Flouting the Law, Serving the Poor

The underground economy is alive and well in Pittsburgh, where enterprising "jitney" drivers ignore the law to bring taxi service to poor neighborhoods.


"How are you doing, Millie?" The man in the yellow Pirates T-shirt, propped indolently against a steel railing in front of the Giant Eagle store, is solicitous. "You gonna be needin' some help today?"

Millie, a wizened and frail little black woman in her seventies, nods. "Please don't let me forget the butter this time," she says to the man as they walk into the store together. Passing them on the way out is a shopping cart piled high with brown grocery bags and shrieking toddlers, guided by a harried young woman in her mid-twenties. Her expression brightens as she spots an older man with a blue golf cap.

"Hello, baby," the older man calls. "You ready to go on to the Hill now?" The question is apparently a perfunctory one; even though the woman's attention is distracted by one of the kids, who is assiduously stuffing a plastic Luke Skywalker figure down his throat, the old man begins loading her bags into the back of his big blue Plymouth.

And a few feet away, a complex and emotional negotiation is taking place. "Since when has Mower Street been four dollars?" a woman in a blue kerchief demands, shaking a purse in the air. "Since always," replies a wiry little man, leaning back out of the path of the purse but setting his jaw nonetheless. "You know it always been four dollars to go over to Homewood."

"I ain't lettin' you rob me like that, no ways," the woman says, stomping off. She stops a few feet away and begins another conversation—more softly—with one of the others who line the sidewalk in front of the Giant Eagle.

The wiry man shrugs his shoulders. There will be somebody else in a few minutes. It is Friday afternoon, grocery-shopping day in downtown Pittsburgh, and the customers are streaming up Highland Avenue to the store. Some of them are on foot, just out of the office. Others are climbing out of the Port Authority buses that stop just a couple dozen feet away. But no matter how they arrive, many of the shoppers will leave in "jitneys."

Virtually everyone in Pittsburgh takes jitneys for granted. But these illicit taxis are actually a remarkable example of entrepreneurs operating successfully in an underground economy, serving Pittsburgh's poor and minorities. The jitneys set their own rates and routes, offer a startling array of services unmatched by any of Pittsburgh's legal transportation companies, and are cheaper than their legal competitors.

Once, jitneys flourished openly (and legally) all over the United States. In the years before World War I, even comparatively small towns like Flint, Michigan, and Ashtabula, Ohio, boasted popular jitney services. Municipal governments, jealous of any competition with their city-franchised streetcar systems, nearly rubbed out jitneys in a frenzy of monopolistic legislation in 1915 and 1916, but some hardy entrepreneurs survived.

You can find their now-illegal descendants still cruising along King Drive in Chicago and hauling commuters up Boulevard East in the Jersey suburbs of New York. They ferry shoppers back and forth to grocery stores in Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhoods, refusing to submit even to the mild regulation of the local Hacker's Commission. A few places, like Atlantic City, even have legal jitneys, but there are illegal jitneys in far more places. There are jitneys in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Diego, Buffalo, and Philadelphia. Even if they're illegal, there are probably jitneys in your town, too, if you know where to look.

But Pittsburgh is special. Pittsburgh is to jitneys as San Francisco is to cable cars. In Pittsburgh, there are probably twice as many jitneys as there are legal taxicabs. Jitney stands operate openly, sometimes even within shouting distance of cab-company offices. Grocery parking lots are jammed with jitneys. Says an official of one Pittsburgh taxicab company, "The jitneys dominate the market. The jitneys define the market. If they decided to cut their prices, we'd have to cut ours."

The local government and the state's Public Utilities Commission (PUC), both of which regulate taxis, don't wink at jitneys so much as they stare. At the Pittsburgh Police Department's Second Precinct headquarters, in the middle of a nest of black honky-tonks and joints known as the Hill, it is not uncommon for officers to summon a jitney to take a drunk home.

