Miami: Van Ban


Word spread quickly through the office building on Miami's John F. Kennedy Causeway, and soon clusters of faces peered out of nearly every window, watching the action on the street below. A bright green van sat motionless in the right lane of the causeway, bracketed front and rear by police cars. Two burly cops stood beside the driver, a thin black man whose head drooped disconsolately toward the pavement. Behind them, passenger after passenger popped from the van, like clowns from a trick circus car, and collected a few hundred feet away on a corner.

Inside the office building, office workers murmured to one another, searching solemnly for a soundtrack that would make sense of the silent tableau unfolding below them. In Miami, the American Casablanca, the possibilities seemed endless. Drug smuggling? Illegal aliens? The latest Latin American exile army? But no explanation seemed to fit until one of the workers proclaimed: "Outlaw jitney." A sigh of recognition swept through the office. Another of Miami's transit scofflaws, brought to justice.

Since early July, Dade County has been cracking down on jitneys—the unlicensed, unregulated vans that threaten the county's mass-transit monopoly. About 200 have been impounded and their drivers fined up to $1,000. So far, not even the sternest county official has proposed jailing the drivers, although operating an illegal jitney is punishable by 10 days in the slammer. (The crackdown abated during and immediately after Hurricane Andrew but did not end.) By late August, scenes like the one on the Kennedy Causeway were increasingly rare. "These things are starting to hit home," says Tom Marko, head of the Dade Country agency that regulates for-hire vehicles, proudly. "I think the illegals have dropped by over 99 percent."

Not all witnesses to Miami's jitney wars believe that the victory is cause for bragging. "What it looks like to me," says transportation consultant Wendell Cox, "is that you have a sort of entrepreneurial outbreak that is being snuffed out by Dade County transportation authorities." The jitney drivers themselves express their feelings more colorfully. "This is like something Fidel Castro would do," says driver Jorge Balbuena, hurling the foulest oath conceivable in Miami.

Jitneys have operated in Miami since before World War I, and city and county authorities have been trying to put them out of business for just about that long, with varying degrees of success. In 1960, when Dade County assumed monopoly control over local bus service, it declared private competition on its routes illegal. And that was that. A few jitney companies in predominantly black areas—where segregation laws had long restricted access to buses—were permitted to keep operating; otherwise, jitneys pretty much disappeared.

But in 1989, local transportation companies discovered a gaping loophole. The state of Florida, seeking to keep local governments from interfering in long-distance transportation, had banned counties from tight regulation of "intercity" bus travel. The idea was that a company running a bus from, say, Miami to Tallahassee shouldn't be captive to every county commission along the route.

But the law also opened the way for jitneys operating between cities within county lines—which in Dade County, carved up among 28 different municipalities, included virtually every plausible route. Initially just a few large fleet operators took advantage of the loophole, but word soon spread that anyone with a vehicle could open his own bus route. Eventually about 400 jitneys were working Miami's streets.

The jitneys operate like buses, running routes that are more or less fixed, but they offer much more flexibility. They pick up or drop off passengers anywhere along the line, not just at established bus stops, and on a rainy day a jitney driver may veer a block or two off his route to deliver a rider directly to his destination. And they're cheaper; jitneys charge $1.00, 25 cents less than busfare.

Jitney drivers also offer a variety of personalized services that the county bus system can't or won't. They make change, allow riders to eat, drink, and smoke, and sometimes carry regular passengers for free in return for a promise of payment later on.

Another key difference is that jitney drivers usually speak the predominant language of the neighborhoods where they work. In the Babel that is Miami, it is not unusual to walk for blocks at a time without hearing a word of English; the city is home to many immigrants who speak only Spanish or Haitian Creole. But the powerful bus drivers' union has blocked the county from assigning drivers to routes on any basis but seniority, which means buses are often packed with passengers who can't communicate with their driver. Union officials blithely dismiss any complaints from passengers on this score. "They've just got to learn to speak English," union president Eddie Talley told the Miami Herald last year. "That's the American way."

That pretty much sums up the county bus drivers' approach to their work: The customer is always wrong. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I've seen on buses," says Ana O'Farrell, a clerical worker in a downtown Miami insurance office. "The drivers stop to get a cup of coffee, or buy a newspaper, or do some errand, and the hell with the passengers. If you complain, they just rip off a transfer, hand it to you, and say, 'There's the door, get out.'" O'Farrell grew to detest the buses so much that she refused to take them at all. She sometimes appears at public hearings to speak up in favor of the jitneys.

Given the contrast between the two services, it's no surprise that jitneys quickly made a dent in the market. A recent study by the Federal Transit Administration concluded that jitneys carry about 1 million passengers a month. "And that's a very conservative estimate," one FTA official adds.

Predictably, Dade County reacted to competition by trying to ban it. It took two years of legal wrangling, but in June 1991 the county once again had authority to keep jitneys off its routes. Two months later, county officials began impounding the vehicles, but drivers simply paid the relatively small $250 fines and went back on the road. This year the county raised the fine to $1,000 and concentrated the fire of a multi-agency task force on the jitneys. The new strategy has been effective.

"We've had to stay off the streets—we can't afford these fines," says jitney driver Balbuena, who heads the Minibus Drivers Association. "It's been pretty tough on us. One guy got evicted from his house. A couple drivers I know have been getting some work painting houses, making just enough to get by. It's just outrageous the way they're putting the entire weight of the government behind screwing a bunch of little guys. None of us was getting rich."

