Find of the Month

October 2019 - Jitney buses

traffic on Occidental, 1922

Beginning in 1914, Seattle’s street railway system had a new source of competition: “jitney buses” that would pick people up on the street and drop them off at their destination, for the same nickel fare as a streetcar ride. (One jitney outfit that served the Roosevelt corridor was named the Sound Transit Company.)

Their often cutthroat business practices included things like cruising along transit routes ahead of trolleys to poach their passengers. After a big winter storm, they hiked their prices, and were accused of interfering with the clearance of snow from streetcar tracks to keep their monopoly on transportation services as long as possible. Safety was also an issue, as passengers often rode on packed jitneys’ running boards and fenders, and the cars themselves were often not well maintained.

In early 1915, the Washington State Public Service Commission sent a report on jitneys to the Seattle City Council. In an accompanying letter, the chairman noted that “the report clearly shows that the Jitney bus as now operated results in profit neither to the jitney bus nor to the city.” He pointed out that streetcars were losing money because of unfair competition from the buses, which were unregulated and paid no money to the city. He concluded that allowing the jitneys to drive the streetcars out of business would be “foolish in the extreme.”

By the next year, many of Seattle’s citizens agreed with this perspective. A petition was transmitted to City Council in May 1916 calling for regulation of the jitney buses. The petition outlined the state of affairs:

At the present time we have two systems, the street railways and the “Jitneys.” The railways for many years have operated for a maximum fare of five cents, have paid to the City annually 2% upon their gross railway receipts and have paid millions of dollars in taxes and for paving. The “Jitney” is a new comer and may be a “Speedy Goer” for all we know. It has only to pay a small license fee and execute a bond for $2500 to pay damages if it injures any one and it is then authorized to operate without restriction or regulation as to service, rates or anything else. It is plain that where one of two competitors is subjected to strict regulation as to rates and service and the other to none, the first, which might otherwise give permanent and adequate service, may by unfair competition from the other be wrecked before time proves that the latter is only a costly experiment which must eventually fail and for which the public must finally pay, in one way or another…

If “Jitney” service is not to be a permanent institution because they cannot operate if subjected to proper regulation as to rates and service then they should not be permitted to destroy or injure street railway service which is so regulated.

The hundreds of people who signed the petition – there were 76 pages of signatures attached – summed up their feelings on Seattle transit this way: “We favor the maintenance of the best permanent and reliable means of street transportation which can be obtained at reasonable rates. The rates must be reasonable or we cannot pay them. The service must be adequate, reliable and permanent or we cannot afford it at any price.”