The Mystery of the Missing Jitneys

Precious Ramotswe will need an economics degree to solve the Mystery of the Missing Jitneys

by James A. Bacon

The other day, I was watching HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” whose main character, Precious Ramotswe, solves mysteries set in Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. The characters are delightful and the story lines entertaining, but, wonk that I am, I began wondering about incidental things such as, how did a once-impoverished, land-locked African country become so prosperous, and how did Grace Makutksi, the Watson to Ramotswe’s Holmes, come to ride to work in a large, comfortable, air-conditioned van?

Since independence, Botswana has vaulted from one of the poorest countries in the world into the ranks of middle-income nations, a rare feat in Africa. A full explanation is beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say, Botswana has nurtured its democratic institutions and maintained the freest economy on the African continent, ranking No. 40 (moderately free) in the Index of World Economic Freedom. Which brings us to the issue of public transportation. It appears that Botswana encourages the use of jitneys: vans that offer unscheduled but regular service along a mostly fixed route.

Now,  I have no way of knowing the extent to which Botswana regulates its jitneys, but clearly it has not banned the entire category of transportation as the United States has nearly done. As a consequence, poor Batswanan (as one refers to the inhabitants of Botswana in the plural) have a transportation option not available to poor Americans in any but a handful of U.S. cities.

The American political class, ever confident in its ability to regulate the daily affairs of lesser mortals, has created monopolies and/or cartels in taxicab and bus service that have effectively eliminated jitneys as a shared-vehicle transportation mode. Espying a “market failure” — transportation remains exceedingly expensive for poor Americans — lovers of big-government solutions then call for subsidies to cover money-losing bus or mass-transit services. As the world hurtles ever closer to Boomergeddon, however, subsidies for money-losing transit modes is not a fiscally sustainable strategy over the long run.

That’s why a case studying appearing in a recent report, “Enterprise Programs: Freeing Entrepreneurs to Provide Essential Services for the Poor,” is so timely. Jennifer Dirmeyer, a professor at Virginia’s own Hampden-Sydney College, makes the case for resurrecting jitneys in the U.S. Dirmeyer writes:

Low-income individuals make up the largest percentage of bus riders and the second largest percentage of taxi riders. This points to the potential for a welfare-enhancing travel alternative that is slightly more expensive than a bus fare yet more “convenient.” However, choosing between taking a taxi and a bus may be somewhat like choosing between a filet mignon and a spam sandwich. …

Where jitney services have operated, either legally or illegally, consumer-reported benefits fall into three categories: Jitneys are faster than buses, save walking and waiting time, and offer better quality service. On the supply side, jitneys are better able to adjust to changing transportation patterns, respond to the differences in peak and off-peak demand, and they provide moderately more convenient services such as making small detours off route for a lower price than a taxi. These characteristic features explain the persistent popularity of jitney services in urban environments, even where illegal.

Dirmeyer advocates significant deregulation of taxicabs and jitneys, even to the extent of allowing them to pick up passengers at bus stops. That would create a problem, she acknowledges — it would divert passengers who otherwise would ride buses. Then transit companies, which bear the cost of maintaining the routes and stops, would be put at a competitive disadvantage. She believes that the public benefit is greater than the revenue lost to government enterprises, although the point is probably impossible to prove or disprove.

I suspect that jitneys can flourish even without free-riding on the investment made by transit companies. People can already download smart-phone apps to find other car poolers. Thus, the means already exists for riders to communicate with jitney operators. Who needs to raid bus stops? Indeed, the inherent flexibility of smart phone-enabled jitneys could revolutionize the shared transportation industry. Taxicabs and transit companies will fight to preserve the status quo but riders, poor riders especially, could be big winners in a world where jitneys were free to operate. Taxpayers could be winners, too, if free jitneys spelled the end to mass transit monopolies and taxpayer subsidies without end.

Update: Reader “Darrell” sends a link to the following story, “Carpooling a Click away with Online Ride Sharing” about two Seattle start-ups that are connecting riders with car pools.

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14 responses to “The Mystery of the Missing Jitneys”

  1. When I was travelling in St Vincent I found the jitneys to be convenient and inexpensive. Safe and comfortable, not so much. They consisted of park benches bolted onto the bed of small flatbed trucks.

    But, they went everywhere with good frequency. They had a regular route they traveled, but would deviate from the route to provide door to door service.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    The jitney was born in the United States – Los Angeles to be specific. There were once many jitneys. Local streetcar companies used government regulation to all but wipe out the jitneys from the American scene.

    Once again, our political class has been corrupted. Once again, our government has failed.

    In small ways and in large ways, the political class in America is broken and corrupt. Pouring more money into that bottomless pit of incompetence and dishonesty is not the answer.

  3. I do not think it is the “jitney” that is the magic. It’s the non-rigid flexibility but I point out that in a world where timing if often everything in the point A to point B conundrum that such “flexible” transit might not work for someone trying to get to a meeting or trying to get to work or a doctor’s appointment.

    but here’s where technology has presented us with opportunity.

