Hardy to Zone 6

Whither the Jitney

As we head toward a future of limited public funding, it makes sense to get creative in looking for ways to meet our city's transit needs.

By Jason Allen
Published January 14, 2011

There has been a bit of discussion recently about the potential $130 million cost to Hamilton of a new LRT line, with several city councillors and armchair urban planners seeming to dismiss the idea entirely out of hand.

While the need for LRT goes far beyond just the need for more frequent, accessible, desirable transit along the Main-King corridor, it does address one fairly important fact about public transit in Hamilton - namely that the 30-60 minute headways on some routes are nothing short of an active discouragement to use the system to go about your daily life.

While the frequency of buses on King street is much greater than that, in theory the LRT would free up drivers and vehicles to better serve other routes, thus triggering a joyful cascade of peace, understanding, and more reliable service.

Instead, we are left with a system that serves some riders' needs fairly well during rush hour, but for most of the rest of the day, leaves most of the city high and dry.

The obvious solution is more public money, but I think Australia, Nova Scotia and New York City this winter are all great examples of how, as climate change continues to wreak havoc on local weather systems, there's going to be less and less money to go around.

That is to say nothing of what would happen to public levels of investment should Spain, the U.K. or (God help us) the U.S. suddenly default on a bond payment.

So even if it's not the obvious solution, the practical solution may just be private transit.


Now, before you dismiss the idea out of hand, consider the humble Guagua, or Dollar Van. A major source of transportation in New York and New Jersey for neighborhoods that are grossly underserved by public transit, these are state regulated, but privately run.

Running simple 15 or 29 passenger Ford Econoline Vans, they ply routes up and down the boroughs of New York, looking for people trying to get from point A to point B quickly.

They haven't replaced the municipal buses, but in local areas they are the de facto transit system, and are famous for being more frequent, more convenient, and less expensive than city-run vehicles.

The buses are also famous for loud music, erratic drivers, and the occasional fight between drivers looking for fares.

Still, the model deserves some investigation. Not by the HSR, but by any enterprising businessperson who owns either an old Econoline van or small school bus, and would like to make a tidy little business for themselves.


That would never fly in Hamilton, I hear you say. It wouldn't be allowed. Why not? It would require only an application to the Taxi Commission to get the license.

According to my reading, however, after the initial license was acquired, none of the other taxi regulations would apply, because of the way the by-law is worded.

Now clearly you're going to want a city staffer who is intimately familiar with the by-law to walk you through it, but it appears at first blush that Dollar Vans would fall most of the way through a loophole.

Such a route could indeed be profitable, either following the 1 King or B-Line around and scooping up whoever was left waiting once the bus was full, or plying a mountain route on the opposite half hour from when an HSR bus ran.

Damage HSR?

The only other question would be: How much damage would an effective, frequent, convenient Dollar Van service do to the HSR?

That's a question that will certainly be the subject of some public debate, should a Dollar Van ever appear plying the streets of Hamilton looking for fares.

By that point, though, it will be mostly too late. The genie will be out of the bottle, and the city will be fighting a rearguard action against the spread of people-centric, privately-run public transportation.

Perhaps it's time to have an open, creative discussion on how we provide and fund public transit in Hamilton, before some quick-thinking entrepreneur makes the decision for us.

This article was first published on Jason's website

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.


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By Tnt (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 08:17:48

These vans would be run out of business by the black police car and the overzealous MTO.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 08:22:26

Using Ryan's fancy new comment URLs, rather than c&p a comment I wrote last night on the recent LRT blog entry:


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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 14, 2011 at 08:48:06

The undergrads and high school students in our home have been left at the bus stop many, many times, by bus drivers who drove right past them in buses that were not full, even though they were at the bus stop in plenty of time to catch the bus. So we end up driving them to school (if it works out that we can, often it doesn't and they miss class). And for the high school students, their father and I are out of pocket to the tune of 213 dollars (that's 3 x 71) for the passes (the undergrads pay for passes as part of student fees) every month.

A few Econoline vans driving up and down King and Main might be a more cost-effective option for many families.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2011-01-14 08:48:40

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 14, 2011 at 09:30:27

There was a brilliant part of the Spirit of Red Hill lecture a year or so ago about a "smart jitney" service - think about a hitchhiking/carpooling app for iPhones which looks for routes in real time.


In one form or another, these types of things already exist - online ride-shares and unofficial "gypsy cab" services abound. All great examples of alternative ways to use cars and vans to cut traffic and emissions.

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By Simon B (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 09:42:43

With all due respect, rather than citing the dollar vans system, what about other private or private/public systems that are a little more established.

such as Stockholm:

As a city we need to think bigger than dollar vans.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 10:10:02

I guess the first question I have is who wants to buy an Econoline van with me?

