In Houston, as in many other cities, there are poor people whose success in getting to jobs or anywhere else depends on their ability to breathe life into rusting hulks of superannuated gas guzzlers or to negotiate the vicissitudes of public transportation. So Alfredo Santos, a taxi driver, decided in the summer of 1983 to try something new.
In some predominantly Mexican neighborhoods, he began offering rides based on the Mexican pesero system: riders would share the vehicle but could travel up to five miles for $1.00 each. Unlike public buses, Santos would drop off passengers anywhere they wished within this five-mile limit.
People loved it. "We'd drive up and down in the 90-degree heat," says Santos, "and say, 'Hey, man, where are you going? Downtown? So are we.'"
He kept his cab full and his passengers happy. Pretty soon friends who also drove taxis joined him. They advertised their service with Spanish-language flyers and on Spanish radio stations. But when they tried to expand the business by advertising in English, executives at the Yellow Cab Co. found out.
Soon, Santos could no longer sublease a Yellow cab. To make matters worse, the city taxi inspector dusted off an 1924 antijitney law—probably passed to protect streetcar companies from competition—and told Santos to shut down his jitney service. "Until then," says Santos, "I'd never even heard the word jitney."
Today, he is an expert. Santos has earned a master's degree in transportation planning. (Jitney, he explains, is a 1920s-era slang term for a nickel. Until jitneys were banned, Model-T owners would offer shared-ride service for five cents.) A former labor activist for Cesar Chavez, Santos is now, says his lawyer Clint Bolick, a "born-again capitalist."
Bolick is director of the Landmark Legal Foundation's Center for Civil Rights, a Washington. D.C.–based public interest law firm. In April he filed a lawsuit on behalf of Santos to force the city to overturn the law. The center's goal, says Bolick, "is to reinvigorate economic liberties as fundamental civil rights." Many regulations such as Houston's ban on jitneys adversely affect minorities in particular.
In March, the center won a suit in federal court challenging a District of Columbia law that forbade outdoor shoeshine booths. A black entrepreneur named Ego Brown had been put out of business by the law (see "Battered Ego Brown," Aug./Sept.). Bolick came to his rescue, arguing that the ban was the economic equivalent of a Jim Crow law and might have been designed to limit opportunities for blacks. The judge found the law unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment's due process clause.
Pending the resolution of Santos's suit, Yellow Cab is again allowing him to drive a cab on the condition that he charge passengers according to the fare box, which he says he does "most of the time." Says Santos, "You can't stop a good idea."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Everybody on the Bus".