San Francisco transit aims to snuff out private rival

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On a typical work day in San Francisco, at least 27 private employers are picking up workers in shuttle buses — complete with cushioned seats and WiFi — at more than 200 stops across the city. The transit option is a booming private enterprise that reduces traffic congestion and air pollution.

Some in the city want to snuff it out, San Francisco-style, with government regulations and fees.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos wants to eliminate the cushy private shuttles and charge employers to use the Municipal Transit Agency’s spartan buses, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

“Their rapid growth makes it clear that we need sensible city policy to prevent this from growing into an unregulated Wild West era of shuttles competing with Muni for curb space,” said Mr. Avalos.

In other words, the private sector is too successful. It made the fatal mistake of outshining the master. In this case, the master is city government; and, in San Francisco, that is one powerful master indeed.

Mr. Avalos, as ignorant of basic economic principles as he may seem, does understand one thing: Consumers like choices. To keep the private shuttles from stealing public transit’s customers, take them out. Eliminate competition and win — the Tonya Harding way.

City officials have offered plenty of excuses for why the private shuttle system needs more rules. But they all fall flat.

For example, shuttles sometimes pick up passengers at Muni stops, which is against the law. Some politicians want people to believe that this happens all the time, and that it creates chaos on the streets.

“They are great for a lot of different reasons, but they are also jamming up traffic, idling in front of people’s homes,” Supervisor Mark Farrell told the Examiner.

But private shuttles already consult with Muni to avoid overlap, Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman Paul Rose told the San Francisco Chronicle. And that system seems to work just fine.

In fact, Muni’s own study reported overlap as rare – occurring just once every three hours. Since shuttles stop for only a minute or so to pick up passengers, they hardly create traffic problems. Rather, the shuttles actually keep traffic flowing.

More than 80 percent of commuters surveyed by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority said that, without the shuttles, they would have to drive to work or move out of the city.

A city government should not encourage residents to flee. And San Francisco should do all it can to keep additional cars off the road. The TomTom North American Congestion Index ranked San Francisco the sixth worst city on the continent for traffic congestion in 2012.

Another excuse that makes no sense: Mr. Avalos complained that housing costs have risen around popular shuttle stops. Um, yeah. When the value of something increases, the price increases — as it should. That’s not a problem, it’s how the free market works.

The city should learn from past bouts with price-fixing. In January, San Francisco raised its minimum wage to $10.24 per hour. In March, Subway restaurants   stopped selling $5 footlong subs there because of it.

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