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By synxer (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:00:13

Hamilton's own "Cafe Ooh La La Internet Cafe" franchise had the best van-based transit, and don't you forget it.

Comment edited by synxer on 2011-01-14 11:02:59

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:53:21


I only remember the co-owners of Ohh La La (Gary and Wanda) running that van due to the transit strike at the time. They were losing customers as most of the internet cafe folks got there by bus. It never ran again and even then it ran only for at most 1-2 weeks. Gary had some talks with the city and the union and blamed them for shutting it down, however the real reason it stopped was that Gary got the publicity he wanted (lots of Spec coverage) and it didn't even come close to paying for itself, it was losing lots of money.

Let's keep things accurate.

Slam me if you want but my wife worked there from the beginning and we've been friends with Wanda for 15 years now, even with her move to Newfoundland a few years ago.

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By Sky (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 12:27:48

Great article Jason!

Yes the latest news is disturbing on the amount of dollars that will be required to have LRT!

This discussion was briefly chatted about at a recent Flamborough Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Us ~ out in the rural area~ do not have the same public transit as the 'core' and for good reason! It makes no environmental/economical sense...

What Mayor Bob mentioned, was a possible taxi service partially funded through the City.

I don't understand why we do not have min-bus/vans used in areas where there is low ridership.

Even somehow integrating DARTS with local residents... thought~ a "waiting list" of local residents who wish to be phoned if DARTS is picking up in their area? Average Joe gets an automated phone call stating that DARTS "is picking up client Jane at apartment A and going to a doctors appointment on King Street East...if Joe wishes to get on that route, meet at apartment A 15 minutes prior to pick up". A nominal fee would be charged for this service and for each ride. We need DARTS for the disabled, but I really cringe when I see two people on a run...

LRT is an awesome long term goal, yet we need solutions to the problems at hand, fix what is broken and hopefully that will increase the amount of citizens utilizing public transit...ensuring that the money spent on this huge project is returned...


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By Tnt (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 14:12:51

The insurance and license you need for these things are prohibitive. Dominion Auto gave quote for me (20 year driver) with five star rating a quote of 670 per month to run something like this. I was looking at using it as a shuttle service from HI. Well that went out the window.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 14, 2011 at 14:32:26

Tnt - why do you think such things are run under the radar? You could buy a used van for that in many places. Or monthly, you could afford a very nice new one.

There are other scheduling options, as Danya mentions, which could do a lot. As someone who works in transport, knowing where you're going even an hour ahead of time changes all of the economics - you can plan your route, overlap pick-ups and drop-offs, and share workloads far more effectively. If you were sending a package accross town, you'd have a host of options in which the price dropped as the urgency did. If you're sending yourself - you have only cabs or busses, and that's a pretty big range in terms of price/urgency.

Running a full-sized bus empty around some outlying areas makes no financial or ecological sense. Many transit services (such as Hamilton and Burlington) already meet outlying needs at off-hours with "van-cab" type services because given the demand, it makes as much sense to offer cheap cab service as to run a bus line. Clearly, there is a need for a more varied range of transit services.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 15:03:13

Jason Allen >> The obvious solution is more public money

And if you're completely ignorant of how the economy works, I can see why you might think that way. In 2000, government spending in Ontario was $82.3B, while the private sector created goods and services worth $358.8B. In 2009, government spending was up to $146.4B, while the private sector created goods and services worth $431.8B.

From 2000-09, government spending in Ontario is up 77.9%, while private sector output is up only 20.3%. For the past decade, government spending outpaced private production of goods and services by 284%.


That's the rate at which government spending in Ontario has outpaced production by the private sector over the last decade.

Let's return to your quote..."The obvious solution is more public money"

From the first quarter of 1995 to the last of 2000, government spending by the province increased by only 8.2%, or 1.67% per year. In that same period of time, GDP increased by 5.1%, Even more impressive, private sector output went from $362B to $459.6B, or 6.1% a year.

In contrast, since the end of the third quarter of 2003, when Dalton McGuinty took over, public spending has increased by 3.63% a year, 117% more per year than the late nineties. How has this more than doubling of public spending on freebies affected our ability to be productive? Well, in since the Liberals have been in power, private sector GDP has increased from $383.3B to $398.7B, or about 0.56% a year. Overall GDP under McGuinty has increased only 1.23% a year.

Looking at the numbers, it's only logical to assume that a slow rate of spending by government (on freebies) is better for economic growth. This is because when government spends our money, because it has the power of taxation, there is less fear in wasting money. In other words, too much public spending greatly increases the odds that capital will be wasted. Not good if you want to fight poverty.

