A legal jitney in Union City, N.J.--Wikipedia photo

Our much-discussed report Missed Opportunities demonstrated how, even when given a generous 90 minutes to do so, the nation’s public transit systems have great difficulty connecting low-income people to jobs—even when those people live in relatively densely populated areas.

The intuitive policy response might be to try to allocate more resources to transit routes that connect the places where low-income people reside, particularly in suburbs, to places where they work. However, this would be misguided. Outside of the West, where geographic constraints have resulted in higher suburban development densities than in Midwestern, Northeastern, or Southern metros, transit agencies have had great difficulty making suburb-to-suburb service financially sustainable even in good times. Poor pedestrian connectivity depresses ridership, while high mileage per passenger increases costs, especially for fuel. As a result, many suburb-to-suburb bus routes recover barely more than ten percent of their operating costs from fares. In times of fiscal retrenchment, such unproductive routes represent a serious drain on transit agencies’ precarious finances, arguably preventing resources from being shifted to routes that might benefit more riders.

As tempting as it might be to cash-strapped local governments, simply abandoning these routes would create transit access deserts--violating policymakers’ obligation to ensure decent access to employment for the increasing share of the nation’s poor who live in suburban areas. One possible solution to this quandary comes in the form of a mode that is currently illegal in most of the United States: the jitney.

For those unfamiliar with them, jitneys are shared taxis running on fixed routes. They occupy a middle ground between buses and taxicabs, with the ability to divert somewhat from their routes to provide door-to-door service. They arose in Los Angeles in 1914 and quickly spread across the country, but generated enough opposition from private streetcar companies that most cities and states had banned them by 1920. Jitney service remains popular in pockets of the U.S., such as South Florida and the Outer Boroughs of New York, but occupies a legally murky niche--due in no small part to the opposition of both transit workers’ unions and incumbent taxi and limousine operators. Outside the U.S., the jitney enjoys particular popularity in developing countries, in large part because many governments simply cannot afford to provide public transit service of any kind to the ever-expanding slums on the edges of their cities. In the developed world, well-regulated jitney service is an essential part of the transportation network in places such as Hong Kong, the Baltic States, and Greece.

Legalizing jitneys for service on routes poorly served by existing transit, and creating a predictable set of regulations enabling them to operate at an inter-suburban scale (as opposed to the tangled mess of regulations that afflicts the taxi sector in most metros), would attract new entrants to the sector. The operational details would have to be tailored to every metro’s specific context, but a well-developed suburban jitney sector would enable suburban-serving transit agencies to eliminate their most unproductive routes entirely, while increasing the frequency and coverage of service to users.

As it has been in so many transportation-related matters, New York has been a pioneer in this area, launching a pilot program in 2010 to replace bus service on five routes with privately run “commuter vans.” While the program was deemed unsuccessful, its failure owed largely to the three-month gap between the termination of bus service and the start of legal jitney service; better-designed initiatives, both in New York and elsewhere, would likely achieve better results.

The problem of employment accessibility is both significant and growing, and addressing it will require unconventional approaches. Liberalizing the transportation market in the nation’s metros is an effective way to address it.