Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

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