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By Robbie K (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 15:55:18

Not that they are model of excellence, but google Philippines Jeepney when you have a few minutes. They are ultra cheap (about 15 cents to ride) and they have a fixed route, normally about 5 blocks at a time. You hop off one, hop on the next for longer distances. Some of the airbrushing on them is very impressive. They are everywhere there.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 17:14:18


Oh I follow the idea of it and I'm all for avoiding narrow minded laws and bylaws. However, the gas cost is quite prohibitive. Also getting busted doing this is a severe fine.

100% on the HSR waste running useless routes. I just don't know if this is the answer for King and Main St. If we really want to move away from the internal combustion engine.

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By Elle Arty (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 17:43:34

Why is it such a problem to spend $130 million on an LRT line which will greatly benefit the entire city, but we jump at the opportunity of spending $115 million (Okay, only $45 mil from Hamilton itself... supposedly) for renovating IWS to have 25000 seats which will probably not ever be completely filled? I personally think LRT is a fantastic investment of this money for Hamilton even though I'll almost surely be gone from this city by the time it is completed and sadly won't get to enjoy it.

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By Elle Arty (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2011 at 17:44:43

Also, sorry for dragging the stadium into this thread too.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted January 14, 2011 at 20:08:15

@RobbieK - thanks for that, the Jeepneys look fascinating. I had the privilege of going to Nicaragua on two occasions, and saw the amazingly pragmatic transit system they have there - all privately run. Operators purchase old, past their prime yellow school buses (yes, the ones you remember from high school back in the day) and establish a route. Then they start driving up and down the main drags in Managua with signs indicating the route they're going to follow. Hop on for a Cordoba (about $.25) and give a shout when you want the next stop. There are hundreds of them plying the streets of Managua, and they are always full. The adventurous ones even go inter-city. A wonderfully practical solution from a country of people who are used to just doing what it takes to get the job done, and not being all that concerned about what the rules are.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2011 at 00:48:39

@TnT - pretty much agreed about the engines. Still not nearly as cool as bike-rickshaws, simply a short-term stop-gap.

@ A Smith - the problem with your numbers is that they only correlate very broad measures. The GDP is only a measure of general spending, not public or economic good, for reasons which are articulated often enough. The public/private dichotomy, too, is troubling. How does one measure "partnerships" such as the stadium which amount to publicaly financed private developments? How does that kind of performance relate to that of something like a hospital or school?

I'll agree in full that there's a crisis of bureaucratic and administrative overhead at work here, but it certainly isn't limited to the public sector.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2011 at 01:28:20

Undustrial >> The GDP is only a measure of general spending, not public or economic good

Tell that to people who lose their jobs when the economy shrinks. I agree there is more to life than money, I get it. But allowing government to take over large areas of the economy in the name of public good is idiocy.

Public good can't be measured and thus is far less reliable a metric than unemployment, wage level, or disposable income. In other words, when things we CAN measure are high, people can afford to pay more in taxes to build the things we talk describe as public goods. Without strong GDP growth, tax revenue slows and less public goods can be purchased.

>> How does one measure "partnerships" such as the stadium which amount to publicly financed private developments?

This is government distorting the marketplace. By taking money from taxpayers and building a stadium for Bob Young, it lowers the resources available to real businesses that compete for consumer dollars. The net effect is to limit the growth of innovative, profitable businesses, while rewarding ones that would otherwise go bankrupt, or have to move to a different location.

>> I'll agree in full that there's a crisis of bureaucratic and administrative overhead at work here, but it certainly isn't limited to the public sector.

The difference is that wasteful private companies don't waste tax dollars and eventually are limited in their access to capital. Not so with City Hall, they can keep spending and wasting money no matter who gets in power. Since society only has so much resources to re-invest in new ideas, does it really make sense to waste any money?

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By b smith (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2011 at 06:34:36

@ a smith

but what you fail to consider is that the gdp is actually underrepresented in a tax base where structures designed to align interests into a rating system actually encourage lower taxes to eliminate a substantial amount of free enterprise in an effort to stimulate a blah blah blah. the true effect of public subsidy blah is to blah blah and mirror the blah. if blah blah blah is taken into account blah will be lower and blah blah will of course be higher! this is just common sense!

i know what you are thinking; that blah is not only a function of gdp tax rate lower government blah blah but also blah private blah and blah. while this is true in part it doesn't account for blah when blah is blah blah blah. does it?

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By tnt (registered) | Posted January 15, 2011 at 09:05:30

@ Undustrial

I do fear that people might attempt to run "gypsy" versions of these things and get in a lot of trouble. The math seems troubling to me as well with the cost of fuel to profit margin. It strikes me that with the amount of gas tax that is charged it could go for major transit funding.

An even better idea might me to move things closer together and decrease the need for travelling hundreds of kilometers unneccesarily.

