Haddonfield, Haddon Township, and Collingswood are exploring the idea of bringing the on-demand shuttle service to their business districts.
By Matt Skoufalos
Imagine a Saturday out on Haddon Avenue.
It begins with shopping in the posh retail district of downtown Haddonfield, continues with a drink or three in the lively Haddon Township bar scene, and concludes with dinner at a charming B.Y.O.B. restaurant in Collingswood.
It’s not difficult to think of doing any of that–but how much more likely might you be to visit all three places if someone else were doing the driving?
Haddon Township resident Nick Mink thinks the time is right to consider bringing in a jitney service that would connect the three communities for that purpose.
“A number of years ago when I was on the Haddon Township business partnership, it was an idea that was floated around,” said Mink, a mortgage broker who also serves on the township Zoning and Planning Board.
“It’s been talked about and kicked around,” he said.
The idea resurfaced recently, when Mink chaired a township subcommittee tasked with reviewing a number of business-related ordinances. So he called up some jitney operators to explore the idea.
All their talks centered on Haddon Avenue. A 3.5-mile loop along Haddon Avenue, from the Ellis Street circle in Haddonfield to the Route 130 circle in Collingswood, “would be the home-run route to start,” Mink said. If successful, it theoretically could incorporate extended service along the White Horse Pike and Collings Avenue.
By enabling residents who live within a walkable distance of Haddon Avenue to more comfortably access local shops and restaurants, Mink believes that a jitney could help each of the participating downtown business districts multiply their customer foot traffic.
“You move people among retail areas,” he said. “I live in Haddon Leigh. I’m not going to walk to [Villa] Barone’s for dinner. But I might walk to Brewer’s [Towne Tavern], have a drink before dinner, and then ride the jitney to Collingswood.
“With all the new development and the senior housing along the avenue, it really creates a lot of opportunity for business owners to succeed,” he said.
The vehicles themselves are handicap-accessible with seating for 20 or fewer passengers, Mink said. The majority of the fleet operated by members of the Atlantic City Jitney Association, for example, are Ford E-450 vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, “so there’s [potentially]an element of green in this as well.”
Commercial, regulatory hurdles
The idea reportedly has legs with Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague, whom Mink said “is 100 percent behind it.”
Collingswood Mayor James Maley said he is “happy to work with” any jitney service that wants to operate in the region, but worried that operators would face “a real uphill battle.
“For a private company to go do it, it’s a big leap of faith,” Maley said.
“It costs a lot of money to get set up and you need a lot of riders.”
The mayor said that similar efforts in the past didn’t meet with commercial success, even during special events. When shuttle service was operated during the former Newton Colony Arts Bank concert series, Maley said, “nobody took it.”
“There’s not a lot of traffic that goes back and forth between the towns like that,” he said. “There’s not people who go out for the night that go to one and stop at another town.
Maley also said that any such service would face stiff competition from existing transportation options, including cabs, buses, and the PATCO Hi-Speedline.
“You mean the public transportation to connect the three towns that exists already?” he joked.
“I just don’t know who your customers would be,” Maley said. “I don’t know that there’s many people that are doing the restaurant-bar-hopping route through the three towns on any kind of basis that would justify it financially.”
Customer behavior notwithstanding, Maley said, the sticking point involves the licensing and operation of jitneys as common carriers: public transportation services with their own set of regulatory hurdles to overcome.
“Sea Isle started it; Avalon and Stone Harbor were reluctant to join at first, but with the successes, they jumped on board the next year,” Mink said.
Mink also added that the jitney drivers with which he and other Haddon Township representatives met are self-insured, “so there’s no need for the township to purchase additional insurance.
“In New Jersey, the minimum liability insurance you have to carry is $35,000,” Mink said. “The two we were with carried $1.5 million each, and most of them carry at least $1 million, if not more.”
Mink also shrugged off comparisons of the jitney service to existing public transportation options, saying its potential for stop-and-go service allows customers to travel “basically door-to-door,” as opposed to designated bus stops and train stations.
“NJ Transit won’t stop anywhere for you, and they’re not running very frequently on the weekend,” Mink said. “Can you get on the Speedline? Sure. You’re going to wait a long time to catch the right train, and then you’re going to wait a long time anyway to get where you want to go.”
For the service to operate successfully in the long term, Mink said, it would likely be fare-based, with one-way rides ranging from $2 to $4 per person.
“Then you’re not counting on anyone to pay for it, and you’re not taking money from the businesses or the township,” he said; “it’s not a tax-driven thing. You’ve got to price it right so people aren’t reluctant to use it, and there’s got to be some regulation with fares.”
If operators could make 200 fares in an eight-hour window, “I think it’s a success for them,” Mink said.
“Of course they get tips,” he said. “They might be able to sell advertising; they might pick up some extra work that they otherwise would not have found. There’s a number of benefits for them.”
‘It’s probably worth a try’
Haddonfield Mayor Jeffrey Kasko said he shared Maley’s reservations on the matters of regulatory and insurance concerns, to which he added another.
The Partnership for Haddonfield—the borough’s business improvement arm—expressed concerns that its marketing efforts to draw shoppers to the downtown district could be conceivably undermined by the service.
“We work very hard to get people there,” Kasko said. “[PFH is] nervous about getting them to Haddonfield and shipping them somewhere else.”
Still, the mayor noted, the jitney would also bring shoppers and diners into Haddonfield as well.
“It’s probably worth a try,” Kasko said.
Mink believes that if each town can settle on language and ordinances can be drafted–with the input of local police departments–a pilot version of the service could be operating as soon as the summer.
Stay tuned for details.