Back in January I promised you an answer to the question, "What do we need jitneys for?" Recent events have made me think that it's time for that answer.
First, what advantages do private jitneys have over public buses? Jitneys are cheaper. The MTA data released last year show that while some lines are able to cover their operating expenses (fuel and salaries, mostly) with fares, most require some government support, and all of them need the government to contribute towards the cost of buying and maintaining the buses and depots.
Many of the privately operated bus lines are unable to cover all these costs; the State of New Jersey owns over 500 buses that are used by private operators (PDF), and depots to service them. But the jitneys receive no capital support and nothing that is typically called operating support. This is very important with transit budgets being slashed around the country. The State Assembly can't cut its contribution to transit if it didn't contribute anything in the first place.
The second advantage is flexibility. The MTA is required to post notices 30 days in advance and hold hearings in all five boroughs before a bus driver sneezes. That's a good thing when it comes to protecting essential service, but you also want a transit provider who's willing to experiment and take risks (financial ones), and dynamic enough to reallocate resources on the fly.
I can't tell you the number of times I've been standing at a bus stop for ten minutes or more because of bus bunching or someone calling in sick. Or I've waved two standing-room only buses away and watched a third go sailing by. I keep thinking to myself, "Well, this is a missed opportunity for someone to make a buck." A private jitney driver would be able to radio to other drivers that there are busloads of students waiting at the stop, and they could switch from a less-popular route.
Private jitneys can help protect us from the greed of the State Legislature, and they can help ensure higher and more consistent levels of service. So if they have all that going for them, why aren't they everywhere? I'll get to that soon.