Private Buses: The Once (and Future?) Transit Option
Imagine you thought that there was a lot of demand for express bus service between two or three locations in Saint Louis or Kansas City, locations that were not currently well connected by transit. You think you could make good money charging people a shuttle service between these locations. But would the government allow you to run such a business?
If you are in Kansas City, probably not. According to the city’s for-hire vehicle code, jitneys (fixed-route buses not otherwise regulated by the government) are illegal. City ordinances do not describe a method for getting the government to approve a private bus route.
In Saint Louis, the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission’s (MTC) For-Hire Vehicle Code expressly allows for private shuttles, which can travel from one fixed point to another (although likely not more complex routes). Unfortunately, the regulatory hurdles toward getting a commercial service shuttle are formidable. It requires applying for certificate of need and necessity (which the MTC can refuse to grant at will), along with a plethora of other regulatory requirements. Getting permits to operate just one shuttle will cost you more than $3,000.
These regulatory roadblocks, along with competition from the heavily subsidized bus services (subsidies pay for more than 80 percent of costs in Saint Louis and Kansas City), likely have much to do with the absence of private bus routes in Missouri’s cities. But it was not always this way. In the early 20th century, jitneys took most American cities, including Kansas City and Saint Louis, by storm. They were faster, cheaper, and more flexible than incumbent streetcar competition. Hostility from streetcar owners and the nascent taxi industry pushed most cities to make jitneys illegal; but in Saint Louis they morphed into “Service Cars,” which served parts of North Saint Louis until the 1960s. At that time, Bi-State (Metro) moved to buy out the existing competition that was “skimming the cream” off its customer base.
Today, transit in Missouri’s cities is the exclusive domain of public monopolies, with limited competition from heavily regulated taxi markets. The resulting waste, inefficiency, and poor service are the predictable result. However, there is opportunity for improvement. In the United States, and especially internationally, private bus routes still exist. Reducing government control to only essential transit services, and allowing the private sector to provide the rest, could create space for competition and innovation in the transit market. Of course, a necessary first step toward that opportunity is to actually make private bus routes a legal possibility; that’s a change Kansas City and Saint Louis can and should make right away.