What you describe is actually very reminiscent of the micro bus lines common in the developing world. Coincidentally, these are often actual VW Microbuses, driving on kind of ad hoc routes and picking people up. They don't take you to your exact destination, and there's no high-tech way to manage or get a pick up, but they are definitely a more decentralized kind of bus.
It's kind of weird, but the developing world seems to generally have much better public transportation. How buses can run at a profit with $0.50 (or less) fares, I don't quite understand. But for the most part they really do seem to do well without much government help (usually fuel is subsidized in some fashion, I think). Lower wages, certainly. And their maintenance is much less... thorough. And they drive fast. And they use old vehicles -- less capital costs. Still, kind of crazy they can make it work and profit. That said, here in the non-developing world taxis are expensive. They are actually taxed, not subsidized, and they don't pick people up in the same way, and they have higher capital costs. But I worry that there are basic economics that make them unpractical. Drivers and mechanics are paid more here. People expect a nicer riding experience. But maybe it isn't impossible, if done right and smart.
Yeah. I guess people would have a hard time paying the actual cost but that's more of a perception problem. The system would have to be cheaper than owning your own car. People are paying the cost now it's just hidden in their existing budgets.
As a little exercise, I tried to figure out about what my current per-trip cost is for my 2001 Tundra pickup. It cost 18,000 so lets assume I can drive it for ten years so the yearly cost is about $1,800. During that time, I'll figure that regular maintenance will average $500 per year. I drive around 16,224 miles a year making six 52 mile round trips a week. I get about 18 miles per gallon so my yearly gas bill should be around $2000. I also pay about $1,200 in insurance. That comes out to a total of $5,500. I'm figuring on 312 commutes to work a year so every single time I drive to work and back it costs me about $17.62. I probably wouldn't pay $3 for a one way bus ride but I'll pay much more than that to drive without even knowing I'm doing it.
That's part of the political problem. You can create a system that's much more efficient because you increase the ride density. Put an average of four people in that car without adding too many miles to the trip and you greatly decrease the per-person cost. There are billions of dollars in potential savings! Plus, if you can get enough people using it, it decreases traffic which increases both fuel and time efficiency. In many places, it would speed up commute times because even though you're making more stops, you wouldn't be stuck in traffic.
Bootstrapping the system would be the hard part. If you can't get enough people to use it, it wouldn't work. The wait times would be too long. I have my doubts about whether you could ever get it up and running but if you could, it would be the only mass transit system that would work out here in the west.
In Russia (at least when I visited in 1995-96) there are "routed taxis" (marskrutnaya taksi) and "taxis". The routed taxis are vans and just take you to the nearest metro station. They fill the gaps in the streetcar/trolleybus/autobus network in the outer parts of the city.
The "taxis" are private cars, driven by people who need money or are just bored, so they drive around all night giving people lifts for maybe $3 a trip. People who don't want to be seen taking public transportation take "taxis" instead, and everybody uses them in the off-hours. You just hold out your hand (straight out, not thumb up) at the passing cars until one stops, and then negotiate a fare. I had friends who drove them occasionally. I wondered if they were safe but I never heard of anybody getting robbed in one.# Mike Orr