Photo Credit: Lyft

Lyft is testing out a new service called Lyft Shuttle, which runs at a lower cost than its usual it’s-not-a-taxi app, but runs on a preset route picking up at preset stops. You may be familiar with this concept already, as in other parts of the world that are not Silicon Valley, this is known as a “bus.”

I did not realize that the brightest minds of Silicon Valley were dead set on recreating a ~~disruptive~~ version of public transportation’s oldest idea until I saw our sister site Lifehacker review the new service in San Francisco:

Lyfts can add up fast and Lyft Line, while less expensive, can take you out of your way and make your travel time much longer.

Lyft Shuttle addresses both those issues by having you walk to a nearby pick up spot, get in a shared car that follows a pre-designated route, and drops you (and everyone else) off at the same stop. So, basically, you share a ride with other people (most of the time) so your ride price is lower, but you know exactly how long the ride will take because you’re on a pre-designated route.

Drawbacks: the shuttle service is only available during commute hours and you’re only picked up and dropped off in certain spots. That said, the routes currently offered (shown in the map below) go to most neighborhoods that I visit and I live in downtown San Francisco so there are plenty of stops near me. If you have a similar situation if and when Lyft Shuttle comes to your city, this is a convenient—and more affordable—alternative.

Again, most of the world would recognize this as a bus.

That said, there’s a different precedent for this service that’s a bit less well-known these days but is even more apt: jitneys.

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A jitney is an unlicensed cab that follows a preset route with through a neighborhood. The name goes back to when a ride on a jitney would cost a nickel, which gives you a general sense of how old these things are. Some historians trace jitneys back to the 1910s, when America had its first taste of something Millenials will be familiar with: lots of underemployed people with access to used cars. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak wrote about this back in 2014 and 2016 when Uber’s Travis Kalinick spoke about resuscitating the jitney idea:

The rise of the jitney was incredibly sudden. A perfect storm started brewing in 1914, with an economic recession leaving thousands of men out of work. This was coupled with the emergence of a secondhand market that the world hadn’t seen before: used cars. Men who couldn’t find other work were now able to purchase a relatively inexpensive secondhand car and start work as a taxi entrepreneur the very same day.

But jitneys sprung up earlier in neighborhoods where there wasn’t just a surplus of cars and underemployed drivers; jitneys spring up every time there’s a neighborhood that doesn’t have access to public transit from the city itself. The 1984 paper Vernacular Cabs: Jitneys And Gypsies In Five Cities by Peter Suzuki explains of how this sprung up in Chattanooga, and it’s a good guide for the history of jitneys worldwide:

Jitneys were a direct result of Jim Crow laws that went into effect in Tennessee on 5 July 1905. Many of the black citizens of Chattanooga began a boycott of that city’s trolley cars and established their own horse-drawn carriage line, although shortlived. By 1917, when segregation laws were more strictly enforced, one Carl Angel on 4 July organized his six Cadillacs and Packards into the first black jitney operation in the city. With the assistance of several others, these jitneys cruised along the Boyce streetcar line. Four months later, “...some 100 jitneys were reported operating along routes where the streetcar had for years reigned supreme,” according to Steinberg (Still cruising-the jitney. Bus World. pp. 9-10). This was despite police arrests and other forms of harassment.

Again, anyone in a neighborhood not well served (for SOME reason) by public transit will be familiar with services that sure look a lot like Lyft’s “new idea.” Dollar buses, unlicensed cabs, these are revolutionary and disruptive ideas that make Silicon Valley the true house of visionary thinkfluencing we know it today.

If you want to ride a Lyft Shuttle, we suggest trying the bus first.