Quite frankly, the University of Minnesota bus system is a mess. It may appear efficient because multiple buses are circulating, but it is apparent that it suffers from the same problems afflicting any system without prices: an inability to regulate quantity. As a result, buses remain nearly empty for periods during the day, yet become dangerously overcrowded during others. Indeed, this presents a real danger to students; just last week, several students were pushed to the ground in a stampede to get on a bus on West Bank.
Prices solve this problem by regulating the relationship between supply and demand. By raising the price to take the bus, fewer people wish to ride it, ending the spells of rider congestion and encouraging students to walk. By lowering the price, more students will want to ride and thereby tend to reduce the obviously wasteful miles traveled in an empty bus.
How could this be done? Something as simple as making students scan their U Card would be a start. Imposing a small cost on students will make walking slightly more attractive. Making seats more uncomfortable is another option. But that does not solve the glaring issue of overcrowding. What might solve it is increasing the price of riding the bus to each additional rider. Perhaps prices could be digitally posted outside the bus and students could pay with their U Cards. Alternatively, University buses could simply follow the Metro Transit model and fix different prices for different times of the day. None of these are optimal market solutions, but they are something.
However, it is not immediately clear what the solution to empty buses would be. After all, they are running empty at no cost. Consequently, it would be most efficient to run far fewer buses when the expected demand is low.
There is another way to approach this: putting skin in the environmental game. Look, most students profess to care about the environment and support political action to fight climate change. At the same time, students ride tremendously wasteful and destructive buses. Why not ask students to put words into action and stop riding? Why not eliminate busing for everything but intercampus rides and use the savings to pay students to walk as a reward for environmental stewardship?
There is no perfect way to do this. But anyone who rides the bus regularly knows that a disconnect clearly exists between the realities of the supply-and-demand relationship and what is promised to students. Creating a price system or imposing a cost may be a solution to these problems, and so does recognition of the environmental harm caused by buses. Let us leverage the bureaucratic apparatus for an end to this transportation headache.
Jackson Mejia is a junior at the University studying economics.
This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.