Spotlight: Transit Renegade


Private transit service is something of an art form in the Philippines. After World War II, Filipinos salvaged, lengthened, and decorated jeeps that were left by the US military, and the gawdy "jeepnies" have become a tourist attraction in themselves.

Jess Losa comes from Luzon, south of Manila, and brought the tradition of aggressive, unsubsidized competition in transit services to the United States when he immigrated in 1969. With a degree in radio electronics and $300, 19-year-old Jess Losa moved to San Francisco.

"I knew that I wanted to be financially independent, to work for myself," Losa says, "so I started looking for a way." He got a job as a dishwasher at a San Francisco hotel, was promoted to cook, and eventually became a bartender there.

During that period, Losa learned that jitneys—small passenger buses that run regular routes, but often without a set schedule—were legal, with permits, in certain areas. In 1972, he bought a van and a $2,000 permit to operate a jitney between downtown San Francisco and Daly City, south of San Francisco. He charged the same price as the government buses, and his business was good enough to encourage him to expand. He decided to build up a whole fleet of eventually 20 jitneys.

In 1973 Losa bought his second permit. Though he asked for a permit for the same area in which he already operated, the permit department mistakenly gave him a permit to operate between the Southern Pacific Train Depot and San Francisco's business district.

Getting a permit was complicated and time consuming, however, so Losa took the bureaucrats' advice and kept the wrong one, even though there were already five jitneys servicing the depot and all were having trouble. They charged the same as the government buses and, at first, won over customers with faster, accurately scheduled service. But the subsidized fare for riding MUNI, the San Francisco bus service, had remained 25 cents a ride for years, though the system's costs were rising rapidly. The van-sized jitneys, not benefitting from taxpayer subsidies, were leaving because of escalating costs. But Losa decided to lower his cost per rider by using a larger, 21-passenger bus. He put $1,000 down on the bus and applied for a permit to operate the larger vehicle.

The local transit union protested Losa's application, which then came down with a severe case of bureaucratic delay. Losa circulated a petition for his service and submitted the 5,000 signatures to the city, which finally issued the permit—four years after Losa had applied for it. Meanwhile, Losa had lost his down payment on the bus. He doubted that anybody would loan him the $26,000 he needed to buy his bus. But one of Losa's passengers—many of whom Losa knows by name—asked him to come talk to her. She was a bank vice-president, and Losa got the loan and his bus in 1982.

The transit union, fearing more of the larger buses, stepped up its protests and pressured the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. A magnifying glass was applied to Losa's service.

When one of his doors stuck partially open, Losa ordered the parts, mounted a sign warning passengers of the potential hazard, and kept operating while he waited for parts to arrive. Yet he was pulled over by a cop and charged with various infractions, such as operating with an open door, overloading (only in city-owned buses is it legal for passengers to stand), discharging passengers at more than 48 inches from the curb (cars were parked in bus stops), and reckless driving (for making a left turn where only buses are allowed to do so).

The police officer told Losa that he stopped him because a passenger had complained, but later he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had been directed by the Board of Supervisors to watch and ticket the jitney driver. For a month thereafter, a police car continued to follow Losa. Nineteen passengers testified in court that the partly opened door was no hazard. Losa beat most of the charges (his bus is now legally a bus) but spent $8,000 in legal fees and lost a week's worth of business.

Still, it seemed a somewhat happy ending. Losa's financial statement showed debts totaling only about the amount of his legal costs to stay in business, and soon he was earning money again. But then the California Transportation Commission ordered the Bay Area commuter train service to increase ridership because it was not generating the required 40 percent of its operating costs.

Surveys showed that many riders shunned the trains because of the terrible MUNI (bus) service connecting train depots with business areas. So even though MUNI generates less than one-third of its total operating costs, a multimillion-dollar subsidy was awarded to the mostly upper-middle-class train riders, allowing them to ride the buses of three counties, special shuttles (to the same area that Losa services), and cable cars—for only $10 a month. Even by conservative cost estimates, such a package costs taxpayers well over $100 per passenger per month.

Losa's ridership dropped immediately, and his plans for financial independence took a hard blow. "I may have all my rights," he remarks, "but they have the power. They can do anything they want to do—all I can ask for is a chance to compete."

Yet despite all his hardships and frustration, Losa, like many immigrants, manages to stay hopeful. "All the bad that's happened to me is in the past," he says. "You can't change that anyway. But you can change the future."

Patrick Cox is a frequent guest columnist for USA Today and public affairs director of the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research.