Eileen Bruskewitz leans across the table and utters one word regarding Madison's mass transportation future, and that word isn't "streetcar." Her bright eyes gleam behind black-rimmed glasses as she smiles and says, "Jitneys," then leans back in her chair.
Bruskewitz, a county supervisor and member of the Madison Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, is not advocating some futuristic vision of flying cars. What she proposes is, actually, old news. She wants to reinstate a bygone way of moving people around.
"The idea is a customer-friendly, people-centered kind of a system," Bruskewitz says, contrasting this to plans for a commuter rail system in Dane County and trolley cars in downtown Madison. "And what I see from the plans being made right now is that they are hardware-based systems, and people are the afterthought."
Jitneys are, essentially, taxicabs owned and operated by private individuals. They first arose in Los Angeles in 1914, when enterprising citizens began driving their Model T Fords up and down the trolley tracks, trolling for passengers waiting for trains. The fare was about a nickel - or, in the slang of the day, a "jitney." Drivers would shuttle customers further down the tracks or, for a higher fare, to other destinations.
Bruskewitz, who is pushing for Madison to consider this transit alternative, has firsthand experience with jitneys. When she was a child, her family would drive down from Pennsylvania to visit her grandfather, a jitney driver, in Atlantic City.
"Once you got to Atlantic City," she recalls, "you parked your car and you could just hop on a jitney anytime you wanted to go anywhere on the oceanfront."
According to a recent paper called "Smart Jitney/Community-Enhanced Transit Systems," jitneys were once a mainstay of American transportation. In 1916, the city of Seattle had around 500 jitneys that "carried approximately 50,000 passengers per day, without any government subsidies."
The paper, presented this year at a conference for the American Public Transit Association, goes on to say that people preferred jitneys because they offered "fewer stops, a more comfortable ride, and faster travel times than streetcars - at the same fare."
But jitneys were too good at what they did. Streetcar companies, resentful of the competition, lobbied to ban the use of privately owned vehicles for mass transportation. In time, jitneys were an afterthought in most American cities.
Atlantic City and a few other places kept jitneys to meet specific transportation needs. Even today, a large portion of Detroit's poorer population is carried around town in the cars of retired workers seeking supplemental income, despite laws against this practice passed at the urging of bus and taxi lobbyists.
Bruskewitz thinks jitneys persist because they offer the ease and simplicity that people want. She doesn't see why they couldn't work here.
"When I moved to Madison in 1981, there was all this talk about trains," she says. "And I remember thinking, ‘Why don't they just use jitneys going up and down University Avenue?'"
While Bruskewitz's idea may sound fantastic, reality is that jitneys have already rolled down Madison's streets.
In a report prepared for the Madison Planning Trust in 1938, consultant Ladislas Segoe warned city planners about jitneys, saying they are "strong competitors of the transit system and cut heavily into its possible revenues." At that time, Segoe estimated that about 35,000 people who came to the central business district each day either walked or drove a car. That left roughly 8,000 people for public transportation to fight over, and jitneys snagged over a third of those customers.
The majority of Madison's taxicabs were considered jitneys back then. They were independently operated and subscribed to no fixed route or schedule, picking up passengers on the same streets as city buses. Segoe portrayed the transit picture as a battle between buses, which offered a "high standard of service and timely extensions," and jitneys, which were "inadequate and unattractive." He felt "competition of the kind offered by these jitney cabs is undesirable."
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is of similar mind. According to aide George Twigg, the mayor doesn't think jitneys are a "credible" alternative to other forms of transit. "Eileen's proposal is to let the market decide what routes will be served," says Twigg. "There's no guarantee that you would get a system that would serve the entire community."
Currently, the city requires cab companies to provide citywide 24-hour service, which effectively blocks solo cabbies from being licensed. Past efforts to loosen the regulations have been opposed by cab companies and rejected by the Common Council.
Critics argue that Madison's three taxicab companies essentially operate as a city-authorized cartel. The cab companies counter that they couldn't afford to operate 24 hours a day if they lost peak-time business to solo cabbies.
Next month, Bruskewitz will be attending a conference in Atlanta sponsored by the American Dream Coalition. The conference will promote transit options that reflect the group's belief in Americans' "freedom of choice in how they use their land and what forms of transportation they use."
Bruskewitz hopes she can come back to Madison armed with information on jitney systems and offer a compelling alternative, or at least a complement, to the rail system.
"We have good [road] capacity, we have plenty of cars, and the technology is there," she says. "If we could somehow tap into that, then the $800 million [price tag] doesn't exist and you've got something you can use today."
In a 1994 report, the U.S. Department of Transportation said "access to safe, convenient, cost-effective transportation is essential for the economic health of the nation." It went on to discuss the cheap and limitless possibilities of using existing alternatives, like ridesharing among private citizens, to halt the decline in the use of public transportation.
This kind of "ride for hire" is even more doable today, with advances in cell phones, laptop computers and wireless technologies. While Bruskewitz admits that jitneys are not yet on the radar of most city planners, she still dreams of the day when a commuter could wake up, log on to a mass transit Web site and order a ride. The order would then be sent to the closest available car, perhaps another commuter on his way to work, who would get the request from an in-dash computer and head out to pick up a fare.
"Maybe I'm just too idealistic," Bruskewitz says, "but I don't think so. I think this is just a straightforward, functional idea."