Outside a chain grocery store in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood, a line of cars waits for would-be passengers. Five or six drivers stand bunched together outside their vehicles, talking and joking. When a potential rider—an older woman with an overflowing cart—comes through the sliding doors, one of the men approaches her, asking if she needs a ride home. She nods, he loads her groceries into the trunk of his sedan, and they’re off.
The men aren’t with a taxi company or Uber. They drive jitneys—and though drivers’ vehicles are generally licensed and insured, the service they provide is technically illegal, as it evades the city regulations that taxis and liveries follow. Regardless, jitneys are found in cities all over the United States. “Dollar vans” cruise New York’s boroughs, and “hack cabs” offer rides in East Baltimore. Pittsburgh is famous for this type of transport; playwright August Wilson’s opus, Jitney, about a jitney station in the city’s Hill District, premiered in 1982 and is now playing on Broadway.
But while the monikers, types of vehicle, and routes vary from place to place, the reason for jitneys is consistent across the country. “Jitneys fill a specific need for low-income and immigrant communities,” says David King, a professor at Arizona State University who studies what researchers call “informal” or “vernacular” transit. “They provide cheaper, more personal service than taxis or rideshares like Uber.” For instance, drivers may ask passengers to pay what they can, and they are likely to have regulars.
Jitneys weren’t always for a particular demographic. In the 1910s, men began offering rides in their personal cars for a nickel. The practice took off, and by 1915, The New York Times reported, "the mushroom growth of the jitney has been so rapid that cities which were in blissful ignorance of it in the evening found cars in operation the next morning.” However, local authorities, siding with streetcar companies in their complaints about competition from jitneys, made them illegal. By 1918 the number of jitneys operating nationwide had declined from 62,000 to 6,000.
But while jitney services may have waned for the population as a whole, they continued for those who could not afford automobiles and lived far from public transit—often low-income and immigrant residents. And because most taxi companies would not hire black drivers or serve black neighborhoods (this still happens), jitneys became a crucial mode of transportation for African Americans.
While law enforcement often turns a blind eye to them, there are occasional crackdowns or cases of more systematic punishment—such as in Los Angeles, where the police regularly pursue what they call “bandit taxis.” It’s thus not surprising that outside the D.C. grocery store, two jitney drivers speak with me on condition of anonymity.
One of the men, who looks to be in his 60s, tells me he’s been driving for 15 years. He works most days, making anywhere from a few to 20 dollars per ride, for two to 20 rides per day. “It just depends,” he says, adding that while taxis charge an amount similar to jitneys to take people home—around $5—taxi drivers won’t provide personal service, such as taking the groceries inside. “We have regular customers,” he says. “They make sure we’re here before they go in shopping.” The other driver, an elderly man in a black cap, says, “I pick old people up. They give me what they can, and if they can’t pay, it’s still all right with me.”
When I tell King about my conversations, he says it fits with what he’s discovered in his research. “Some of the guys just like being part of the community,” says King. “They’re happy to drive people around. They’re not doing it to get rich.” And an employee of the grocery store says that many of the jitney drivers are retired from other jobs. “It gives them something to do,” he says, noting that the store doesn’t have anything to do with the service.
After talking with the drivers, I see an Uber pull up for a woman with an assortment of bags and a 12-pack of grape Fanta. The younger driver I spoke with, who had perhaps been hovering in the hopes of snagging her as a passenger, helps the Uber driver load her groceries.
While it looks like Uber bested the jitneys in this instance, King says that’s often not the case. “Jitneys, while they also involve hiring a car, are not really like Uber or Lyft,” he says. “The people using them are totally different.” He notes, for example, that many who use jitneys do not have a credit card, which is required to use an Uber or other app-based rideshare services.
As rapidly gentrifying urban areas push low-income communities out to the suburbs, King says, jitneys will follow. “Northern New Jersey is already full of them—they’re called ‘immivans’ [immigrant vans],” he adds. Yet because suburban areas are less dense, rides are likely to be more expensive for a driver to subsidize. “It’s one thing if a free or cheap ride is only two miles and 10 minutes, and quite another if it’s 10 miles and 40 minutes,” says King.
King recommends that local authorities learn to see jitneys as opportunities to improve transit service by working with drivers to set rules—but without interfering too much. He cites an example of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission working with jitney drivers at an East Harlem mall parking garage. The Commission allowed a dispatcher to manage the queue. “They didn’t adjust the law, but they adjusted what they enforced,” he says. The alternative would have been to arrest everyone and shut the jitneys down.
“It’s not incompatible to have regulations and to encourage these small ventures,” King says. “You don’t have to enforce everything out of business.”