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The Jitney Jinx

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Houston’s most eco-friendly vehicles struggle for right to serve public

Jitneys have been the bane of public transportation companies since their inception nearly a century ago, and an old battle is being rekindled between the modern day versions of both. By historical definition, a jitney is a privately owned self-propelled vehicle that picks up passengers and takes them to their required destination for a small fee. It’s an efficient and effective mode of short distance travel that is enjoyed by cities all over the world- that is, by cities that don’t smother the market demand to death in politically influenced regulations.

Local Houstonian and entrepreneur Erik Ibarra, owner of Rev, an all electric jitney company, or eco-shuttles as he calls it, has been struggling for over two years to get the city to approve his duo of six-seater jitneys to service Midtown. While taxi drivers openly detest short trips and Metro buses are notoriously unpredictable, Rev’s service eagerly provides short distance, slow paced rides— the jitneys max out at 20mph— that lend an air of closeness between the passenger and the streets, much like a pedicab, and all without using a drop of gasoline. You simply call or book online, or jump on a passing jitney already carrying passengers who are headed in your direction.

Ibarra was recently notified of a move to redraft the current ordinance to increase the minimum capacity of his jitneys to nine seats. The draft also includes notes to change the wording to “mirror the language” of the ordinance for taxicabs, while in the current taxicab ordinance it specifies that the term ‘taxicab’ does not pertain to jitneys. The questions that must be put to the committee and answered honestly are why nine seems to be the magic number of seats that jitneys should have to meet regulations, and ultimately, who deemed it necessary to put this before the council for vote.

In a small victory for the public’s transportation alternatives, this past month Houston’s city council heard committee members voice their arguments against the ordinance changes.  “I think the requirement for seating capacity falls into the category of bureaucratic horse trading,” stated City Council Mayor Pro Tempore Anne Clutterbuck, who was a nay voter on the council in 2006 when the city awarded Yellow Cab an exclusive contract for a new shared-ride taxi shuttle servicing the airport, effectively creating a monopoly and putting competing taxi companies out of business.

A capacity increase would not only put Rev out of business less than a month before Houston’s proposed green ordinance deadline of August 13th, but it defeats the whole purpose that jitneys serve and works against how they operate all together. It seems the ghosts of Houston public transportation’s past have returned to haunt, yet this time they might finally be put to rest for good if the council’s final vote on July 28 is in the public’s best interest this timearound.

In a Houston election held January 19, 1924:

There was approved a very lengthy and detailed ordinance abolishing jitney busses and jitney routes and virtually prohibiting operation along fixed routes of any passenger vehicle with a seating capacity of less than fifteen persons and prohibiting the operation of motor vehicles carrying passengers along fixed routes upon streets on which street cars were operated.

But in 1994:

By order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas dated March 31, 1994, in Cause No. H-89-1245, the foregoing jitney ordinance was declared unconstitutional.

The only differences in today’s jitney ordinance dispute versus 1924’s are the capacity minimum, fifteen vs. nine, and the opposing elements who attempted to oust their competitors through council rule. In the early 20th century, that opponent was the sole streetcar company, Houston Electric Co., which eventually became Metro. Today, it’s Yellow Cab and Metro who control our city’s transportation, both of which are infamous for their poor service and business practices. Metro has complete control over the mass public transit system, including buses and roads, along with their own police force, while Yellow Cab has been favored with the majority of the allowed taxi permits, yet they still charge their drivers upwards of $100 a day to lease their cabs without guaranteeing any revenue. Yellow Cab and Metro have been making it rain campaign contributions on most of our local city council members over the years, and seeing their wishes granted time and time again, despite the welfare of the public, has made it evident that their palm greasing has paid off. These transportation giants are merely following in the footsteps of their forefathers, who set the tone and rules of the pay-to-play political game back in the late 19th century.

Houston’s Yellow Cab president, Raymond Turner, has been the main agitant in the matter today, complaining to reporters, city council members and Tina Paez, director of the transportation division of Houston’s Adminstration and Regulatory Affairs, “Jitneys look like taxicabs to us…they should be regulated like taxicabs….out of fairness.” Not profit. Right.

Ibarra counters, “Let the market demand control business. It’s against one’s economic liberty to regulate that.”

It’s true. For a jitney company to be of any benefit to the public, it has to have certain liberties in designating routes and destinations. Yet, the current ordinance reads that not only are city officials in charge of setting the routes, but jitneys must utilize meters and display their rates. But there are no meters because there aren’t any rates, just a flat fee to go anywhere in the serviced radius. It’s obvious that jitneys need their own classification and ordinances because they truly don’t compete with or operate like taxicabs. They are used more for getting from a parking spot to a bar, not crosstown transit. Most taxi companies wouldn’t even accept such a short fare.

Knowing the history of our city’s transit growth is detrimental to understanding what is happening today. From 1868-1891, Houston’s only form of public transportation were mule-drawn streetcars that followed along a track, usually an old rail line that had fallen into disrepair. After a number of sales and mergers, in 1891 the Houston City Street Railway company began replacing the mule cars with electric streetcars. However, while they provided a those on the outskirts of the city a way to travel to town to earn an better income, the streetcars could only go as far as the tracks allowed, and averaging just nine miles an hour, it was often faster for those living in town to walk. In 1896, Houston City Street Railway was sold to Stone and Webster, based out of Massachusetts and renamed Houston Electric Company. Track expansion grew but not enough to accommodate the rapidly expanding population who detested the overcrowded and not so rapid interurban streetcars.

