99 AND 44/100THS PERCENT BUILT

I have solved the problem of urban mass transit. To apply my solution to a major city requires a private company willing to invest a million dollars or so in hardware and a few million more in advertising and organization. The cost is low because my transit system is already over ninety-nine percent built; its essence is the more efficient use of our present multibillion dollar investment in roads and automobiles. I call it jitney transit; it can most easily be thought of as something between taxicabs and hitch-hiking. Jitney stops, like present-day bus stops, would be arranged conveniently about the city. A commuter heading into town with an empty car would stop at the first jitney stop he came to and pick up any passengers going his way. He would proceed along his normal route, dropping off passengers when he passed their stops. Each passenger would pay a fee, according to an existing schedule listing the price between any pair of stops.

Would this be an efficient transportation system? Yes. Cars are inefficient only because they usually travel three- quarters empty; a full car is competitive with the usual forms of mass transport. Furthermore, cars already exist and are being driven hither and yon in great numbers; the additional cost of jitney transit is merely the cost of setting up the stops and arranging price schedules and the like.

Would commuters be willing to carry passengers? Given certain conditions, which I will deal with later, yes; the additional income from doing so would be far from trivial. Assume a charge of $2 a head. A commuter who regularly carried four passengers each way, five days a week, would make $4,000 a year—no mean sum. He would also convert his automobile, for tax purposes, into a business expense.

One potential problem is safety; the average driver is not eager to pick up strangers. This might be solved by technology. The firm setting up the jitney stops could issue magnetically coded identification cards to both drivers and potential passengers. Each stop would have a card-reading machine with one slot for the driver and one for the passenger. As each inserted a valid card, a light visible to the other would go on. The machine could have access to a list of stolen or missing cards; insertion of a listed card would ring a bell in the local police station. The machine might even be able to record the pair of cards; if a driver or passenger were to disappear, the police would know just whom to look for. The cost of such security measures would be trivial compared to the cost of any of the current mass transit schemes. Four hundred jitney stops would blanket Chicago with one every half mile in each direction. If the sign and the card reader cost $2,500 for each stop, the total cost would be a million dollars.

A more serious difficulty is political. Many large cities regulate the cab industry; the regulations would almost certainly prohibit jitney transit. Changing that would be opposed by bus drivers, cab drivers and the bus and cab companies. Local politicians might be skeptical of a mass transit system whose construction failed to siphon billions of dollars through their hands.

Jitneys are not, as it happens, a new idea. They are a common form of transportation in much of the world. In the U.S. they flourished briefly for a few years after World War I and were then legislated out of existence when the trolley-car companies found they could compete more successfully in the political than in the economic market. You will find the whole story in the article by Eckert and Hilton cited in Appendix II.

Many years ago, I found myself at an airport en route to the center of the city. Being at the time an impecunious student, I started looking for someone going the same way with whom I could split the cost of a cab. I was stopped by the driver of a limousine who carried passengers into town for a price slightly below cab fare. He gleefully informed me that what I was doing was illegal. I have no doubt that he was right; out-of-town airline passengers, in that city or elsewhere, are not a powerful lobby.

Perhaps I am being too ambitious. Before investing any money, even a measly million dollars, in jitney transit, we might test more modest proposals. As a first step, how about providing airports with signs for the various parts of town; passengers could gather under the sign for their destination and arrange to share cabs.

Don’t hold your breath.

[As of 2015, something along these lines seems to be coming into existence, enabled by cell phones and bitterly opposed by the taxi lobby.]

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