Public Transit, Jitneys and Poverty

Spatial Mismatch and Jitneys

It isn’t cost effective for public transit to take on routes from the inner-city to the suburb, but it has been and would be cost effective for Jitneys to do so. As such, there is a good deal of evidence that suggests jitneys might be the solution, or at least part of the solution, to our spatial mismatch problem. One such piece of evidence comes from Nicole Garnett, an Assistant Professor of Law at Notre Dame, in her 2001 article “The Road from Welfare to Work: Informal Transportation and the Urban Poor:”

“Both contemporary and historical evidence suggest that poor urban dwellers could benefit substantially from jitneys. The jitneys' appearance and remarkable success early in this century was a response, in large part, to conditions similar to those that currently impede the efforts of many poor Americans to gain economic self- sufficiency. Specifically, the prevailing system of public transportation (the street railway) was unable to serve adequately the transportation needs of the urban workforce.

The street car service limitations that spurred the development of jitneys closely parallel the problems with modern public transportation. Street cars were cumbersome, overcrowded, and slow. They arrived at infrequent intervals, forcing passengers to wait for long periods and prolonging their commutes to work. Furthermore, street cars were tied to fixed routes and thus were unable to tailor their services to passengers' demands.

When jitneys appeared, they seemed to offer the perfect antidote to each of these complaints. Jitneys were much faster than street cars because they were smaller and made fewer stops. The large numbers of jitneys in circulation, especially during rush hour, ensured that passengers need wait no longer than a few minutes to catch a ride to work. Furthermore, jitney drivers could easily deviate from heavily traveled routes to meet the demands of individual customers. Jitney drivers could shape their service in many ways to fit niche markets or to comport with their own work schedules. Finally, jitneys had the added benefit of providing an income for thousands of men who otherwise would have faced economic dislocation.

The very factors that attracted passengers to jitney service during the early 1900s could also prove beneficial to welfare recipients struggling to enter the workforce today. The relative speed of jitney service makes it an attractive alternative to commuting long distances via public transportation. If modern-day jitneys could replicate the relative time advantages they enjoyed during their heyday in the early part of the century, their availability might well tip the balance for some welfare recipients in favor of accepting jobs in remote suburban locations.

Jitneys' flexibility might serve as the perfect antidote to the problems that make public transportation ill-suited to serve the needs of low-skilled and low-income inner- city residents. If jitney service could adapt to market demand today as well as it did in 1916, we could expect entrepreneurs to create ‘niche’ services that efficiently transport workers to dispersed suburban locations.”

A good deal of research such as the above has been done on Jitneys, and one would be hard-pressed to find research that shows jitneys would overall have a negative impact on transit and our nation. Research aside, the best evidence of the effectiveness of Jitneys is history. The closest approximation of jitneys in a modern market is how they performed when legalized in Miami in the 90’s, where they were faster, cheaper, and more flexible than existing public transit.1

Given that the efficiency and effectiveness of transportation has direct impacts on poverty and the economy, that inefficient transport precludes occupation opportunities and reduces productivity, that spatial mismatch is exacerbating this problem, and that jitneys have a demonstrated ability to provide unsubsidized, cheap, speedy, and cost effective transportation, I believe that the legalization of Jitneys in large cities merits serious consideration by policymakers and analysts.