"We providing a service to the community. We ain't just giving rides to people. We providing a service."
-- August Wilson's "Jitney," 1979
Pittsburgh has a unique attachment to its illicit transportation system. While other cities stamped out jitneys 100 years ago or saw the emergence of illegal "dollar vans" for immigrant populations, the Pittsburgh area still has nearly the same system of unregulated private cars servicing low-income neighborhoods that playwright August Wilson dramatized in his first major work three decades ago.
Zappala talks about jitney 'issues'
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. talks about the problems posed by unregulated jitney drivers but acknowledges their services fill a niche. (Video by Nate Guidry; 9/7/2013)
It has persisted because residents of such neighborhoods say they cannot depend on authorized taxi services. Such neighborhoods also have low auto-ownership rates, making them especially dependent and hurt by cuts to mass transit. So jitneys persist as a cheap and convenient transportation alternative, despite being dangerous.
On Wednesday morning, two men pulled up next to jitney driver Cornelius Swinton in Homewood on the day after his 92nd birthday and shot him in the neck, shoulder and hand while targeting his back-seat passenger. In April, two men in Wilkinsburg called a jitney in order to rob it, police charged, and fatally shot driver Monica Proviano in the head and stole her car. In May, 59-year-old jitney driver John Haas was fatally shot in the head at a McKeesport housing complex when police said the shooter misidentified him as a rival gang member. The same month, a jitney passenger told police a driver robbed him at knife point in Banksville.
Drivers think about crime "constantly. You have a world where war is prevalent," said a young jitney driver on the North Side, who took up the trade three years ago after working for a licensed limousine service. "You try your best to be careful."
Another North Side driver, who is 82, said the key for both jitney drivers and passengers in staying safe is to develop ties to people you trust. He has a customer list developed over five decades on the job while the younger driver -- who is in his 30s -- is just collecting his.
"You have to know what you're doing, or you get caught in the web," the older man said.
The jitney industry emerged in cities nationwide in the 1910s as an alternative to streetcars but was largely wiped out within the decade by government regulation and subsidies for authorized providers. Through the rest of the century jitney services were kept alive by underserved populations: from blacks getting restricted access to buses in the pre-Civil Rights Era South to immigrants today in such cities as New York and Miami piling into vans (called "immi" vans or "camionetas") to get to work or the store.
There are good reasons to take cheap -- if illegal -- transit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, transportation accounted for 17 percent of spending by the average American family in 2011, the second largest expense after housing. That spending increased by 8 percent over the previous year, the biggest jump in any category.
An estimated 120,000 people use jitneys every day in New York, which if legitimate would make them among the nation's top 25 transit providers. There, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority briefly regulated jitneys after bus routes were reduced in 2010, and residents elsewhere have leaned on the illicit cab systems after cuts in their cities.
In St. Louis, the Metro Transit system cut its routes by a third in 2009, before voters approved a new transit tax the next year. In the meantime, bus rides from low-income communities to work centers increased to two to three hours -- but jitneys got workers to the same centers in 45 minutes to an hour, one study showed.
In Allegheny County, the Port Authority eliminated 29 bus routes and trimmed 80 in 2011. It has warned another 35 percent in cuts is looming without increased state funding.
In Pittsburgh, jitney drivers congregate at grocery stores and the Downtown Greyhound station, or at jitney stations sprinkled around the city and suburbs. They are usually storefronts or garages where drivers pay dues to take calls for jitney pickup, just as they do in the late Wilson's play -- the station he dramatized is still on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, relocated a couple of blocks away. Some drivers are trustworthy and safe, though some others use their cars to sell or transport drugs.
In the city, residents of the Hill, Homewood, Garfield and other neighborhoods without supermarkets depend on jitneys to get to Giant Eagle stores on the North Side, South Side and in East Liberty. Store managers rarely send them away.
"The store needs us as much as we need them," said one driver, who like others would not identify himself.
Local law enforcement knows that, too. There are areas in the city and county, said Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., where "cab companies quite frankly have said, 'We're not going to go there.' So there is a need for jitneys."
His office is more concerned about a spike lately in fake cab drivers picking up intoxicated women on the city's South Side, and plans to install license plate recognition technology in the entertainment district to track them and other lawbreakers.
Comparatively, "to run a jitney is not that serious of a crime," Mr. Zappala said. "... There's a niche and people have filled that niche. I don't know that it's a good thing, but people have to get around."
Realizing jitneys fill a transit gap, government agencies around the country have tried to regulate them but almost always fail. Jitneys service specific markets so when government agencies begin treating them like regular transportation providers -- requiring them to service designated routes, obtain licences and so on -- ridership decreases and so does interest by drivers.
Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Miami have all tried over the past few decades to create regulated jitney markets and failed, according to research by Columbia University's David King. He said Miami has had the most success largely by licensing its private van operators but then leaving them alone.
Cities are wrestling with regulating a new wave of Web services -- such as Uber.com -- that coordinate shared rides over social media, while also studying how to rein in some old-fashioned jitneys and buses. In the greater New York area, calls have increased this summer for regulation of illicit "dollar bus" services after one struck and killed an infant July 30 in northern New Jersey.
"Taken together, what we have is a tremendous interest in what is a very old but very newly visible type of transit. The regulatory environment is unclear," said Mr. King, an assistant professor of urban planning.
"The regulatory calls you're hearing now are the same regulatory calls we've been hearing for a hundred years."
Cab services in Pennsylvania (except in Philadelphia) are overseen by the Public Utility Commission. To be licensed, drivers have to pay a $350 fee and submit to a background check and drug testing, have their trips and calls logged, and be priced by a meter. Dome lights have to be affixed to the cab's roof and a PUC number to its fender.
Jitneys typically have none of those things, and the PUC agents will periodically go undercover and pose as customers to charge drivers with violations. Investigators cited 21 Western Pennsylvania jitney drivers from November 2012 through January 2013, the last period for which data was available.
The commission also investigates regulated taxi services -- if they are licensed to cover an entire city, by law they cannot refuse service to any neighborhood in that city. It collects complaints about refusals at its website, www.puc.state.pa.us, or toll-free at 1-800-692-7380.
The commission "often gets complaints that in neighborhoods such as Homewood you cannot get a taxi," PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. "We encourage people to use certified carriers, and if they refuse to come out to a community where they are licensed, to file a complaint with us."
Officials from the city's largest taxi company, the Yellow Cab Co., could not be reached for comment.
Tim McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. First Published September 7, 2013 4:00 AM