North Jersey jitneys take off

by Stephen Smith

In the past few years, a relatively new phenomenon seems to be taking hold in cities across North Jersey: the jitney. Similar to the dollar vans that ply the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, jitneys carry more than a taxi but less than a full-sized bus, and run semi-regular routes that often shadow city bus routes. But unlike the dollar vans of New York, the jitneys in North Jersey are legal and regulated (albeit lightly), and so in addition to local feeder service and circuits around New Jersey, they also run routes directly into Manhattan.

In terms of quality, the jitneys appear quite advanced – customers report that jitneys come more frequently than NJ Transit buses, and the price is lower (at least for individual tickets). The small bus size guarantees everybody a seat, and buses display stickers to indicate the presence of air conditioning.

The complaints about the jitneys are familiar: they drive erratically trying to pick up fares, they’re poorly maintained, they don’t follow traffic rules. Recent random inspections have led to the impounding of more than half of the vehicles inspected, with violations ranging from missing fire extinguishers to gas leaks. The jitney drivers have countered that the inspectors are biased against them and don’t subject NJ Transit buses to such stringent checks, and they’ve also downplayed the nature of some of the violations against them.

In any case, the dangerous driving that the jitneys engage in to poach fares from each other is a problem that needs to be solved, lest it take the whole system down. Because the roadway and curbs are provided as public goods to all comers, we encounter a tragedy of the commons, whereby the competition between drivers ultimately becomes counterproductive and harmful of overall welfare. While our ideal solution would be a no-strings-attached total privatization of the street, quasi-market fixes like dedicated bus lanes and curb rights are more feasible short-run options. Along with stricter traffic enforcement, dedicated lanes for private and public buses would keep the jitneys from tying up regular traffic, and some variation on curb rights as proposed by Dan Klein would make for more orderly pick-ups. The allocation of curb rights should be generous, though, so that new firms have the opportunity to enter; incumbent drivers should not be allowed to become a public cartel by regulating the competition out of existence.

Hudson County – the densely-populated home to Jersey City, Hoboken, and Union City among others – has recognized the need for a more concrete jitney policy, and has commissioned a study that began in June. Increased regulation is on the table, as is “parking and curbside access,” but we’ll have to wait until the recommendations are made and the government acts to find out how Hudson County will deal with this nascent transit market.

  • Zoltan

    Jitneys simply reflect a common criticism of semi-regulated public transport markets, in which there a portion of the market that is regulated and subsidised, and a portion which is not. Namely allocative efficiency by means of cherrypicking. The most profitable routes and times of day are where the jitneys end up, and there they make profit. Meanwhile, the regulated city transit operators rely on these profits to cross-subsidise other areas and other times of day, where the jitneys are, of course, nowhere to be seen.

    As such, this allocates resources efficiently in terms of demand, but that isn’t the only objective on which transport policy is normally built. Hence cities must work harder to finance public transport services in which the private sector has no interest, but are necessary to meet its objectives (providing a reliable alternative to the car, reducing congestion, meeting social needs, etc.). As I see it, any sensible policy to provide decent transit to an entire city would forbid such operations so that the city transit operator can continue to profit from popular routes at popular times and thus efficiently cross-subsidise other routes and times of day.

  • cph

    We’ve had jitneys, off and on, since back around 1915 when someone discovered they could make money by offering rides in his Model T for 5c. (Same as streetcar fare). Then as the jitneys grew in number, there was the same kind of bad behavior (bad driving, fights over fares, etc.) that happens with the current operations in NY, NJ, etc. That’s what got (and keeps) jitneys outlawed in most places.

    I think there’s a place for jitneys in the city transit scheme, but there needs to be rules, and enforcement of same.