Shortly after the turn of the last century, a nickel bought Los Angelenos a ride in a passenger car service that was as convenient as public transportation but as flexible as a cab. The Jitney, named after the slang for a nickel, was cheap, convenient and very popular.
And in under five years, it was nearly dead.
Travis Kalanick took a drive down memory lane Tuesday, drawing parallels to this early example of the shared car concept that flourished across 175 U.S. cities and how excessive regulation in the service of protecting incumbent interests set back modern transportation and city design.
“There was an Uber way before Uber,” Kalanick said, during a talk at the TED conference in Vancouver. “If it had survived, the future of transportation would probably already be here.”
By 1919, the Jitney was nearly extinct, driven out of business by regulations, Kalanick said. The trolley industry saw the threat of the Jitney and got all kinds of laws passed, requiring everything from multiple drivers to mandatory 16-hour days to lights to discourage passengers from smooching.
What Kalanick did not bring up in his talk is the consumer-protecting role regulations play, like laws around employee background checks that keep felons off the road.
With the disappearance of an alternative to limited public transportation, individual car ownership took off. By 2007, the U.S. had a car for every man, woman and child.
“All this private ownership had a public cost,” Kalanick said, noting that Americans spend seven billion hours a year in traffic, resulting in $160 billion in lost productivity, not to mention accounting for a fifth of carbon dioxide emissions.
And while he is a big fan of self-driving cars, Kalanick said we needn’t and shouldn’t wait for them to solve the traffic, pollution and productivity costs of individual car ownership.
“Do we have to wait five, 10 or even 20 years to make our new cities a reality?” Kalanick said, answering his own question. “We can turn every car into a shared car and we can reclaim our cities starting today.”
Kalanick said that even good public transit systems, like those in New York, aren’t enough. He noted that even with an extensive subway system there are still 2.5 million cars going over the region’s bridges each day.
“Mass transit hasn’t yet figured out how to get to everybody’s doorstep,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Kalanick sees Uber (along with UberPool and UberCommute) as the answer and regulation as the enemy. He lashed out, specifically, at rules that hamper the idea of having people drive their neighbors to work, what Uber calls UberCommute. Kalanick said rules prevent drivers from being paid more than 54 cents per mile, even if such a service would greatly increase carpooling.
“It goes back to the lesson of the Jitney,” he said. What if they had not been regulated out of existence? “Would we have parks in the place of parking lots?” Kalanick said. “We lost that chance, but technology has given us a new opportunity.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.