This week, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) will consider approving a new permit program for private transit vehicles, or PTVs. These vehicles – currently, Chariot is the only one operating in the city – use shuttle vans and a smartphone app; they are “open to the public, charge individual fares and operate on fixed routes,” according to the SFMTA website.
Bureaucrats may call them PTVs, but these vehicles are better known by an old slang term: jitney. And I was surprised to learn that both the word jitney and jitney transportation have deep roots, and routes, in California.
A “super jitney bus” in San Francisco, 1970s. Photo via SFMTA.com.
The origin of jitney is uncertain; the OED says it’s “unknown,” while the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests a relationship with French jetton, a cheap coin (literally “something that’s thrown”). The word first appeared in the 1890s, possibly in New Orleans (which would support the French-etymology hypothesis); from early on, it referred both to a vehicle and to the fare for riding it: a five-cent coin, or a nickel. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains:
The origin and signification of the word was much discussed when the buses first appeared. Some reports say the slang word for “nickel” comes from the bus; most say the reverse, however there does not seem to be much record of jitney in a coin sense before the buses came along (a writer in “The Hub,” August 1915, claims to have heard and used it as a small boy in San Francisco, and reported hearsay that “It has been in use there since the days of ’49”). Most sources credit it to the U.S. West, especially California, though others trace it to “southern negroes, especially in Memphis” [“The Pacific,” Feb. 7, 1915].
The earliest published reference to a “gitney” coin was in May 1903, in a Cincinnati Enquirer article about St. Louis slang. A February 1915 article in The Nation (published then, as now, in New York) asserted without references that a “jitney” was “the Jewish slang term for a nickel”; the following month, the same publication declared that “A ‘jitney’ 'bus derives its name from ‘jitney’, meaning the smallest coin in circulation in Russia.” (One Charles V.E. Starrett wrote a letter to The Nation disputing this claim: “I personally applied to the Russian Consult here in this connection … The smallest Russian coin is the copeck, and the word ‘jitney’ has never been applied to it, according to my informant.” The letter-writer offered his own (spurious) etymology: “Now, my own theory – altogether imaginative – is that Jitney is the name of a small English village, where, of old, a ’bus line operated at five cents a ride. The word has an English twist to it, and I can picture my village without any difficulty.”
As we would say in 2017: You do you, Mr. Starrett.
The OED’s earliest citation for a jitney bus is dated January 14, 1915, again from The Nation (which could have renamed itself The Jitney for all its enthusiasm about the topic). But the reference is to Los Angeles, not New York:
This autumn automobiles, mostly of the Ford variety, have begun in competition with the street cars in this city [sc. Los Angeles]. The newspapers call them ‘Jitney 'buses’.
Jitneys were in fact a transit fixture in Los Angeles in the years before freeways. Writing in Pacific Standard in 2012, Matt Novak traces the first jitneys to Los Angeles in 1914, where they arose in direct competition to streetcars, “many of which were angering riders over their unwillingness to improve their overcrowded and increasingly undependable services at a time of recession”:
By 1915 the jitney vehicles were carrying about 150,000 Angelenos per day and the jitney had swept the nation, operating in more than 40 U.S. cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, New York, and Portland, Maine.
Jitneys were so popular in Los Angeles, and apparently so confounding, that a local daily, the Herald, published a guide to jitney etiquette in May 1915. (“Should passengers rob their jitney driver? Should jitney drivers rob their passengers?”)
L.A.’s jitneys disappeared almost as quickly as they’d flourished: by 1918, they were virtually gone. The story in San Francisco was quite different.
An SFWeekly article, published last year, identifies the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition as the starting point for San Francisco’s jitneys; by the end of that decade, there wer emore than 1,400 jitneys operating in the city. But:
As the decades passed, more and more options for getting around became available, including commuting solo by automobile and an expanded Muni. After BART entered service in the early 1970s, jitney use sharply declined, in part because no new permits were being issued, but mostly because city regulations requiring jitneys to charge fares equal or greater to public transit removed patrons' incentives. Why ride a jitney when the bus costs the same?
The last San Francisco jitney permit was issued in 1972. Forty-five years later, the city is considering a revival.
And speaking of revivals:
Written in 1979, August Wilson’s Jitney was first performed in Pittsburgh in 1982; when the playwright took his mother to see the production, they arrived by jitney. The play had its Broadway debut on December 28, 2016, and closed on March 12, 2017. From a Wikipedia synopsis: “Regular taxi cabs will not travel to the Pittsburgh Hill District of the 1970s, and so the residents turn to jitneys—unofficial, unlicensed taxi cabs—that operate in the community. This play portrays the lives of the jitney drivers at the station owned by Jim Becker.”
Bonus etymology: The jeepney is the most popular form of public transportation in the Philippines; it may be a portmanteau of Jeep and jitney – the original jeepneys were made from World War II-era U.S. military jeeps – or it may be a compound of jeep and knee, because passengers sit close together, knee to knee. The brand name associated with jeepneys is Sarao; the first jeepneys were manufactured by the Sarao company in 1953.
Jeepney (via Wikipedia).