Legality at the City Level- Succesful (albeit brief) Experiments

There have been some instances in which cities have questioned the legality of jitneys or even legalized jitneys. In most cases, however, the legalization of jitneys is neither permanent nor free from regulation. To further complicate things, there are instances in which jitneys have been regulated into fixed route busing systems, yet have retained the label of “jitney.” In the original sense of a jitney, these are not jitneys, as these operate exclusively on fixed routes. For more on Jitneys as a fixed route busing system in cities such as Atlantic City, Miami and San Diego, see the next section, “Jitneys as a fixed route busing system.” This section, however, will focus on the few cases and articles in which the legalization of jitneys in their original, unregulated or loosely regulated capacity has been advocated.

It is helpful to start with the initial regulation of jitneys. As such, here is an excerpt from “The Jitneys,” research published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 1972:

The jitney’s comparative advantage in providing a higher quality, flexible, specialized service was seriously reduced by ordinances that required vehicle owners to specify in their applications for licenses exact routes, terminal points and time schedules. More than 50 cities passed ordinances of this kind. In some cities, such as San Diego and Salt Lake City, any deviations from the streets and routes were prohibited.10

These laws were accepted across the country with few exceptions, one being Hawaii. Jitneys remained legal in Hawaii until 1940, when the state government granted public transit a monopoly. In recent years public transit has received substantial criticism in Hawaii, as Hawaii, noting deficiencies in their public transit system, poured billions of dollars into a now-failing extensive rail system. As Professor Ken Schoolland, an Associate Professor of Economics and Political Science at Hawaii Pacific University, says, “The government grant of a monopoly cost the people of Honolulu almost 70 years of competitive innovation in service, cost reduction, and efficiency. Citizens are now saddled with crippling taxpayer subsidies of an inefficient service and, in 2003, no service at all during the bus strike.”11

Other than Hawaii, however, the laws that regulated jitneys out of existence were fairly uniform across the country, and occasionally gave rise to discontent from city governments or economists. The tale begins years after jitney regulations had been passed, after the bitterness of the first conflict between public and private transit had abated somewhat- in Marina Del Ray and Long Beach jitney services arose once more. However, this tale’s ending is foreshadowed by a familiar story; in short time public transit was able to leverage its subsidies to lower its prices on routes in direct competition with jitneys to force jitneys out of the market.12

Perhaps the only significant- if brief- triumph for Jitneys in the last half century came in Miami, where an accidental loophole allowed for Jitney service in Miami for three years, 1989-1992. Within only months of the creation of the loophole, 20 jitney firms had sprung up.13 At this movement’s peak, there were 400 jitneys serving about 46,000 customers per weekday. This ridership was equivalent to 25% of Metrobus’ (the regional monopoly on public transit) ridership, but even more startling is that less than a fourth of jitney riders were passengers taken from Metrobus’ ridership! In other words, ““The jitneys increased net passenger transport ridership in Miami by an estimated 13 percent -- and at no cost to taxpayers."2 In addition, the price of a jitney was equal to that to ride the bus, $1, except that jitneys actually turned a profit; while busses lost over a dollar for every $1 fair, jitney drivers made 40 cents on the very same fair.2 Others even contend that Metrobus charged 75 cents more than jitneys.13 One study found that while jitneys were legal in Miami almost 20,000 fewer cars were on the road.3 Despite all of these benefits, Miami choose to once again ban Jitneys in 1992.

There is one more notable case in which jitneys found favor, and that is the case in which US District Judge John D. Rainey ruled “that Houston's 70-year-old no-jitney ordinance violated both the Sherman Antitrust Act and the 14th Amendment.”14 This ruling opened the door to the legalization of jitneys in Houston, however, the jitneys that did arise there were eventually regulated into operating on inflexible routes.

Today, there are responsible citizens across the country who have kept a watchful eye on public transit and observed its flaws. Sometimes, they speak up against the current state of transit affairs and advocate the legalization of jitneys:

“The regulations that restrict the private provision of shuttles and jitneys are largely motivated by public transit's dislike of competition. Just as the LA streetcar companies clamored for protection from the jitneys in 1915, most modern transit agencies oppose the introduction of private transit service. California PUC regulations require an applicant 8 for a jitney license to show a "public need" for the service. Of course, wherever there is public transit, there is no "need" for a private service. Application denied.”12

On a personal note, in 2001 a woman wrote a letter to the editor of the Ocean City newspaper complaining of the lack of access to jitney service that included the following:

“I'm writing again, even if I'm the only
one. I'm getting desperate! It's true we
have no car available…
frequent cab service is much too expensive.
…A city this size - it's a disgrace
we have no transportation!” 15

Despite the occasional instances in which Jitneys are legalized or find favor, they are largely illegal and complaints and pleas like the ones above are ignored. Despite this, illegal jitneys can be found in many urban centers, where jitneys, unlicensed cabs, and regulated busses are all called “jitneys.” This brings us to our next section, “Jitneys as a fixed route busing system.”