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Thinking jitneys, on the Miramar Heights bus

by Michael C Barnett
Most days during the week I go to the Freyberg pool in the late morning for a daily dose of physical exercise. Some days I swim, other days I go through a gym routine and every day I grab a coffee from Bernies. To get there and back I have taken to riding on the Miramar Heights bus, which picks me up and drops me off at the top of Awa Road, from where it is a short walk down the hill to my home in Karaka Bay.

The ride is comfortable, quick and scenic, particularly on the section of road through Maupuia, up to the prison atop Mt. Crawford and down along Nevay Road with panoramic views of the city, the harbour, Lyall Bay and the airport. Best of all the bus stops outside the Freyberg complex and I don’t have to lug my gym gear all over town.

The bus runs once every hour throughout the day and I travel off-peak to take advantage of my gold card freebee. I have noticed when travelling the Heights at this time of day that there are very few passengers – four or five by my count – and this has got me thinking. Is it economic for a large city bus spewing diesel fumes to be traversing this narrow and windy road? Might not the people of Maupuia and Seatoun Heights be better served by smaller vehicles providing a low cost taxi bus service to a nearby transport hub.

Such an idea is not new. They’ve been an alternative form of transport in major US cities for decades – Boston, New York and Newark to name a few. Called Dollar Vans or Jitneys, they are typically modified passenger vans, and often operate in urban neighborhoods that are under-served by public mass transit or taxis. Passengers board them at designated stops along their route or hail them as share taxis.

Jitney is an archaic term for an American nickel, the common fare for early jitneys. In the late 20th century, when a typical fare was one dollar, the corresponding name came into use. Travelers cite cost and greater frequency as factors in choosing jitneys over larger bus services.

I had my own experience of a similar service on a visit to Cusco in Peru in 2009. Here is an excerpt from a journal I kept at the time …

jitney

I have developed some admiration for the transport system in Cusco. The system revolves around its taxis and buses, which are incredibly cheap. 3 soles is the standard taxi fare to go anywhere within the city, although the cabbie may try to charge you more and it pays to establish the fare before you hop in the taxi. 60 centimos is the standard bus fare no matter the distance traveled. What I particularly like about the system is that one seldom has to wait more than a minute to catch a bus or a taxi, as they are passing all the time.

I am much more security conscious than when I first arrived in Cusco and I avoid the buses at peak times and when it is standing room only. However, I use them in the middle of the day or early evening. The buses do not indicate their destination, rather they operate under quaint names such as Cristo Blanco, Batman, Pachacuteq to name a few. Initially it took a bit to get to know which bus was going where. However, before long I had the system figured out.

A feature of the service is that one waves down the bus one wants to catch and they seem to stop almost anywhere. They operate with a driver and conductor. The latter is always touting for passengers and when the bus stops he hops out and jabbers a mouthful of Spanish and bundles me inside, while the driver just as quickly accelerates away. It helps to know where you want to alight and have your fare ready, for it is collected at the end of the trip, not when you climb aboard.

All this makes me wonder, is there something our transport planners could learn from all this local efficiency? I believe there is.

The Greens have announced a transport plan for Wellington that includes light rail from the rail station to the airport and Miramar, retention of the trolley buses and an all-electric supporting bus network. Exciting stuff if they get the chance to implement their policy. However, there is a missing link – the means of getting people to transport hubs from their homes on hillsides with narrow winding streets. Park and ride is the usual considered option, but such facilities are unproductive, expensive to build and people still need to use their car to get there.

A jitney service of the type described could be just the answer. More cars off the road, freeing up much needed road space for vehicle-dependent businesses and emergency vehicles. Such a service would contribute to meeting one of the prime objectives of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving campaign.

2 comments:

  1. Ross Clark, 1. September 2017, 19:46

    This is worth thinking through more, esp as Uber, for all its faults, has shown that innovation in the urban transport sector is still possible. I can recall the effect that Super Shuttle had when it arrived on the scene in 1990 or so. In this case they showed that there was room in the market for what was a ‘shared taxi’, to all intents and purposes.

     
  2. Ian Shearer, 5. September 2017, 8:57

    Well said Michael. I think you have identified the major public transport issue, for children, elderly and disabled. The “missing link – the means of getting people to transport hubs from their homes on hillsides with narrow winding streets.”

    While this problem affects many – the solution is probably not be the same for all places. That makes the development of universal solutions problematical. The solutions need to be innovative and flexible, but mainly LOCAL. This requires local communities to come together and work out what is best for their residents in their area. AND it needs local government public transport support mechanisms to be innovative and flexible. Unfortunately this does not fit well into the conventional “tender to run a service” ethos.

     

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