Are Buses for Bozos?

A bustling border metropolis with a tawdry reputation, Tijuana is home to countless thousands of immigrants from all over Latin America, much like Greater Miami. Also like Miami it sprawls for miles and miles, unregulated development having created a nearly incomprehensible maze of neighborhoods and minicities within the city. Perhaps wisely, the local government long ago realized it didn't have the resources to provide adequate transportation services to a population that is now estimated at two million.

Instead private bus companies arranged with the government to compete for routes. While this is not the place and I am not the person qualified to explain the nature of those arrangements, I can say the results have been impressive.

Some years ago I spent more than a week exploring Tijuana's bus system, riding for hours each day, all around the city center, up and down the river valley, throughout the surrounding hills. It was fascinating to behold a seemingly chaotic system that in fact was well organized and somehow managed to accommodate all, regardless of where they lived. No one, it seemed, had to walk more than a couple of blocks to the nearest bus route, even in the most remote outskirts.

If you're on the bus, it probably means you're poor and powerless
Steve Satterwhite
If you're on the bus, it probably means you're poor and powerless

As in many Latin cities, the buses in Tijuana reflected the pride and personalities of their operators, who lavishly decorated them, greeted passengers personally, picked them up or dropped them off wherever they wanted along the route, and happily made change for the fare (at that time a modest 15 cents). In short it was a system that worked. Many tens of thousands of people were able to get to their destinations each day, and they did so in an efficient manner unmatched by a Miami-Dade government with a million times more resources than Tijuana.

Of course, it's unlikely the Tijuana model could be replicated here, but that's not the point. The point is that Tijuana's ordinary citizens, poor though they may be, were provided with an effective if labyrinthine mass-transit operation. They responded by embracing it and making it financially viable.

Imagine for a moment what type of ground-transportation system we might have in Miami if the people who relied on it over the past twenty years or so consisted mostly of prosperous, politically influential, white-collar executives from Deering Estates, Pinecrest, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, and Aventura.

By now we'd have a vast fleet of well-appointed, electric-powered minivans quietly cruising suburban streets to pick up passengers at their driveways and whisk them to one of the county's many hundreds of spacious, clean, climate-controlled transfer stations.

There luxury coaches would pull up every ten minutes. Smoke-belching, ear-rupturing diesel monsters having been abandoned a generation ago, these sleek machines would run on a combination of electricity and environmentally friendly fuels. Passengers would slip comfortably into first-class airline seats complete with satellite television and Internet access, while a gracious cabin crew provided refreshment service.

Upon their arrival at Dadeland or downtown or Doral, passengers would disembark into gleaming modern terminals where they would have the option of walking to work or hopping aboard a constantly flowing river of electric jitneys that would make office stops on demand.

The system would operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and offer late-night call-for-service options in outlying areas. Maintenance crews would keep terminals and vehicles spotless while an army of security guards would be deployed around the clock at every single transfer station.

Major thoroughfares would have been converted to restricted coachways as private autos were relegated to side streets. The expressways -- I-95, Palmetto, Dolphin, Shula, and Gratigny -- would include 24-hour HOV lanes for the exclusive use of express coaches. Tens of thousands of family gas-guzzlers would have been replaced by electric runabouts for local errands. And Miami would be the envy of the world.

Last month's crushing defeat of the penny tax carried with it a hopeful message: Most people agree that traffic congestion is horrendous and something must be done to fix it. Because public transportation undoubtedly will play some role in solving the problem, local officials would do well to consider the value of dramatically improving the system we already have. If they could do that, and do it convincingly, they just might gain some of the public trust that will be needed to do much more.

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