A PUC official recently noted that the commission's penalty for illegal jitneys, when it is imposed, is usually a fine of $100 and revocation of the state registration for the vehicle involved. However, he admitted that enforcement in Pittsburgh is "based largely on any complaints we receive," and speculated that the PUC looks at "less than 50" cases per year. Otto Davis, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor who has studied jitneys extensively, thinks the last real effort to crack down on jitneys may have been in the early 1960s, and no one else seems to recall any systematic effort since.

Mass transit is still officially a creature of the government in Pittsburgh, just as it has been almost everywhere else in the country since the advent of the electric streetcar in 1888. Generally, streetcars, buses, and subways either have been operated by cities or have enjoyed monopoly franchises shielding them from the free market. And with a few (but growing number of) exceptions, taxi companies are similar monopolies or are regulated so sharply that they might as well be. The US public-transportation system has been in place so long that hardly anyone questions it anymore.

But Pittsburgh's experience with the jitneys proves that there's another way. "What it proves, I think," says Otto Davis, "is that—at least under some circumstances—a free market in transportation works."

It's a lazy Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh's Homewood district, a working-class black neighborhood. Morning marketing is over, there are no ball games or concerts today, and Homewood—along with the rest of the city—is quiet. In theory, it should be an easy time to call one of the city's 350 legal taxicabs. But don't bother calling a cab to Homewood, because it probably won't come.

"Yeah, I ain't surprised you couldn't get one," the jitney driver agrees amiably. "They don't like to come over here. Maybe part of it is because folks in this neighborhood ain't got a lot of money. And partly it's the crime. Especially at night, a cab driver don't like to come over here 'cause he's afraid he'll get robbed."

He laughs. "Hell, when I was driving for Yellow Cab I didn't like to come over my ownself at night. Nobody likes to get robbed." He pauses while he turns his big white Dodge. "And maybe," he continues after a moment, "maybe it's 'cause we're black over here. Whatever it is, it don't matter. You got a jitney, didn't you?"

This one came from a jitney stand. There are at least 44 (and probably many more) of these stands scattered through central and north Pittsburgh. Some of them are located in empty filling stations, some in small storefronts, some in garages or even apartments. They usually boast a sign that says "car service" followed by a telephone number. The drivers pay the station operator $10–20 a week. In return, he prints business cards and places them around the neighborhood—many if not most pay phones in black areas of the city have the cards taped to their front—and he acts as a dispatcher, taking phone calls and directing the drivers to customers who need a ride. Some customers call, others walk in.

"Mostly we get folks from the neighborhood," says this jitney driver, who says his name is Frank. "I'll take folks anywhere, but mostly they just want to go shopping around here, or maybe go to an office downtown."

Frank does not know he is talking to a reporter—he's just making small talk with a garrulous customer. Although officials have shown little inclination to bother the jitney drivers, they are all very aware that what they are doing is illegal. An open request for information is inevitably met with a blank stare and a mumbled, "I don't know nothin' about no car service"—in some cases, even as customers are getting into the car.

Frank is a typical jitney driver—60 years old, semi-retired, and living on a small pension that he supplements with his jitney earnings. "I used to drive a cab," he says. "But, hell, they wanted $50 a day for me to rent the damn thing from the company. How much money you think I had left over at the end of the day after I paid that $50? The money I make now, it ain't a lot. But it's a damn sight more than I was making from the cab company."

On this Saturday afternoon, there are six or seven drivers hanging around in the small brick building that is Frank's jitney station. Their cars are parked on the street outside, everything from big Lincolns to little Datsuns, although the bigger cars seem to predominate. Frank says there are 22 drivers who use the station. "We ain't the biggest, either," he explains. "There's one a few blocks over that has 45 drivers. There's at least 180 jitneys working within a dozen blocks of here—at least." He chuckles. "The jitneys are taking over this town."

So it seems. There are four varieties of jitney driver in Pittsburgh. There are the station drivers, like Frank, who are in many ways the most amazing part of the jitney phenomenon. In a business that is supposed to be at least semi-clandestine, the clearly-marked jitney stations almost cry out for official retribution. But none seems to be forthcoming.

