General History

Bygone Charm of Public Transportation

      Since the development of the federal highway in the 50’s there has existed a spatial mismatch between the inner city and the suburbs. That is, people are in cities and jobs are in suburbs; specifically, three-fourths of welfare recipients live in the inner city and two-thirds of low skill job growth occurs in the suburbs. Public transit ought to address this, but it doesn’t, neglecting 40% of suburban counties and providing access to only 50% of jobs in the counties it does serve.

      An outmoded method of transit called the Jitney once had a charm and effectiveness that eludes public transit today. The Jitney in its original capacity is any type of private automobile which functions as a cross between a bus and a taxi. Specifically, a jitney is like a bus in that it can accommodate multiple people and has multiple destinations, and it is like a taxi in that it can deviate from a standard route.

      The Jitney first arose in Las Angeles in 1914 and by 1915 was prominent across the country, from its west coast origins all the way to New York. In 1915 the New York Times declared that Jitneys were a “sensation sweeping the nation,” and that Jitneys provided cheap, speedy and effective transportation.5 The Jitneys were certainly cheap, in fact they derived their name from slang for a nickel (a jitney), for it cost only a nickel to ride a jitney in the nineteen tens; they were certainly speedy, as they were as fast as taxis; they were efficient, as they were as fast as taxis for a lower price than the streetcars of the day and their later competition the bus (For more on public transit’s deficiencies and the effectiveness of jitneys see the tab “Public Transit, Jitneys and Poverty”).

      In explaining the next sad turn of events, proponents of jitneys like to say that jitneys were just too good at what they did- as local public transportation experienced the erosion of their monopolies to Jitneys, they bribed and bullied local governments into banning or regulating jitneys, which had the effect of turning jitneys into just another fixed route busing system.

      On a larger scale, Public transportation monopolies pressured the federal government into passing Federal Transit act 13C, which makes it illegal for the federal government to provide money to any form of public transit that might in any way hurt the job prospects of current public transit employees. In other words no federal funds can go to competing transit systems, like Jitneys.

      Jitneys are then repressed locally, and they cannot be aided on a federal level. Occasionally, cities will consider legalizing jitneys with mixed results (For more on the history of the legality of jitneys at the city level as well as city level experimentation with the legalization of jitneys, see the tab “legality”). On the whole though, federal transit act 13C is an instance in which an organized minority has exerted itself in ways detrimental to the majority, and it should be modified.