A Tribute to the Jitney
Though Illegal, Jitneys Have a Long and Honorable Tradition in America
JANUARY 01, 2000 by LAWRENCE W. REED
No person shall operate or cause to be operated any jitney upon any street, avenue, boulevard or other public place within the City of Detroit whether such jitney operates wholly within the City of Detroit, or from some point within the City of Detroit or to some point outside of the City of Detroit to some point within the City of Detroit.
So reads the official ban on one of the oldest illegal businesses that still operate openly in Detroit, Michigan. The rather emphatic language says, in effect, “We don’t want any part of this!” And yet on public bulletin boards at grocery, drug, and department stores all over the city, one can find notices that announce, “For Jitney Service, Call This Number.”
Just what is this “jitney” thing that the City of Detroit, in the name of protecting the public, officially declares verboten? It’s a very popular business in which mostly retired autoworkers, church deacons, widowers, and otherwise idle but able citizens charge a small fee to give poor people a ride from where they shop to where they live.
The crime is that jitneys do their good work without a taxi license from the city government—the same city government that wouldn’t authorize a single additional taxicab for 50 years. Getting a license to do just about anything in Detroit means endless delays, lengthy waiting lists, mounds of paperwork, and senseless rigmarole.
Fortunately, the cops in Detroit look the other way and the jitney business is thriving. According to the Detroit Free Press, no one has filed a complaint against a jitney in at least 26 years and no jitney driver in recent memory has had to face the stipulated fine of $500 and 90 days in jail. Nearly a third of Detroit’s households don’t have cars, and the city has one of the lowest per capita incomes of any urban area in the nation, so it’s likely that thousands of technically illegal jitney rides occur there every week. The drivers charge much less than the taxicabs (which many of their customers cannot afford), often carry their clients’ bags from the store to the vehicle, are easily accessible in any neighborhood, and are the primary means of transportation for Detroit’s poor.
The spontaneous order that Detroit’s jitney system has produced is elaborate as well as efficient. According to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice:
Although the jitney drivers in Detroit do not at first seem to be organized, the structure of jitney service is actually quite complex. While there is little camaraderie and no formal organization of jitney drivers, the market produces a structure of needs and services. . . . [They] operate mostly out of strip mall shopping centers. . . . Most jitney drivers will not service the whole shopping center but will attach themselves to one store. Thus, each driver has his territory. Well-known jitney drivers often will transport the store’s employees to and from work as well.
Assurance of driver reliability is handled nicely by the market itself. Word of mouth directs store employees and customers to particular drivers, who tend to live in the areas they serve. Owners of stores vouch for certain drivers by issuing them cards that are placed prominently in windshields. Drivers seem to prefer this private certification of competence to licensing. “When asked about the possibility of jitney licenses,” says the Institute for Justice, “many drivers are suspicious of what it would mean to have to deal with the bureaucracy at the City/County Building.”
Jitneys aren’t special to Detroit. They operate in most major American cities in direct but illegal competition with both the government-sanctioned taxi monopolies and government-run bus systems. In some places, they face a lot more harassment from the authorities than they do in Detroit.
In New York City, the police bust jitney drivers all the time. Writing in the New York Times Magazine of August 10, 1997, John Tierney tells the story of an immigrant from Barbados who spent years trying to go the legal route and get a license to transport residents around the city in his van. His application included more than 900 supporting statements from riders, business groups, and church leaders. He was approved by the City Taxi and Limousine Commission and supported by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But in the end, the city council did what it has done with almost every such request: it rejected his application. Now this outlaw entrepreneur and thousands just like him in the Big Apple dodge the cops every day as they earn a living and their customers’ approval.
Jitneys have a long and honorable tradition in America. According to two California economic historians writing in the October 1972 Journal of Law and Economics, the first one appeared in 1914 in Los Angeles, when L. P. Draper accepted a fare from a stranger in exchange for a brief ride in Draper’s Ford Model T. The fare was a “jitney”—slang for a nickel—and it became the industry’s standard fee for many years thereafter. By the autumn of 1915, a thriving jitney industry was providing inexpensive and reliable transportation in cities from San Francisco to Portland, Maine.
It didn’t take long, however, for public officials and their friends in the electric streetcar industry to start piling on regulations with the aim of running the jitney competition out of business. The Electric Railway Journal called the jitneys “a menace,” “a malignant growth,” and “this Frankenstein of transportation.”
During World War I, the American Electric Railway Association even suggested that jitney drivers be drafted into the military. It called for the War Industries Board to “suppress entirely all useless competition with existing electric railways” and argued that “men engaged in nonessential automobile service of this nature should be forced to obtain some useful occupations or compelled to enter the service.”
Electric railways aren’t around much anymore, but taxicab and city bus monopolies have taken their place in the war against jitneys. Laws against jitneys and the victimless crime of helping people get around town without a license, whether fully enforced or not, represent a cynical use of the police power of government by special interests. They are evidence of corrupt and stupid politicians who often express sympathy for the poor at the same time they make war on poor entrepreneurs.
The persistence of jitneys on America’s streets is an inspiration, a testimony to the power of the profit motive that fires up people to help people even when it’s illegal to do so. As to the war against them, Mr. Bumble’s famous line from Dickens’s Oliver Twist comes to mind: “The law is a ass.”