The other kinds of jitneys are not so screamingly obvious, although any visitor to Pittsburgh can learn to spot them after about an hour in the city. In the downtown area, there are drivers who duplicate Port Authority bus routes; they pull up at certain intersections and honk to call the customers. Generally they charge the same rate as the buses, but they are willing to make short sidetrips from the bus routes to deliver passengers to their doors. These are called "line-haul" jitneys.

Yet other jitney drivers work the airport and the bus station. At the airport, the jitneys seem to coexist peacefully with legal taxicabs and limousines. The cabdrivers will even refer customers to a jitney when some specialized form of service is required—say, a customer who wants to stop at a bank en route to his final destination.

At the bus station, things are somewhat rockier. The taxi drivers are prohibited from entering the station to solicit customers, but the outlaw jitneys scoff at such restrictions. They go into the bus station all the time, getting first crack at fares. There have been some fist fights as a result, and it is darkly whispered among the taxi drivers that a cabbie who was charged with rape a couple of years ago was somehow set up by the jitney drivers.

The final group of jitneys works the supermarkets. These men (in all Pittsburgh jitney lore and legend, there are no reports of any female drivers) not only provide transportation, they offer a sort of Boy-Scout-for-hire service. They help the frail and elderly with shopping, they will walk the cart through the checkout line for a busy customer who has to run across the street, and they load and unload groceries from the car. Like the jitney-stand drivers, they tend to be community types. They call greetings as customers approach the store, exchange gossip and pleasantries, and even act as a neighborhood billboard. At a grocery store on East Liberty Circle, I watched an elderly jitney driver hail a passing woman. "Norma," he called, "your mama's inside the store right now, and she'd like some help with the shopping." Norma smiled, waved, and headed inside. Store managers don't like to acknowledge the jitneys—"I'm not sure what you're talking about"—but they obviously tolerate, if not actually encourage, their presence.

Like Frank, most of the drivers are men between 55 and 75 years old who work four to six days a week. "They sit down there at the supermarkets and the jitney stands, and they talk to each other, shoot the breeze," says Carnegie-Mellon's Davis, who—with Norman Johnson of Florida A&M—conducted a four-year study of jitneys published in the Journal of Contemporary Studies last year. "It's both a social thing and an economic thing."

Davis's study showed that 60 percent of the drivers were older and disabled or retired. He also identified two other groups of drivers: middle-aged men who drive part-time to supplement a regular job or during seasonal unemployment, and younger men in their 20s and early 30s who drive jitneys at night while searching for work during the day.

With the exception of the "line-haul" jitneys (the ones that run along bus routes), virtually all the drivers charge by a system of zone fees. Each driver—or group of drivers, in the case of the stations—is free to work out whatever fare schedule he wants, but most jitneys seem to charge roughly the same rates. ("This is a good example of something that most people seem to think requires the government: rate-setting," says Davis. "But these guys set it up themselves, and it seems to work fine.") At jitney stands, all the drivers must abide by the group rate, which is printed and posted, and there seems to be little gouging.

Customer satisfaction seems high. "Yeah, you don't want somebody complaining to the man who runs the station," one jitney driver said. "He'll boot you out. Folks won't come to a jitney stand if they think the drivers are gonna rip them off." When most of the customers are drawn from the neighborhood, the likelihood of complaint is high if a driver makes a misstep.

On the other hand, the jitney driver is truly his own boss and has considerable license to deal with obnoxious customers as he sees fit. I shared a jitney with a woman who was complaining loudly about the car, the upholstery, and the fare, which the driver had told her would be three dollars. She sat in the back, and I was in the front. When we got to my destination, about a block from hers, I started to hand the driver three dollars. He silently signalled me two instead. "I driven her before," he whispered as I got out of the car.

Although the officials who operate the Port Authority buses scream loud, hard, and often about the jitneys in press interviews and public statements, the illegal taxis seem to compete most directly with Pittsburgh's two citywide cab companies. Yet on paper, the law gives the cab companies formidable protection from almost any competition.