That may be very wishful thinking on my part.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 15, 2011 at 13:22:43

b smith, awesome rebuttal. Your insight into how the economy works is truly staggering. With people like yourself residing in this once great city, it boggles the mind why companies aren't clamouring to set up shop in our downtown? People like yourself are so full of S.H.I.T (Socialist Hamiltonian's In Training), the smell must intimidate business leaders around the world. What do you think, is that why our economy is doing so well? I await your insightful comments.

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2011 at 20:13:33

@TNT and @Undustrial - the fines(from the Taxi By-Law) if I read it correctly, run into the 10's of thousands of $s. Not pretty. I would hate to see someone do it gypsy and get caught. That having been said, if a city's resources were to become very thinly stretched due to increasing extreme weather events, a sudden spike in the price of oil, or a major economic hiccup due to sovereign debt (what I call the 'trifecta'), it would probably allow quite a few business enterprises to fly a little more under the radar. Google Dmitry Orlov for some insight on how people tend to ignore the rules that don't benefit them on the far side of the industrial growth curve. His description of Russians' approaches to regulations after the collapse of their economy is at once harrowing and hilarious.

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By b smith (anonymous) | Posted January 16, 2011 at 20:06:35

hey thanks a smith, i was worried you wouldn't understand my point. i'm glad we agree on so much. i think you might be my new best friend.

luv ya!

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 17, 2011 at 01:22:22

First off, I should qualify that I don't think running an illegal cab is a good idea. Just that it's pretty common. If that's true, it suggests that however awful the fines are, it's still easier than doing things "by the book" for many. It's also very worth noting that there are some safety issues here (sleep?) - I know enough people who ride in these things to avoid them myself. I'll take my chances hitchhiking long before that. But that's another underground mass-transit system altogether:)

As for public vs. private - it's still not that simple. There's a big difference between a pork-barrel project like a stadium (which I fully agree, distorts the economy) and something like a hospital which provides essential services. And there's also a large difference between the 'idyllic' small-to-medium capitalist business and the kind de-facto branches of government many banks, retail giants or development firms have become.

I'm all for free markets. But I just don't see how letting a small fraction of people control vast sectors of the economy achieves that.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:54:58


Good about the not encouraging illegal taxis. I was getting very worried about people getting into this. I suppose this is why driving is a privilege not a right. Still I think for a rural setting this could really fly. Kind of a glorified carpooling.

The question you bring foreward is a good one that a small portion of people should be allowed to control all the money and decisions. This is a tough call when it is a state run control board. It is worse when corporate interests control public money

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 19:41:04

Wonderful to be reminded of how practical jitneys are, which I first discovered on a trip to the Philippines. The benefits were immediately obvious and I pounded the table about that and a few other good ideas for awhile. Alas, I feel that Canadians only care about corporate ideas that cost a bundle and involve brainwashing by the media. Our hubris (and gullibility) knows no bounds, we look down at other people over some very long noses.

If someone can crack the legal nut, I'll be a delighted customer but otherwise, we'll just have to wait till the coming crash strains the system to the breaking point. Maybe then, the people will throw off their chains and just do it. I'll be cheering from the bloglines!

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 22:31:22

Alas, I feel that Canadians only care about corporate ideas that cost a bundle and involve brainwashing by the media.

So sad. So true. Far too many brilliant projects are scuttled because they don't fit our ideas of what a "successful" project should look like, and far too many mind-blowingly stupid ideas are embraced because they do. Corporate capitalist ideals like investment potential, slick branding campaigns and overstuffed bureaucracies do not equate to real success with real-world goals.

Whatever system we adopt will require serious safety precautions. However, it's entirely possible that a more decentralized system (a cheap "licence" anyone can apply for) would spread far faster than anything the best managers - public or private - could accomplish. Even in an area serviced by transit - if it encourages more people to leave their cars at home (or at the dealership), then I'm interested. Maybe some people in Burlington want a ride to the GO Station in a van lined with studded leather that blasts heavy metal music. Others clearly would rather have classical music and stops at Starbucks. This kind of organized regular cab service (more like Darts than HSR or cabs) would reach people that regular transit ever could, and it wouldn't require years of planning and expensive studies to try something creative with routing.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted January 21, 2011 at 13:33:44

Is the idea for a public oversight minibus that charges half the price of HSR?

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2011 at 10:22:47

Downtown BIA Update:

The Downtown BIA member open house originally planned for Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 has been rescheduled for Thursday, March 3rd in The Right House Building, 35 King Street East in the former Pepperjack Café location from 4-6pm.

Come see where the route is proposed between Wellington and Queen. See the suggested locations for station stops along the route, lane restrictions, parking and loading issues to be addressed with your needs in mind, left turn restrictions and their impacts on your business, possible conversion of some streets to two way and much more.

To add your voice or for more information, contact 905-546-2424 x2553 or e-mail rapidtransit@hamilton.ca

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