The jitney drivers, in fact, are a socioeconomic mirror of their working-class passengers. Many of them are recent immigrants with relatively few job skills. A typical driver works 10 hours a day and picks up about 120 passengers. After paying for gasoline and insurance, he nets about $50. (Most county bus drivers, by contrast, make $13 an hour or more.)

County officials have tried to portray the antijitney campaign as an effort to keep dangerous vehicles and unqualified drivers off the road. "You wouldn't believe some of these vehicles we've impounded," says county regulator Marko. "Some of them have crates for seats, holes in the floorboards."

The country's attempt to play the safety card got a big boost on July 28, when an illegal jitney driver ran a red light (perhaps to beat a rival jitney to passengers waiting on the next block), struck another car, and killed a Miami woman. The driver turned out to have a suspended license and 10 traffic tickets, and his insurance had lapsed for nonpayment. "This is our worst nightmare," said county commissioner Charles Dusseau, one of the most vitriolic foes of the jitneys. "We had an unlicensed, uninsured jitney involved in an accident. It's something we tried to prevent by getting these illegal operators off the streets."

On closer inspection, however, it wasn't clear that the fatal accident—the first in recent memory involving a jitney—could have been prevented by existing regulations. Only two of the jitney driver's tickets had resulted in convictions, and his license was suspended not because he was a dangerous driver but for failure to pay a fine. (In fact, his driving record would have been good enough to obtain the chauffeur's license necessary to drive a taxi.) His vehicle had actually passed a county inspection. And, although it's true the driver's insurance had lapsed, regulations for legal jitneys—that is, those that don't compete with county buses—don't require insurance companies to notify county authorities when an insurance policy is canceled.

The real proof that Dade County fears competition rather than unsafe jitneys is the county's willingness to let the jitneys operate on routes where its buses don't operate. "We've extended our hands to these people in good faith," says Marko. "We don't want to put them out of business. Last year we tripled, from 12 to 36, the number of approved routes for them."

The approved routes, however, were mostly in virtually uninhabited western areas of Dade County, where the city dissolves into the Everglades. Another route was in Cocoplum, the lush waterfront neighborhood that's home to baseball star Jose Canseco and others in his income bracket. "How often do you think Jose Canseco needs to take a jitney?" asks Balbuena. Jitney drivers who tried to drive the approved routes all abandoned them within two weeks.

The closest Dade County officials ever come to admitting their real problem with the jitneys is when they accuse them of "skimming the cream" off county bus routes. "They're in essence cherry-picking the good routes and leaving the county to provide the routes that are less traveled," county commissioner Dusseau said earlier this year.

The first problem with that argument is that "there is no cream to skim," retorts Cal Marsella, for 13 years a Dade County transit official and now a private consultant who has worked with the jitney drivers. "The best bus route in the system makes about 65 percent of its operating costs. They all lose money."

In fact, Dade's entire public transit system is a fiscal black hole; the money that's pitched into it for improvements and upgrades is never seen again. The most egregious example is Metrorail, the $1.34-billion light rail system that county planners promised would carry 240,000 passengers a day. The actual number is more like 50,000. A 1989 federal study calculated that Metrorail costs $16.77 per passenger. The rest of the county's transit system isn't much better; it loses about $105 million per year. There's every reason to expect matters to get much worse: Between 1979 and 1989, the system's costs grew 50 percent faster than inflation, ghastly even by the bloated standards of mass transit.

Marsella and several other private-sector transit consultants argue that jitneys, rather than hurting Dade County's public transportation system, actually help it. "The jitneys draw new people into the market," Marsella claims. "The key thing is frequency."

The theory goes like this. Let's say a man is trying to decide how to get from his suburban home to his downtown office. He's much more likely to take public transportation if he knows that a vehicle will be stopping every five minutes rather than every half hour. Thus the jitneys, by doubling the number of vehicles working the county's bus routes, have actually made public transportation a much more attractive option for people who might otherwise drive their own cars.

"Instead of trying to put the jitneys out of business," Marsella says, "the county should be trying to integrate them into the system." Because every county bus route loses money, every route that could be turned over to the jitneys would save taxpayers dollars. "I don't think people realize this is a no-cost option for taxpayers," he adds.

Certainly county officials don't. In April the county commission voted 6-1 against a plan that would have ceded some bus routes to the jitneys. There's little prospect that they'll change their minds; the success of the impoundment program has convinced officials that their jitney problem is already fading into memory.

Of course, the drivers don't see it that way. They've already staged several traffic slowdowns and a hunger strike in a downtown park. And before Hurricane Andrew slammed into Miami on August 30, they were pondering a caravan to Washington in the hope that the Department of Transportation would lend them an ear.

The hurricane muted battle cries on both sides of the jitney war. Police, stretched to the breaking point, had no time to impound jitneys. And although a few dozen jitneys took advantage of their preoccupation to return to illegal downtown routes, more than 250 of the drivers instead went to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has committed itself to providing free jitney service until February in the south Dade areas that were most brutally hammered by the hurricane.

But the drivers are under no illusions. "What we have here is a truce, not a peace agreement," one said. "Eventually, we're going to have to go back to war."

Glenn Garvin, a former editor of Inquiry magazine, is author of the recently published Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras (Brassey's).