Most of the world's population lives in cities, and most of this urban population doesn't own cars. They get around by foot, by bike, and by transit. In many poorer cities, there isn't much in the way of rail transit, and people travel mostly by bus. Sometimes this bus service is government-run, scheduled service, but mostly it's private jitneys.
Jitneys are buses that don't run on a set schedule. If they start at a popular terminal, they wait until they are full. If they're running at rush hour, they simply keep going. Otherwise, the driver makes an educated guess as to when to leave. How soon after the previous bus will there be enough passengers to make the run worthwhile?
The run has to be worthwhile because the jitneys usually operate on a for-profit basis. The cost of labor in these cities is so low that the fare can pay not only gas, vehicle maintenance and the driver's salary, but also a cut to a jitney syndicate. It usually also pays for a conductor, who also acts as a security guard and tout, announcing the route, inviting passengers, enforcing seating arrangements and collecting fares.
Because of this arrangement, after the driver pays for gas, maintenance, the conductor and the syndicate, everything else is the driver's to take home. This means that the more fares the driver collects, the bigger the take at the end of the day. If there are too few fares, it is possible that the driver will not actually make any money. The driver thus has an incentive to collect as many fares as possible.
There are problems with this arrangement. During off-peak times, drivers will often wait at the terminal, taking a break, instead of wasting gas on a run that will not make any money. If the bus isn't full, they will go slow to allow passengers to accumulate at future stops. They will stop at any sign of interest from people on the sidewalk, even if they're not at a designated bus stop, blocking traffic and causing crashes.
During busy times, drivers often try to pack as many people into their vehicles as possible to maximize their take. They will often skimp on maintenance, leading to hazardous conditions. The buses are poorly regulated, leaving most of the management to the syndicates, who represent only the interests of the owners. In some cities there are rival syndicates that use violent tactics like smashing windows and worse to defend their routes.
That's the way jitneys work in developing countries around the world. Many transit advocates, quite understandably, want nothing to do with a form of transportation that packs people into badly-maintained buses and drives them erratically, while leaving passengers with spotty service during off-peak times. Few people in a developed country would want such service for their city.
Jitney service doesn't have to be that way, though. Many of these problems are the result of breakdowns in governance, and proper regulation can ensure that the buses are well-maintained and not overcrowded. In fact, when "dollar vans" started running in Brooklyn and New Jersey they had problems with overcrowding, bad maintenance and unlicensed drivers, but those problems have largely been resolved through regulation.
There are two problems that remain with these services, both related to their profit orientation. The buses can still move erratically during peak times, and service during off-peak times can be slow and infrequent. The problem of reckless searching for fares can be discouraged through greater enforcement by police. The problem of inadequate off-peak service requires the government to subsidize the route in some way, either by running its own buses or by paying the syndicate to run service at a minimum frequency.
Why bother, though? What do we need jitneys for? I'll discuss that in a future post.