Colectivos Offer Free-Market Transit Alternative
by Alan Mole
Alan Mole is a retired aerospace engineer from Boulder. He gave a talk about "colectivos" at a September 30 forum hosted by the Independence Institute. His notes, published below with his permission, are based on his previous discussions with Boulder officials.
I would like to suggest that we can solve our traffic problems easily and cheaply through a simple change in our laws: we should permit colectivos to operate in Colorado.
Colectivos, as they are known in South America, or "jitneys" as they were called in the States, are simply private cars licensed to carry passengers at will for a set or negotiated fee.
I used colectivos in Peru when I was sixteen. They are easy and convenient and cheap. One goes to the corner and waits, typically just two minutes, and flags one down as it drives up. The driver has two or three passengers already, but there is room for one more without crowding. The charge is just a little more than for a bus. The colectivo runs a set route. It makes only a couple of stops and makes good time, more like a cab than a bus. It is often faster than your private car would be, because you don't have to find a space and park it. If a passenger is heavily burdened with groceries or old or weak, the driver will usually take a bit more money and deviate a couple of blocks to drop the passenger at his or her door.
Colectivos are naturally regulated as to numbers -- at rush hour, when many passengers want go to work, there are many drivers going to work to pick them up; other times demand drops and so does supply.
Colectivos are comfortable -- cars are smooth and quiet, while buses lurch along swinging their miserable straphangers like pendulums, spewing clouds of stinking diesel smoke.
The colectivo system is flexible -- maybe I'd love to car pool but can't because I work overtime too often. But I can catch a colectivo to go home at 4:00, 6:00, 6:30, or 9:00 p.m., with no problem. Plus, I can get out at the grocery store and pick up some things, ride another route and pick up cleaning, and take a third route home. The car pool will never let you do that, and if you have to wait 30 minutes for a bus at each stop you won't get home before midnight.
Colectivos are good transportation. Yet they put two, three, or four passengers in a car, instead of the 1.5 usual in private cars, and thus they can cut traffic in half and solve all our problems.
Why don't we have them?
A system like this develops naturally when many people buy cars. It was developing in America in the 1920s, and so successfully that it threatened to drive buses and trolleys out of business. So the bus companies bribed or bullied the legislatures into outlawing jitneys. Now the law no longer serves its corrupt purpose of enriching bus owners -- the people own the busses and subsidize them heavily to cut traffic. Yet 96% of us still drive cars, so traffic remains terrible. But we still retain this obsolete foolish law that stifles the natural answer to our traffic problem.
What would take to set up a colectivo system?
One would want to license cars -- perhaps requiring a safety check on old ones -- and drivers -- only those with good records need apply and questionable applicants (like people of 90) would need to pass a driving test. Dangerous felons like convicted rapists would be excluded.
Insurance would be required. This should simply be a rider on a private liability policy, costing under a hundred dollars a year. (More on this below.)
What are potential problems?
Safety Versus Discrimination
On hearing this idea a friend remarked that he no longer hitchhiked nor picked up hitchhikers. It had simply become too dangerous. For this reason people may be leery of colectivos at first, and only go with people they know and trust or those like little old ladies who clearly present no danger. As time passes people will become more relaxed. A rider will recognize a driver who always drives this route, a rider will introduce a young man who looks fierce but is really a mild mannered Ph.D. chemist who tells good jokes. A colectivo will come up with several middle-aged, respectable people in it, and a young woman who normally would worry about the large young male driver will get in, knowing she is as safe with such a crowd as she would be if he were driving a bus.
There will be aspects of discrimination here. If you pick up the elderly and not the young, that is ageism. If you pick up women but not men, that is sexism. If you pass up a young black male who is unusually dressed, because you fear he is a gang member, that may be ageism, sexism, racism, and classism. But we should recognize the personal and security aspects of this situation, just as we do in the selection of roommates or car-poolers, and exempt it from non-discrimination laws. We should instead trust our people to be fair.
Boulder is a good place, and Boulderites will soon sort it out. But we must allow them to. We must allow drivers to pass up riders they distrust, and riders to refuse to go with drivers they don't like. If we require every driver to pick up every rider, no one will dare to drive.
On the matter of discrimination, perhaps we should have a committee study the matter. Members should include those likely to suffer discrimination, e.g. young black males, and also those likely to be at risk, e.g. small weak females. They should discuss the issue and make recommendations.
And, by the way, there is one I would like to make: If you feel sorrow at the sight of a young black male waiting as cars pass him by, and you are driving a colectivo, you can stop for him and, when he asks the fare, say, "My friend, for you it's free. Hop in!" One act of friendliness and kindness makes up for a lot in this world.
Historically, unions of bus drivers have opposed colectivos for the same reason as bus company owners: they don't like the competition. However, at this moment we need more bus drivers than we can get, so bus drivers are unlikely to be laid off or experience any kind of disruption on account of this experiment. Thus this would be a good time to try the plan.
I have noted frankly the problems with colectivos, but their advantages far outweigh their few faults. They are the natural solution to traffic problems like Boulder's, they cost the city nothing, they clear the streets, and they make it a joy to get around without a car. The main requirement to have them is to remove the archaic law against them. Plus, we would need to do some research to develop a good licensing law.
Boulder has no law against colectivos; it's Colorado. The PUC must license all public carriers and taxi companies are able to veto all competition. However, there is an exemption for municipalities, so it may be possible to try an experiment.
Boulder could lead the country in this matter, performing a real service not only to ourselves but to the whole Republic. I have tried it and I can vouch for it. It is superb.