Half a century after the Civil War, segregation still remained a social norm in Houston with separate schools, churches, and jobs. Then in 1903, Houston’s City Council voted for the first instance of segregation by law when they ruled in favor of separation of the races on the public trolleys. This forced black Houstonians to ride in a screened off compartment in the rear of the streetcar boldly labeled “For Coloreds Only.”  However, instead of complying and taking their designated seats, the black community simply boycotted the municipal streetcars and created their own ‘hack lines’, buses, carriages, and wagons, owned and operated by other black citizens that carried passengers for a nickel. The jitney was born, but it hadn’t earned its name just yet.

It wasn’t long before all of the empty seats in the colored compartment led to a loss of the streetcar revenue, which was soon felt by the motormen (the streetcar drivers), who went on strike. Ironically, while the white riders were left to walk to their desired locations, the black community got around with ease by way of their own jitney buses.

An account in the Houston Daily Post, June 3, 1904 relates the story of a well-known white businessman, who, without horse or carriage during the streetcar strike, had to walk to town from his home in the South End. A black owned bus passing by slowed down and he called up to the driver for a ride. The driver kindly refused, due to the fact that the city council didn’t allow whites and blacks to ride together, and that he didn’t have his compartment  sign labeled “For Whites Only” in place yet, as others did.

Over the next decade, the nation’s streetcar transportation growth failed to keep up with the rising population, causing transport times to slow while fare rates increased.  Then in 1913 when Ford began mass production of automobiles, a whole new opportunity was made available to the public when the price of a Model T dropped from $550 to $360, creating a huge surplus of used cars. After the recessions of 1910 and 1913, unemployment was at a high and people were looking for any work that could be found. Then, in late 1914, a story began to spread across the land via the front pages of local newspapers about a novel form of transportation that had begun in Los Angeles. Men and women alike were scratching together their savings and buying up all of the used cars and were now making a decent living offering rides to people who were thrilled to finally have a speedier alternative to the streetcar. Had the papers picked up on the success of Houston’s black community’s system from the decade before, the story might have read that jitneys originated in the south instead of the west.

When the jitney craze first swept through America, it did so at a dizzying pace that proved it was a much needed and desired business. When it landed in Houston in 1914, it allowed everyone access to decent transportation despite their race or income. Slang for a nickel, which was the going fare for a ride, a jitney got you there faster and cheaper than a streetcar could ever hope to provide. Any Joe could procure a vehicle and start a route, or offer rides to people exiting streetcars who would normally have to walk to their final destination. The slogan, “Take ya anywhere for a jitney,” implied the fact that the streetcar would only drop you off at a designated stop. In a jitney, a businessman could catch a ride to work in style without the crowd and crush of the other streetcar straphangers. A housewife could get to the market and back home without having to juggle several children and grocery sacks, all of which were at risk of falling from a moving trolley along the way.

Jitneys came in as many shapes and sizes as their drivers. Women could earn extra money for their homes. A poor man had a chance to supplement his income and not be poor anymore. Black owned jitney routes provided hard to find jobs as well as a safe and comfortable ride for their community.  All around, jitneys were heralded as the bridge between the classes.

By May of 1915, over 60,000 jitneys were in service nationwide and the electric railway companies were stunned by how quickly their revenues dropped. Throwing all of their financial and political weight onto the table, the railways went to every length to discourage and prohibit jitneys from operating. The city would lose tax money that paid for roads and other public needs. Fare costs would increase. Service could be discontinued. They declared jitneys were unsafe and unregulated and it was unfair that they operated on the roads that the streetcar companies had to maintain. It was clear that Houston and other cities were fairly dependent on the public transport revenues because the city council agreed to pass a 1915 ordinance forcing jitney drivers to take out a $2,500 bond in hopes of putting the little guys out of business, as other cities had successfully achieved. The decision was soon after declared void and unconstitutional by Judge William Masterson of Houston’s 55th District Court, who said, “There can be no question but that the ordinance discriminates.”

Though this ordinance was overturned, the railway associations were relentless in their pursuit to get rid of their ever flourishing competitor, who nickel by nickel, was leveling the playing field. When the United States entered WW I in 1917, the American Electric Railway Association pressed the War Board, asserting that the jitney drivers were engaged in a non-essential industry and that being of draft age, they should be held to the wartime “Work or Fight” rule and immediately be drafted. It wasn’t enough that, by then, many had already found more profitable income and the number of jitneys had drastically declined. In 1924, after threatening the public with ever increasing fares and coaxing the city council with promises of vast returns the anti-jitney law went into effect. That very same year,  the streetcar companies began replacing the well established jitney routes with buses and eventually all of the streetcars as well.

The fact is, of Houston’s 700 odd working jitneys in 1915, the majority only made one or two round trips a day. They were mostly men with jobs who offered a cheap ride to others along the way to the office, or they would pick up their first passenger and only then set a route based on their fare’s destination, taking on other riders along the way. In the simplest terms, the era of the jitneys was the infancy of what we now call carpooling, and it was killed by the transit interests that had not the public’s best interest but company profit margins in mind, as they still do today.

There are many cities in the U.S. where the public has openly declared a need for such options as shared-taxis and the jitneys that still operate successfully in the Northeast. For the first time since the 1994 ruling, Houston has a legitimate jitney shuttle bus service, the Washington Wave,  that caters to the restaurant and bar patrons of Midtown, Washington, and Heights areas, a market that is certainly not known for riding Metro buses. If Rev is allowed to go forth and prosper, it wouldn’t be long before other jitneys followed suit, leading to an increase in independent carpool services, expedient short distance shuttles, and other unsubsidized neighborhood transportation— all of which are the century old foes of the modern day transit interests that we have been century long fools to allow to hinder our city’s progress for all of this time.

For follow up editorial, please go tohttp://www.freepresshouston.com/featured/the-jitney-jinx-from-print-with-follow-up/

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