    Just as cell phones can now be used to find where available parking spots are – and then pay for them…

    it would be possible for a cell phone app to “see” the ‘available” jitney’s and to request service and have an available jitney show up at the requested location.

    an ordinary cab could work this way also…

    I just do not see the average NoVa or Richmond non-tourist work a day worker as finding jitney type service as reliable and dependable.
    Can you see Groveton standing at the end of his driveway …suitcase in hand..waiting for a Jitney to take him to Dulles or National for his flight?

    or Jim Bacon.. on his way to a radio interview… hoofing it down the street in search of the nearest Jitney to rush him to his show?

    I think.. if Groveton or Jim could consult a cell phone app to find out the ETA of the first available jitney to their location.. they would find it tolerable.

    …. maybe…

  4. Larry, you nailed it: The smart phone app technology is transformative. We need to turn the technology loose and see what entrepreneurs and private operators can do with it. But that means making jitneys legal.

  5. When the goal is to spend other people’s money, jitneys don’t fit. If the goal was to improve transportation, jitneys would likely serve segments of the market better than today’s solutions. But what do we expect, when we spend billions of dollars to build Dulles Rail, with an expected modal share less than Bethesda or the R-B Corridor in Arlington?

  6. Groveton Avatar

    “Can you see Groveton standing at the end of his driveway …suitcase in hand..waiting for a Jitney to take him to Dulles or National for his flight?”.

    Nope. But taking one from Reston to Tyson’s and back would work for me. Or, from Great Falls to the Metro so I can ride the subway to a meeting downtown without driving to the Metro and finding out there is no parking.

  7. making jitney’s legal and Richmond.

    so… as far as I know.. it’s not Richmond that outlaws Jitney’s but rather localities ..usually at the behest of the cab owners… right?

    so would you support a STATE dictate to localities requiring them to allow jitney’s to operate?

    a top down govt approach?


  8. Legitimate question, Larry. I don’t know if I favor a top-down approach or not. But I sure as heck think that local governments should re-think their position.

  9. Darrell Avatar

    Why not set up something like this? A little press and viola, an ad hoc car pool.

  10. On land use – Richmond dictates that if a a business is legal that a locality has to allow it in land use.

    Richmond does not let localities outlaw the sale of alcohol …i.e “dry” counties.

    Richmond sets the standards for drain fields and the spreading of sewage on fields.. not the localities….

    localities cannot set their own pollution standards….

    there’s a significant list of state-dictated requirements that supersede locality options.

  11. South Africa would grind to a standstill if there were no jitneys. Literally millions use them everyday. I’m one who thinks one lane on a highway should be reserved for them – they are that essential.

  12. it may be instructive to ask why our current American transit systems – do not operate like Jitney’s.

    Few realize that 3 cents of the Federal Gas tax goes to transit but not just the most common form that we see in urban areas. For instance, many rural counties and small towns provide transit in the form of small bus/vans that operate not that differently than jitney’s in that they can and will divert from their standard routes if they get a call.

    Our local MPO is now talking about real-time alteration of routes per request which is going to be easier with cell phones than land-lines.

    the fly in the ointment is how far can/should the bus/van divert from it’s regular route and how would that affect headway times for the others on the bus/van?

    But isn’t this a similar problem with the Jitney’s ? If the Jitney is run in an Ad Hoc manner route-wise .. is it reliable for people with time-sensitive mobility needs?

    I’m not convinced that Jitneys being “outlawed” is true – 100% everywhere and that – that idea may have generous dollops of urban myth in it.

    3rd world countries have Jitney’s … out of necessity and financial realities.

    what FUNCTIONALITY distinguishes a New York or Northern Va Cab from a New York version of a Jitney?

  13. For the convenience of door to door service most people will allow time. At least the time they otherwise would have spent walking and waiting. One reason jitneys work in St Vincent is that people are a lot less time sensitive.

  14. Darrell Avatar

    In my walkabouts I’ve found that time sensitivity is a design issue. A well designed transit system is not time sensitive. For instance, DC has jump on jump off private bus services for tourists. They have the subway. And then there is the bus.

    The subway was not time sensitive, except for the idiotic idea of mandating 9:30 am starting times for a daily pass instead of 24 hours from purchase. The frequency of operation was frequent enough to over ride the walking factor and any time sensitivity issues. The late start gave me time to sit in a coffee shop and watch the poor debt slaves trudging through the growing morning heat in their suits and backpacks.

    The bus system, on the other hand, sucked. Which contributed to an adverse time sensitivity issue. This was made even more aggravating when watching the tourist buses passing by while waiting for your city bus to arrive. An aggravation so aggravating that we were almost to the point of flagging one down and paying their outrageous fee simply so we could move on down the line. It’s still better than Hampton Roads though.

    I love the bus in Hawaii. It doesn’t matter which one you get on because they all run a backbone route before branching off into their neighborhoods. The LRT in Manila works pretty well, especially since all other wheeled traffic there is in a gridlock that even DC has never seen. And that’s the place to study jitneys for how not to do things.

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