Public Cars -- An Essay about Using Private Cars to Run Public Transportation

Problems Running Public Transit

Every so often, my local bus company wails about its budget and wants to increase fares and cut service. This is tiresome and annoying.

What would we do if there were no bus company? Could we depend on volunteers to provide public transportation? So many things are run quite well by volunteers, for example theater and symphony ushers, helpers at major public events. Couldnt bus service be run by volunteers?

A bus costs a lot to run. Drivers need a salary, health benefits, and retirement.

Casual car-pooling has worked well for commuting. It provides plenty of public transportation, with regular pickup spots, if enough car drivers participate, at least during commute hours.

Empty Car Seats

I see my streets crowded with cars. Most of them are transporting only the driver. There are at least three empty seats available in over 75% of the cars. Is there any way to make use of this space without infringing on a car owners sovereignty? How about a system of incentives?

The big advantages of public transportation by bus are the schedule, the stops and the fixed route. All are known, predictable. And if the bus comes frequently enough, no schedule is necessary.

Riding public transportation is an acquired urban skill; people can get good at it. Expert bus riders know where all the stops are, where the routes go and about how often the buses come. They can easily switch from one bus to another until they get where they want to go.

Riding Public Cars

While waiting for my bus, dozing at my stop, I had a dream about visiting a city where, instead of riding buses, people use "Public Cars." People who drive alone offer the spare space in their car as public transportation.

In my dream, Sam, my host, showed me how to make use of Public Cars.

Sam and I went to a bus stop; the sign displayed routes #4 and #5. Sam told me, "Were taking a #4, which goes downtown." He reached up to the route sign on the pole and pulled out a brightly colored tab next to the #4. Two other riders were waiting with us at the stop; one of them had already pulled out the tab for route #5.

A car pulled into our stop; there was a small brightly colored sign in the upper center of the cars windshield, showing #5. The two riders got in. One sat in the right front seat; the other sat in the back. As they got into the car, each rider brushed a small plastic "rider card" past a tablet computer which was held in a bracket attached to the dashboard. The car drove off.

I looked at my rider card. It had a bar code on it for the tablet computer to read.

"Now Ill reset the flag," Sam said. He reached up to the sign and pushed the tab next to the #5 back into the sign. "See? The flag told the driver that people at this stop wanted the #5 route. Now they're gone."

"What happens if nobody resets the flag?" I asked.

Sam replied, "If route drivers don't see anyone at the stop, they will go past. If a car stops and there are people waiting, but nobody wants to ride his route, somebody will probably reset the flag right then."

Then a car arrived displaying our route, #4. Before boarding, Sam reset the flag for #4. Sam and I each swiped our rider card past the drivers tablet computer. Sam got into the front seat and told the driver: "Well get off at Elm & Everett." Farther along, the driver picked up another #4 rider, who joined me in the back seat. The new rider wanted off at Elm & Smith, beyond our stop. The driver masked his route sign, because his car was now full. The driver passed some other stops which showed the flag for #4, but did not stop.

Our driver pulled over at a convenient place near Elm & Everett and we got off. The driver unmasked his sign and continued on.

How to Pay the Drivers

While Sam and I walked to our downtown destination, I asked him, "How does the driver get paid for giving us a ride?"

"He doesnt get any actual cash," said Sam. "The App on his tablet computer logs every rider card swipe and this information eventually gets transmitted to a central site. If the driver gives enough rides within a calendar month, he is entitled to some benefits, such as free parking and discounts on gas, repairs and insurance. There are some tax reductions too.

"Each driver has his own driver ID card, with a bar code, which he swipes on his tablet computer to identify himself to the App, so he gets credit for riders. His driver card can be used to pay for parking, gas and so on. Theres a lot of incentive to give plenty of rides."

I asked, "Where does the money for these benefits come from?"

Sam replied, "You paid for your card, and you have a rider account. You put enough cash value in your rider account to cover a fixed fare for each ride. Or you buy a monthly pass which entitles you to an unlimited number of rides during that calendar month. If your pass expires, you better have some cash value left in your account."

Sam added, "Some people, who use transit only rarely, just pay this fixed fare. Your rider card is rejected by the tablet computer App if you don't have a pass or a sufficient balance."

I asked, "What if a rider with an expired pass and a zero balance talks the driver into letting him ride anyway?"

Sam shrugged. "He might do that, but Public Car drivers don't like being deprived of their rider credits."

I thought of another issue. "What if the driver asks for some cash or wants a tip for something like departing from the route?"

"That's illegal," Sam responded. "Riders are instructed to not only decline such demands, but ask to be let out immediately. The rider should then note the car's license number and report the driver." Sam grinned. "I suppose a rider would not report a driver who gave him a free ride; no way to control that."

I had another question: "Will the driver let you off where there's no stop?" Sam replied, "The driver will let you off anywhere thats safe, but will pick people up only at the marked stops. The driver follows the route, or at least goes by all the stops on the route. At the last stop on the route, all riders should get off."

Laying Out Routes for Public Cars

"How are the routes defined?" I asked.

"The City does it," Sam told me. "The drivers apply for the available routes, and indicate the time of day when they'll drive the route. If a driver is accepted, he gets one of those colored window signs with the route number on it.

If a person plans to drive to work, using the same route every day, he might apply to the City to get that route defined and assigned to him. Somebody at the City has the job of defining routes where they are needed, and assigning enough drivers to cover the rider traffic."

