Oregon: No Country for Good Ideas

In a 2007 national seminar, Cascade Policy Institute’s Wheels to Wealth program promoted the idea of allowing jitneys to replace low-ridership public buses. A form of mass transit, a jitney is a car or van which is not required to run on a fixed route and schedule. Cascade followed this proposal with a publication on jitneys, which was widely circulated within TriMet but then quickly rejected by the transit agency.

Now West CAP, a community action agency in Wisconsin, is taking up the jitney idea. West CAP is starting a pilot program in the town of Barron in which they are promoting jitneys to help the local Somali Association’s transportation needs.

In collaboration with the local workforce group, the Somali Association is purchasing two small vans from West CAP’s JumpStart program. (JumpStart facilitates automobile purchases by public assistance households.) West CAP will contract with part-time drivers and other community organizations for related services like paying for shared rides.

Interestingly, West CAP drivers will be allowed to use the vehicles as entrepreneurs to provide services on their own, such as weekend trips to Minneapolis.

West CAP’s experimentation with jitneys is one example of how innovative transportation policy ideas are repeatedly rejected in Oregon and embraced in other states. Perhaps, Oregon does not like good ideas after all.

Sreya Sarkar is a policy analyst for the Asset Ownership Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    This isn’t exactly a difficult puzzle. Tri Met rejected a plan for jitneys, something that would be in direct competition with them. What’s the upside for Tri Met? The jitney plan proves to be a tremendous flop and all of a sudden people flock to mass transit with joy and twinkle in their eyes? Not very likely. Government solutions to problems, in this case transportation, almost always rely on coercion on some level. Generally this is achieved through forced monopolization.

    In this case you can see their point though. When I moved out here from NYC I drove through several areas that had flirted with the idea of jitneys. Good idea or commuter death traps? You decide.

    The areas I saw that had not headed their governments warnings and had flirted with the jitney of death were to a one, barren wastelands. No food grew there and what little was left of the populous existed by eating roots and grubs. Nomadic hoards for the most part controlled the areas, thus reinforcing the cruel joke these people had learned, transportation is everything, without it you are a root and grub eater. Thus those that could somehow retain their mobility tended to rule, those that had relied on jitneys were subjugated, families destroyed, sold into slavery or worse. That was the skid mark left by the jitney on these societies.

    Oh, but what about the jitneys? What happened to them? Well, once these evil vehicles and their unscrupulous owners had wrought their destruction, they left, to skim profit off another town or city until they had sucked every public transportation dollar down and decimated the population. “HA HA” they would laugh, as public servants who had once made a fine living driving a bus were now reduced to cannibalism. It couldn’t have been more horrifying, but that horror was overwhelmed by the shear pointlessness of it all.

    Why jitneys? Why had these people fooled around with something so dangerous? So devastating? Why had they not listened to their government? Sadly it seems a lesson not as easily understood as the inevitable holocaust of the aftermath would imply.

    Tri Met should think long and hard about jitneys. One guy in an oversized Econoline can easily cause far more devastation, famine, cannibalism and families sold into slavery than one can imagine. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it and if you don’t believe me you are a Nazi.

    • Joe

      Rupert – are you OK????

  • Bob Tiernan

    Recall that Tri-Met experimented with a service similar to jitneys in the Cedar Mill area about six or so years ago, starting with using Sassy Cab under contract before taking it over with Tri-Met vehicles
    and union drivers. None of this was like the real thing, of course, but the people didn’t know that.

    When the Sassy phase of the deal was nearing its end, and with Tri-Met nearing the time when it would announce what it would do in the future with this service, I attended a neighborhood meeting in Cedar Mill where a Tri-Met official was to give an update as part of the meeting. There were eight in the audience who were users of the service and they all said their piece about wanting it in some form and then they started leaving. I met them all in the hallway and gave them copies of a Detroit Free Press article on jitney service and explained it to them. All of them assumed that such service was legal here and were surprised when I told them it was in fact illegal.

    They liked the idea as described in the article, with regular jitney drivers developing repeat patron business, and being allowed to operate in town without the existing mandates about providing service to the entire city (Detroit in that case). I explained, for example, that there could be a St. Johns Jitney Service of one or several drivers forming such an operation, possibly taking people as far as Kenton. Or the Cedar Mill Transporter. I often hand out copies of that article to elderly shoppers waiting for cabs at Fred Meyer exits.

    What the government relies on is keeping most people unaware of these examples, and unaware that such services are illegal. This way they can condition people to assume that such services don’t exist because the “market won’t provide them”, and that this is what government is here to provide. No one seems to ask why, if the market won’t provide them, why is it has to be banned.

    Bob Tiernan

    • Sreya

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have talked to several TriMet officials about use of jitneys in areas that are difficult or incovenient for them to serve and most have agreed that it is a good idea. They did have some concern about the safety of jitneys but they eventually agreed that, that is a technical issue and not a fundamental problem.

      Some folks that run something similar to jitneys called us from Salem when they read our publication on jitneys. They did not know that jitneys are actually banned and one of them said, “But why would the government ban something so useful?”

      Some people in Madras used to run a number shuttles for low-income workers that was not allowed to continue after a year by government officials who also knew that the arrangement really worked for the provider and the user.

      There will be a bill out this session in Salem on lifting the ban on jitneys very soon. I will pass everyone a copy once it is out.

  • Bob Tiernan

    I’m not surprised at all that some Tri-Met drivers seem to be in opposition to what their employer thinks. A friend of mine has a bumper sticker that says “End Tri-Met’s Monopoly” and he gets waves of encouragement from some bus drivers. But “End Tri-Met’s Monopoly” is not Tri-Met policy, and that idea is fiercely resisted by that agency and almost all local politicians.

    I’m glad to hear that a bill is to be addressed in the state house this season. Legislation that would bar local governments from suppressing such services that meet specified minimum requirements actually passed the Oregon Senate in 1999 or 2001, but was held up by House leadership until too late in the session to be considered by the entire House (held up by a transportation committee chair who claimed to be a supporter of the bill). I was one of thirteen people who went down to that House Committee hearing to give testimony. It was interesting to note that none of us had anything to gain personally by lobbying for passage of this bill, while the 13 or so people speaking against it were mostly government bureaucrats, two others being a cab driver hoping to prevent competition and a handicapped frequent passenger who apparently believed all of the horror stories fed to him about free market service. The cab driver who was there was one of the Smart Cab drivers–the same people who only a few years earlier was aided by free-market advocates such as Cascade Policy Institute when they lobbied the Portland City Council to allowed his cab company to enter the taxi business instead of being limited to airport shuttle service.

    I have an audio tape of this testimony somewhere around here — if you’d like to have it I can let you have it.

    Bob Tiernan