Saturday, January 16, 2010

The good and the bad of jitneys

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.


Anonymous said...

Santiago, Chile dismantled its private bus system, which operated exactly as you describe, in 2007, and replaced it with a contract-operated system with routes and schedules, where the government pays the operator and retains the fares.

Santiago's pre-07 system was actually run with full size buses, but had exactly the motives that you describe.

The problem that finally motivated the change was not just that service was unreliable but that buses were literally racing each other, and trying to cut each other off, to get to stops where there were lots of people, causing lots of accidents.

Anonymous said...

The previous comment is by Jarrett at ...

Please consider enabling the Blogger option to give name and url. Current options make it hard to comment here.

Cap'n Transit said...

I had the registration requirement enabled to prevent spam. I'll try removing it and requiring captchas, but if it doesn't work I'm putting it back.

Thanks, as always, for your informative comment. I've heard about similar behaviors in various jitney systems, but I've never seen it firsthand. Curitiba is recognized as piloting the system where the government pays the contractors by kilometer.

Eitan said...

I am recently moved from Bergen County, NJ to the DC Metro Area (as pleasant and pretty as Metro is, it really does not hold a candle to the various ways to get in and out of Manhattan from NJ).

I lived about a block from NJ Rt. 4, which runs from Paterson to the George Washington Bridge. One of the "Jitney" companies, Spanish Bus, runs along Rt 4 between Paterson and the GWB bus terminal. A few thoughts:

1 - The busses can be unpleasant, but I have never been in fear of my safety.
2 - They serve a real need - NJ Transit has NO DIRECT ROUTE from downtown Paterson to NYC. For those immigrants who travel between the cities every day for work, the Spanish Bus cuts down a large amount on their commuting time.
3 - The owners of the company actually invested in new equipment at one point, in a very creative way - chassis and drivetrain from the USA, body pre-manufactured (seats and all) in China, put together locally. Their new busses are very nice.
4 - Cheaper and run more often than NJ Transit.

Only once have I been frustrated, and it was one of the exact situations you describe - sitting at the bus terminal waiting for the bus to be packed before leaving. Held me up for 15 minutes. Still, overall, worth it.

Also, I do not get the impression that there is any "syndicate" system going on. However, I could be qrong about that.

pacotelic said...

Great Blog! I hope to keep following you in the coming months. This article reminded me of this article, reprinted heavily but spot on.

Have you read "Getting There" or "Down the Asphalt Path"? Good histories of the last century and a half of traffic vs. transit.

pacotelic said...

Oop. That previous link appears to be hosted on an Indian server, with Indian enforcement of rules about spyware and popunders.

try this instead:

Though I know they're glib in general, they're brief. Googling the topic indicates that improvements are bieng made, but the mixture of modes in Delhi (and most worldwide) roads leads to fatlity rates that would horrify us.

George K said...

In my city of birth, Lima, Peru, there are many of those "combis" that operate the same way you described, driving fast to get more passengers, making sure the bus is totally full before driving away, etc.
However, these buses fill in gaps in service provided by the public carrier. For example, in Lima, combis are the only way to reach certain neighborhoods. Even in New York City, there are times when there are gaps in service, and the jitney is the only vehicle that has shown up in 15-20 minutes. Sometimes, the fact that people know that a vehicle will be there to take them somewhere is the fact that will prevent them from driving, and that full busload of people could be people who would've otherwise driven. Therefore, although there is a chance of an accident when the driver drives erratically, the chance might be greater if all of the people in the bus drove themselves.