California’s jitney experience can guide its future

If other nations can support a modern, private bus industry,
so can the Golden State

Scott Beyer | August 18, 2023

California mass transit is mostly provided by government transit authorities. The regime has been costly to taxpayers and unsuccessful, if declining ridership is an indication. But this wasn’t always the case – like most goods and services, mass transit was originally provided by private companies, namely through thriving jitney bus markets.

Even today the market remains, although the state works hard to regulate it away. There is a case, though, for letting the industry return so that consumers can have alternative ways to live car-free. 

Private buses are in fact a global phenomenon, spreading like osmosis wherever allowed. I recently wrote for the Free Cities Center about Africa’s robust systems, which thrive mostly through internal driver-led regulation. Such systems are also common in Latin America and Asia. They surface sporadically in California and elsewhere in the U.S., despite anti-competitive regulations made against them by transit agencies.

As I noted,

“If California once again embraces some forms of private transit, it would have to conform to the culture and expectations of our modern, wealthy state and not be as chaotic as the systems found in Africa. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons that we can learn from Africa about creating more user-friendly market-based alternatives.”

From the 1910s to 1970s, San Francisco had an extensive network of independently-owned jitneys. At the peak, writes University of California transportation researchers, “several thousand jitneys covered every major thoroughfare in the city, primarily ferrying suburbanites to downtown jobs.”

From the start, jitneys had an uneasy relationship with regulators. Streetcar companies lobbied the city to forbid jitneys from competing with them directly. There were also safety issues between jitneys and pedestrians. California increased the required insurance premium for jitneys, and in the 1970s San Francisco stopped permitting new jitneys, as it wished to reduce competition with MUNI. By the 21st century, only one operator remained, running between the Caltrain terminal and the central business district. It stayed afloat until 2016.

More recently, some startups attempted to run a tech-infused Jitney 2.0. Chariot, a company owned by Ford, operated on fixed routes but gathered data on passenger demand so that it could implement route changes quickly. Leap Transit began operating a commuter bus service catering to upscale clientele. A third company, Night School, emerged to fill the gap left by BART’s lack of late-night service, shuffling night owl riders between San Francisco and the East Bay. All three ran afoul of regulators, who banned them from using key MUNI routes or just shuttered them altogether.

Today, the best-known private buses in the Bay Area are “tech shuttles” that employers run between their campuses and various urban neighborhoods. Prior to the COVID pandemic, a third of Google’s Silicon Valley employees used the company’s shuttles. Amazon and Tesla also run buses, bringing blue-collar employees to their plants. But these, too, catch flack from the political and activist classes. There’s more focus on how such services “cannibalize” public transit than on what public transit can learn from these successful private examples. 

Los Angeles also has a history of private provision that includes jitneys, although they vanished there sooner than in San Francisco. Los Angeles is in fact supposedly where the concept started, when a driver started charging a nickel for rides through the city. In 1915, there were 1,800 jitneys in Los Angeles, carrying a sizable minority of commuters. 

Here, too, they actively competed with streetcars, and regulations had the effect of completely eliminating jitneys from the city. One law included a mandate that new market entrants receive “a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the [Railroad] Commission” – quite the conflict of interest.  

Today, Southern California’s jitney scene, to the extent it exists, does so in the shadows. There are ones that operate illegally, called “bandit taxis,” and that have been subject to crackdowns. In San Diego, some buses operate around the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro.  

The U.S. metro that best provides market proof-of-concept for jitneys is New York City and its suburbs, namely Hudson County, New Jersey. Jitneys run by the minute on major thoroughfares in, for example, Union City and other immigrant hubs. They’re very affordable and quite crowded. They have attracted scrutiny for safety violations – including fatalities – but that may be due to the fact that, like in California, they run on varying levels of legality.

In fact, both issues – the legality and safety of jitneys – have much to do with each other. Jitneys, whether in the United States or developing world, can be unsafe because they haven’t been granted legal ways to exist. There aren’t coherent systems for curb usage, parking or lane allocation, and their lack of licensure prevents bad behavior from being tracked. 

A good mix for California cities would be to allow jitneys, but also give them a regulatory framework in which to operate, similar to those granted to public buses, so that they don’t delve into the martial law chaos oft-found in Third World systems. 

But the answer isn’t to outlaw them. By starting their crackdowns on jitneys when they first arose pre-World War II, California cities have missed out on a century of innovation in this service. This protectionism looks particularly absurd in modern times. While city and state politicians insist that taxpayers continue propping up failed public systems, they neglect a cost-free private alternative sitting right in front of them. If jitneys can thrive worldwide, surely they can (again) in California.

Scott Beyer owns Market Urbanism Report and is author of the forthcoming Free Cities Center book, “Latin America’s Urban Experience: How markets help developing countries cope with government dysfunction.”

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