Lyft’s new service, Lyft Shuttle, works on a fixed route for a fixed fee during commute hours. Salon mocks this as a “glorified city bus with fewer poor people.” In fact, Lyft Shuttle and Uber Pool, which is moving in a similar direction, are an improved form of jitney. Jitneys were very popular in the early history of the automobile because they were cheaper, safer and more flexible than public transit but the transit companies lobbied to have them made illegal or burdened with heavy costs.
In many less developed economies, however, jitneys remain a popular form of transit. In New York City, jitneys never quite went away but have continued to operate, mostly illegally, under the name jitneys or shared taxis or dollar vans. Moreover, contrary to Salon, the jitney has always been a form of transit appreciated by the poor. Here’s wikipedia on New York City’s dollar vans:
Dollar vans are typically modified passenger van, and often operate in urban neighborhoods that are under-served by public mass transit or taxis. Some of the dollar vans are licensed and regulated, while others operate illegally. Passengers may board them at designated stops along their route or hail them as share taxis….Dollar vans are often owned and used by members of inner-city communities, such as African/Caribbean American, Latino, and Asian-American populations.
The transit companies did have a legitimate beef with the jitneys. The jitneys would often free-ride on the market making of the transit companies by swooping in just before a bus’s scheduled arrival. Without passengers the transit company wasn’t profitable but without a transit company to ease coordination the jitneys weren’t as profitable or as efficient as they might be–jitneys were subject to what Al Roth calls market unraveling which led in turn to market thinness.
Klein, Moore and Reja came up with a clever solution to the unraveling problem, curb rights (see also my book Entrepreneurial Economics). Curb rights are rights to pickup passengers allocated by curb location and hour.
Will the new form of jitneys be subject to unraveling? Will curb rights be necessary? Probably not. Lyft has moved the location of coordination from the unowned streets to owned cyberspace. Thus the privatization of coordination has solved a market thinning problem that has plagued jitneys for over a hundred years.
Public transit still has useful features, especially the economies of scale available with subways. Economies of scale also make subways, as of yet, a natural monopoly for which regulation may be useful. It’s difficult to see, however, what market failure exists in the market for road transit. We might want to subsidize people but there’s little reason to subsidize buses or other forms of road transit.