Selling every public asset isn’t a pretty prospect

Praying to the privatisation religion is a global trend, largely unquestioned and hopelessly mixed in result.

Here’s the latest debate in New York city:

In the face of drastic cuts in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bus service, the Bloomberg administration recently decided to allow private vans to carry passengers along several routes in Brooklyn and Queens where city buses once ran. One company began service earlier this month, and four more will be operating by October.

The vans, licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, are meant to be a quick solution to the service cuts caused by the transit authority’s $800 million budget gap. But relying on a private-sector solution to a public-sector shortfall will also incur significant social costs and possibly doom Mr. Bloomberg’s long-term vision for New York’s transportation system.

If you’ve ever spent time in a city in the developing world, chances are you’ve experienced a transit system that relies almost entirely on private commuter services. Thanks to low barriers to market entry — often anyone with a working van or bus can pick up passengers — the streets are clogged with a motley assortment of vans and buses, few of them in optimal working condition. The results are, not surprisingly, higher levels of pollution and more accidents and traffic fatalities than in cities with strictly regulated public services.

Mr. Bloomberg and the Taxi and Limousine Commission have offered assurances that better regulations will keep the city from becoming an American Calcutta or Rio de Janeiro. But that’s an easy promise to make, and probably an empty one: New York’s experiences with crane and building-code regulations demonstrates that enforcement usually costs more than policymakers are willing to spend, especially in lean fiscal times.

Indeed, even though the van companies are already operating on the former bus routes, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has not added enough personnel to cover its new regulatory responsibilities. (It’s worth asking why, if such funds were available, the city shouldn’t reinstate some of the bus routes instead).

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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