Those who dare to enter the taxi market legally are jumping head first into a regulatory thicket. They must apply for a taxi license, called "rates," to the state Public Utilities Commission. According to a commission official, the PUC holds a hearing at which existing companies may challenge the application, then the commission grants rates only if it determines that doing so is "in the public interest." Should the commission grant rates, the lucky applicants must pay one percent of their gross income in taxes to the PUC every year.

There's no official limit on the number of legal cabs, but rates are not handed out frequently. The last serious attempt to get rates from the PUC was in the mid-1970s. The company got rates—but once it began service, it couldn't beat the competition of the jitneys. Indeed, the only legal citywide competition for Yellow is the little People's Cab Company, a 25-car fleet operated by Carnegie-Mellon's Center for Entrepreneurial Development. Although People's does turn a small profit, it is run mostly for experimental purposes.

Can a solitary individual with one car apply for rates? Technically, yes—but the PUC official observed, "I don't recall any case where that's happened. With the need for filing fees, hearings, and attorneys, it's probably not worth it." So for an ordinary entrepreneur who wants to make an honest living by transporting people, the underground economy is the only sensible option available—and a lot of people take that option.

From the customer's standpoint, jitneys stand up well in comparison with Yellow Cab. It operates about 350 vehicles, although drivers say the company's dilapidated cabs break down so frequently that there are rarely more than 200 on the street at any given time.

The jitneys, by almost all accounts, do a better job than the cabs. Jitney drivers are friendlier, more helpful, and more willing to honor a request for unusual service. Jitney drivers will deliver a package, drop off the laundry, pick up a bottle of liquor and bring it by the house, escort a child, and occasionally even carry a customer in return for a promise of payment later in the week. And unquestionably, the jitneys are cheaper. Generally speaking, a $2.60 cab ride will cost $2.00 in a jitney. Moreover, the cab driver will expect a tip, which is unheard of in the jitney trade.

The jitneys have several economic advantages over the taxis, almost all of them related to regulation. The cabbies must buy a chauffeur's license; the jitneys don't do it. The cabbies' revenues are taxed by the PUC; the jitneys' revenues are not. Cabbies are not allowed to assemble groups of passengers headed in the same direction; jitneys do it all the time, especially those that operate out of grocery stores. (This is an advantage especially during rush hour, when heavy traffic keeps a vehicle from making as many trips as it can at other times of the day.)

The cabbies must install meters, which cost $300–500; a jitney's zone-fare card costs a nickel, if that. The cabs, in theory, undergo rigorous safety inspections, which cost time and money; the jitneys don't. (There is good reason to believe, however, that the cab inspections are not all they're cracked up to be. Last year Pittsburgh Magazine took a randomly selected Yellow Cab to an inspection station. A mechanic found 18 different violations serious enough to fail the cab and keep it off the road, including cracked brake pads and exhaust leakage into the car. The mechanic tried to talk the cabbie out of driving home. He pleaded, "I wouldn't drive to the pumps in this cab.")

The jitneys do have one major advantage that is arguably unfair—they simply rely on their ordinary auto insurance, since the insurance company has no way of knowing that a driver operates a jitney. The cab companies, on the other hand, pay commercial rates.

"Of course they can operate cheaper than we do," growls an angry Dwight Baumann, president of People's Cab, smacking the table with his fist. "I pay $2,400 a year per car for insurance. They pay $400. We could operate cheaper than we do if you knock that much off our rates."

He continues, "They compete directly with us, and they compete for the riders that all cab drivers want—they compete for the regular, the guy who has to go someplace at the same time every day," he says. "I wish there was something we could do about them."

Al Hayes, the vice-president of Yellow Cab, is no more sympathetic to the jitneys. "There's no control on them—no taxes, no anything," he complains. "Anyone who buys a drag-along car is in business with no expenses except for gasoline." Asked how much jitneys are cutting into Yellow Cab's business, he responds, "We're getting about 60 to 70 percent of the business we had 10 years ago. Not all of the decline is because of jitneys, but my best guess is that they're taking about 10 percent of the business we had."

