconds to hours), the situation's not so bad.

But miss your CalTrain connection and you're 30-60 miles from home in a part of town with not much to offer. Though that too is getting somewhat better with the ballpark and revitalization going on.

Like another poster mentioned walking for 20 minutes in high heat and high humidity (like 100 deg F - 38 deg C - and 80% humidity, not uncommon at all in the South) can be a pretty unpleasant and sweaty affair, especially in dress clothes.

Some people are limited mobility as well (like the elderly), and/or especially vulnerable to heat and inclement weather.

It's a little offensive to generalize about "Americans" as a whole, especially based on the comments of exactly 1 person, so please don't. 300+ million people live here, with often very different customs and practices, of different social classes, ethnicities, beliefs and worldviews, and living in many different geographies. It's not as diverse as all of Europe, but not even close to homogenous and easily generalized either.

Luckily not everyone. I've never used public transport in my suburban sprawl city in upstate NY, but luckily the roads are of moderate size, so I can do crazy (for America) things like walk/bike/run the nine miles to work, or even walk to the airport (seven miles, did it last week, only needed to bring a backpack so it wasn't too bad). I'd move to Portland for the bike-friendliness, but there's no biotech scene there yet (anyone want to help start one?).

not everyone finds it easy to walk that distance, or would like to do so at 11 in the night.

This sort of thing will be handled by autonomous vehicles in the future, potentially plotting an efficient route based on people needing a ride and their respective destinations.

With an app and even 1-2 of the right vehicles, someone could effectively enter the public transport space whereas doing so now would require a salaried driver on top of that and bring pricing that would be too high for ride-sharing.

Did you even read the article? Half of the dollar van experience is the opportunity to connect with your own immigrant community and speak your native language. It's a social experience that silly technogadgets can't replace.

Yes, of course I did but I think it's as much about convenience and filling gaps in official routes as it is about the social experience.

Awareness (in the absence of formal route maps and schedules) comes from the community but not only because of it. If you arrived in a country and someone said "Check out this app, it's available in your language on most phones, the vehicles can go where you want to go and you'll never have trouble with language issues," it's not as though a majority will ignore that.

We'll see high traffic lines operated much as they are (trains and larger buses) but I definitely think we'll eventually see automated vans operated within the gaps as these vans do.

> “Back in the day, officers used to harass us day and night: throw van keys on the roof, throw them in the garbage, bring us into the station just for driving a van.” An N.Y.P.D. spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment

The sad thing is that stories like those don't even seem to elicit surprise.

We need a way to refocus our police on their mission, to "protect and serve". We need to demand more professionalism from them. It's a difficult challenge. By nature, the job attracts a lot of bad applicants along with the good.

"officers used to [...] throw van keys on the roof, throw them in the garbage"

Why do we tolerate people walking our cities with guns and tasers who behave like schoolyard bullies?

The person said "back in the day". While yes, the article does say that police still harass these commuter vans, I doubt they still resort to such tactics. The article says that they mainly just ticket them.

And in response to your point about needing to refocus the police:

>“It’s about safety, and I field a lot of community complaints about how these vans drive aggressively. We’re not trying to hurt the honest guys making a living, but if you do something illegal, if you’re picking up a hail or picking up on a bus stop, I don’t care if you’re accredited with signage on the side of your van—you’re gonna get a ticket.”

I argue that the police are doing their jobs. They are stopping illegal commuter vans that are endangering their passengers and other drivers while harming public transportation and legal Taxi services.

I don't know. I've always been confused by open carry activists.

My team for the National Day of Civic Hacking worked on similar data. One of the things we came across was the lack of reliable schedules and a lack of info in Spanish which is the language of a large number of people who use this system.

One could argue the hipster-friendly beach buses that go from Brooklyn and LES to the Rockaways in summertime are yuppie shadow transit

There are also a large number of better sanctioned private bus lines that go from Port Authority to various points in a 100 mile radius. I take one to get to my parents in PA on a regular basis, where there is jack squat for public transit

NYC has been making great efforts to improve bus service. They are adding more buses to routes, but they also have a system where you purchase ticket receipts from machines off the busses and can enter through both front and back doors. If you're caught without a receipt, you get a substantial fine.

> "... a system where you purchase ticket receipts from machines off the busses and can enter through both front and back doors."

For anyone curious, the point is that this greatly reduces the time spent at each stop. On regular buses, passengers must enter through one door and, one by one, make their payment (with either a Metrocard or cash).

Bus passes? In most UK cities you can buy a photo-id pass for a week or a month and just get on. Most regular users have them.

It's funny, I somehow expected this would be about anything but dollar cabs - they're just a mundane part of life throughout the mid-Atlantic.

Where I grew up they were the cabs and delivery service since the 'legit' equivalents refused to come into the neighborhood.

Define "mid-Atlantic"? I could imagine that covering everywhere from Spain to Africa to the West Indies to the American South.

In the US it refers to a section of the East Coast [1].

1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Atlantic_states

Interesting, I've never heard of these operating in New Zealand or Australia. I've heard of people operating illegal taxis but they're very far and few. It could be a fair opportunity given the current state of public transport in Auckland, NZ.

It seems *similar unlicensed busses are gone now: http://www.fastcompany.com/1839333/business-lessons-chinatow...

Chinatown busses definitely aren't gone. There's a couple blocking the bike lane on my commute home every night.

The buses in your story are between different cities and are proper buses. The buses in the original story are within New York (and out to New Jersey), and are mainly vans. Different people and services.

I never understood how those unlicensed "Chinatown buses" managed to survive anyway. Their fares weren't any cheaper than their licensed (and FAR safer) brethren in Megabus.

The likes of Megabus and BoltBus didn't exist before the Chinatown busses became popular. They were all spun up by the big old-fashioned bus companies as competition after they realized there was a market there. BoltBus, for example, is run by Peter Pan and Greyhound.

between boston and nyc was generally more expensive unless you were booking far in advance, especially for a busy time. If I wanted to visit NYC for a weekend, megabus would require booking weeks in advance for a specific time in both directions. Chinatown buses, you got off work, show up at the bus terminal, wait half an hour and you're on a bus. Massive convenience factor. And they drop you off and pick you up in chinatown, which is much more convenient than the stops for megabus in NYC.

Megabus is cheap because of Chinatown buses. When the DOT moved in and shut down a whole slew of buses (for good reason, mind you), Megabus raised their rates dramatically.

There's a weird pricing symbiosis between the two sides.

These are vans operating in the city, not the buses of the fastcompany article.

This sounds very similar to what Chariot (https://chariotsf.com/) is trying to do in SF. Filling a gap between MUNI and taxi/uber/lyft?

It's fascinating that in 2014, transportation is still such a big hairy problem. Everything from local cycling routes to taxis to fights is complicated, big & hairy.

This is almost exactly how the "marshrutkas" (see Wikipedia entry) of the former Soviet bloc, which continue to operate in a most or all CIS countries, came to be.

Url changed from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/07/inter..., which points to this.

The tails on those "Q"s though......

font-family is "caslon". Looks great, going to have to use that.

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