During the economic downturn of 1914, some Los Angeles motorists down on their luck began giving rides at a nickel, or ‘jitney', per trip and tended to shadow streetcar routes. After some national press attention, this practice became a craze that swept the nation in early 1915. As the jitney experience blossomed into demands for more reliable autobus systems, urbanites began to consider the possibilities of motorized public transit, though they were divided by class and neighbourhood. Suburbanites, however, demanded that cities retool around their automobiles. This article examines the jitney phenomenon as it emerged across the USA, which although handled locally and over varying lengths of time, did lead to a distinct national shift in urban politics and planning. It is argued that the jitney bus was not merely a transition point between rail service and the private automobile. Its real meaning lies in a political shift away from attempts by city dwellers to reform the streetcar trusts, for years a doomed struggle, and toward achieving municipally‐owned mass transit through a new technology that was not as expensive or inflexible as rail. Few were satisfied with the jitney when experimentation with it waned in much of the country as quickly as it had appeared. The automobile was not inherently a democratic technology, but the divisive politics it inspired within and between classes in city and suburb developed a tense compromise between private individual and public mass transit that is still a central debate in the nation's cities.