Baumann of People's Cab once tried to do something about the situation. He offered jitney drivers special deals if they'd join his company. His theory was that they would help People's Cab by bringing their current business along, and he could help them by offering radio dispatch service along with group insurance and other conventional business perks.

It didn't work. "They didn't want to pay income tax," he recalls. But, having failed to entice the jitneys into the system, Baumann thinks it's useless to try to crack down on them. "That's been done many times," he says. "It just doesn't get anywhere. If you tried to do the same thing with the rest of the underground economy—if you said, 'Let's regulate the cleaning ladies,' for instance—you'd get the same results."

Yellow Cab's Hayes, in contrast, blames the PUC for the proliferation of jitneys. He says that Yellow hasn't lobbied heavily for a crackdown on jitneys because "we don't have the time nor the money to be the policeman. We feel that's the job of the Utilities Commission, and they could care less."

Just how profitable are the jitneys? Davis, using data assembled by graduate students who actually drove jitneys for a summer, calculated that the average jitney driver makes 3,900 trips a year, bringing in $7,800. After accounting for the costs of gasoline, oil, and other operating expenses, and allowing for depreciation, jitney jobs suddenly don't seem very attractive. The average driver, by those calculations, makes only about $5,000 a year.

But the jitney drivers don't see it that way. "Look, I gotta have a car anyway, right?" said one. "The only thing I'm spending extra to be a jitney is for gasoline." Given that most of the drivers are just trying to supplement an income or to keep their heads above water while looking for other work, jitneys seem like a sensible economic venture. "All you got to have," advised one driver, "is a car and a little bit of knowledge about Pittsburgh."

The inevitable question: if jitneys are such a good deal for drivers and passengers alike, why don't we have more of them? And the answer is, because city governments are greedy. It's certainly not a lack of demand for jitneys, if history is any indication.

The first jitney driver was a Los Angeles man named L.P. Draper. On July 1, 1914, he picked up a passenger in his Model T Ford and drove him a mile or so in return for a nickel. ("Jitney" apparently derives from the French word jeton, or token.) Draper seemed to have hit on the proverbial idea whose time had come. In less than a year, there were 62,000 jitneys, operating from San Diego to Portland, Maine. Jitney operators began forming associations, and soon there was even a trade publication, The Jitney Bus.

Those early jitneys had but one business strategy, and that was to steal customers who were lined up to ride on electric streetcars. Like the line-haul jitneys in Pittsburgh today who work the Port Authority bus routes, the original jitneys traveled streetcar lines almost exclusively. But customers crowded into them because they were so much faster—they careened about the streets at a reckless 15 miles per hour, twice the speed of the streetcars—and because they could swing off the streetcar route and deliver a passenger to his door. They also lent a touch of excitement to city life; jitneys were constantly smacking into one another as they sped to the curb, trying to pick off customers.

The jitneys specialized in short hauls of a mile or two, and those were precisely the customers the streetcars could not afford to lose. The streetcars were charging everybody a nickel and using the revenues from the short trips to subsidize passengers who went longer distances. (Municipal planners, in those days, thought that was a great idea. They favored "urban decentralization." Municipal planners nowadays refer to that same concept as "urban sprawl." They say mass transit helps to fight it, which just goes to show the miraculous metamorphosis in mass transit over the last 60 years.)

The jitneys were so spectacularly successful in making off with streetcar customers that within five months of L.P. Draper's first foray, the Los Angeles streetcar system was losing so much revenue that it had to lay off 84 employees.

Municipal government fought off a collective wave of nausea at this. They handed out "franchises"—that is, monopolies—to the streetcars in return for road improvements and a cut of the proceeds. And after an unproductive spate of name-calling—the Electric Railway Journal sometimes called jitneys "a menace," on other occasions "a malignant growth," and then, when the editor was really mad, "this Frankenstein of transportation"—the streetcar companies simply got their pals at City Hall to do some creative legislating. The most common tactic was to impose outlandish fees and bonding requirements on the jitneys.