I objected. "I dont see what maintains the level of service. Suppose I want to go downtown during the day, outside of the commute hours. Will any of the routes be active?"

Sam explained. "Some drivers agree to drive a route only on demand. They are called out as needed, and get so many guaranteed rider credits for each hour they are available. Most of these demand-drivers" are retired people with no day job. A dispatcher keeps track of calls for transit service on a route. The calls come in either by phone or through a website. A demand-driver gets a phone call from a dispatcher and goes out to make at least one trip around the route. Drivers can make as many trips as they like, but the rule of thumb for demand-driving is to stop service after two successive trips with no riders."

"Keep in mind," Sam added, "these are not buses; they dont have the passenger capacity. On some routes, theres never a need to call out a demand-driver, because enough Public Cars service the route. On others, demand is so thin that the dispatcher has to put out calls several times a day. In some of these low-demand cases, its probably easier for a rider to just call a cab."

"What if no demand-drivers are available?" I asked. Sam promptly replied: "Then its like when a bus breaks down or the driver doesnt show up for work. If there are no cars and drivers in reserve, there simply is no service. Too bad."

"Some people regularly drive a route for a while each day, to collect benefits. Some neighborhoods agree to subsidize a designated demand-driver. Somebody with a big van or SUV can pick up plenty of rider credits by only working an hour or so."

Making Connections

"OK," I said, "what if I need to use more than one route to get where I'm going?"

"You make connections," Sam replied. "Ride one route to where it connects with another. After a while, riders get familiar with the routes and where they connect."

"Can I get a transfer?" I asked hopefully.

"No, you pay a fare again for each ride. Actually, there's no need for transfers in this scheme, if your card has a multi-ride pass. You just swipe your card every time you enter a car. You don't get charged anything beyond what you paid for your pass, but the driver of the second car does get a rider credit."

"I don't see how you can be sure that revenue is going to cover the costs of driver benefits."

"There's an on-going audit of the scheme," Sam assured me. "The price of the rider card and the monthly pass get adjusted. So does the fixed fare. And some of this service is subsidized from the general sales tax and a tax on parking lots."

Insurance Coverage and Dealing with Fraud

We talked about some other details of running the Public Car system. A driver has limited liability for injuries and other damages. There is a blanket insurance policy covering all drivers; it's part of the driver benefits. The premiums come out of the rider charges.

Of course it is necessary to watch out for fraud. A group of a driver's friends could simulate riding by just swiping their cards. So there's a limit on the number of rides which may be given to one rider per day and to the total number of rides given to anyone per hour, depending on the capacity of the car. These checks are performed when a driver's riders for a month are tabulated.

Return Trip

"Time to go back," Sam announced. "It's now rush hour, so we might have some trouble getting a ride."

Indeed we did have a little trouble. We waited at a bus stop, pulled out the flag for #4, our return route, but no cars stopped. The ones displaying #4 were all full. I saw one #5 car with only one passenger, pass our stop, which had the #5 flag was pulled. I pointed this out to Sam.

"That's OK, sort of. That driver just didn't want to pick up anyone else; maybe he's in a hurry. He actually should mask his route sign if he's going to do that. You know, some drivers won't pick you up if they don't like your looks, or think you're a street person who has given trouble."

He explained further. "Legally, a Public Car driver is not obligated to pick you up, but if a driver accumulates too many rider complaints, he could lose his route assignment and driver card. The benefits for giving Public Car rides are very attractive. There are some very desirable parking areas which are open only to someone with a driver card. Public Car drivers are eager to please."

A car displaying route #4 stopped, but he only had room for one. Sam waved him off.

Eventually, we got a ride home for both of us.

Dealing with Violence

I had a few more questions.

"Is there any problem with violence assault, robbery, rape, carjacking?"

"Drivers can buy an alarm gadget. When the driver pushes a button on it, the gadget transmits the car's ID and GPS location to a police dispatcher. The car's location can be tracked in real-time after sending out such an alarm. The police will deal with the problem. A carjacker will soon be stopped; the alarm transmitter is installed so it is not easy to find and disable. This alarm gadget is widely advertised; all the bad guys have heard about it."

How Do Buses Fit In?

"One more thing: Is all public transit here covered by Public Cars? What about those big buses I saw?"

"Most of those buses are run on demand. A big bus is used when there is a big group to transport. Those buses are used by large employers, or to deal with crowds attending and leaving big events."

"Who pays for those rides? Does the driver collect a fare?"

"No, the company or the event operator pays for the bus as an expense of doing business."

Sam added, "Actually, some of those big buses do sometimes operate as Public Cars, covering a high-demand route. You swipe your card when you board. We call them jitneys. In most cases, a jitney is subsidized by somebody."

What about Taxi Drivers?

I thought of another possible problem. "Do taxi operators object to Public Cars?"

"They did when the Public Car system was first started here. A compromise was reached which limits the number of Public Cars serving certain areas. But practically, people in a hurry, or who have a specific destination not served by a route, will not want to wait for multiple Public Cars; they will find it more convenient to take a cab."

Back to Reality

I awoke from the dream to find my bus bearing down on me. I boarded and paid my fare.

The bus was full and I had to stand. I hung on. Out in the street, I could see the heavy traffic flow. Most of the cars carried only the driver.

Sam's Public Cars were still off in dreamland.

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