The cities did not limit themselves to these strategies. They also issued route restrictions and onerous safety requirements. In some cities where anti-jitney laws had to be put to the voters, the streetcar companies were unusually resourceful. In Los Angeles, the streetcar company simply called a holiday on election day and then ordered its employees to shuttle anti-jitney voters to the polls in their autos. Lest there be any doubt about the intent of these new laws and regulations, the Electric Railway Journal gleefully discussed new ways "of exterminating the jitney under the guise of regulating it."

The efforts of the city governments and their streetcar quislings were spectacularly successful. In New Orleans, 300 jitneys went out of business in a single day when the city began requiring a $5,000 bond. In Los Angeles, where it all began, the number of jitneys dropped from 1,000 in 1916 to 32 in 1917. By the end of World War I, the jitneys were nearly all gone. Perhaps they derived some posthumous satisfaction from the fact that the streetcar companies could not save themselves through this villainy. The companies began to go bust in the mid-1920s and were soon overrun by bus lines.

Buses, in turn, got into serious financial trouble in the 1950s. They were frequently taken over by the city governments themselves, which soon began to lobby for federal subsidies to keep them afloat. In the 1960s, the federal government began paying for most of the capital improvements to bus systems, and during the next decade, the feds began chipping in toward operating deficits as well. Fares on mass-transit—both rail and bus—now cover less than half of the operating costs of such systems.

One problem with fixed-route transportation systems is that none of them—not even the new and fabulously expensive subway systems in Washington and San Francisco—are as convenient, flexible, or adaptable to individual needs as the automobile. Taxicabs carry as many passengers as mass transit does in the United States. But the ubiquitous overregulation of taxis creates problems in that market, as Pittsburgh and other cities have discovered.

Organizations as diverse as the Urban Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the US Department of Transportation have all recognized the stupidity—if not necessarily the injustice—of outlawing jitneys. Said a Department of Transportation report in 1972: "The present regulatory environment in urban public transportation, including obsolete franchise limitations and market-entry barriers for taxicabs and jitneys, restricts the efficient operation of the urban transportation system. The removal of such regulatory constraints is likely to lead to more efficient use of the transportation system and increase the options available to its users."

Although the DOT report didn't say so, the people who are most vulnerable to inefficient urban transportation systems are often the poor and minorities. It's the customers of the Giant Eagle store in Pittsburgh—the ones without cars trying to make their way home with their groceries on a Friday afternoon—who would suffer most without an alternative to the official transportation systems tightly regulated by the state.

Of course, the poor of Pittsburgh are a bit luckier than most. They're splendidly served by the genial entrepreneur in the yellow Pirates T-shirt and his colleagues, all of whom ply an honorable trade without letting the law get in the way.

The jitneys do just fine, regardless of what the government thinks or says. Davis says his conservative estimate of the number of jitneys is 495. The drivers themselves figure that underestimates the true figure at least by half.

One odd thing Davis reported in his study, which the jitney drivers do not dispute, is that jitneys in Pittsburgh are a peculiarly black phenomenon. Most of the passengers are black, and nearly all the drivers are black. Moreover, the jitneys simply don't operate in all-white neighborhoods.

"We searched like crazy, all up and down the Monongahela Valley," he says, slowing his car to point out yet another jitney stand in the Hill district. "And we couldn't find one. I'll be damned if I can understand why. It seems like a neat service. If you're poor and white and living in some white area, you have to arrange with a friend or a relative to take you to the store. If you live in this neighborhood"—he gestures around at the Hill—"you can use a jitney. In a sense, this neighborhood, even though it's poor and black and no one would ever believe it—in a sense, this neighborhood gets better service. Because of the jitneys."

Glenn Garvin is a staff writer for the Washington Times and a former editor of Inquiry magazine. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.