Uber before Uber

The brief, wild ride of the jitney

By Sophie Schmidt

“A New York Jitney” ca. 1915. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Imagine you live in New York City, or Seattle, or Los Angeles. You want to get across town. Unless you own a car, you don’t have many options. You could take a taxi, but it will be expensive. You could take public transit, but it will take an hour to get there.

But things are starting to change. Over the last few months, you’ve started to notice something different. Regular people are using their own cars to pick up passengers and drive them around. It’s fast. It’s cheap. Newspapers are calling it the “most interesting experiment in urban transportation.”[1] And plenty of people — from businessmen to politicians — are beginning to take notice.

This may sound like 2015, but it’s actually 1915 — long before GPS or smartphones or even taxi companies existed. It’s the story of the jitney. And it represents one of the first attempts by everyday citizens to change transportation in America.

Life with streetcars

In 1915, the most popular way to get around an American city was by streetcar — the same kinds that ferry tourists around San Francisco today.

Streetcars were cheap to ride but expensive to build and maintain, so cities gave railway operators monopoly rights. Most cities only had one or two lines, and the companies that ran them had no competition to speak of.

As a result, streetcars were wildly successful. By the turn of the century, electric streetcars accounted for 90 percent of urban trips across the United States.[2] And because they boosted economic growth — widening the commute area and relieving chronic overcrowding — cities happily supported them.

The problem with streetcars — as it is with any monopoly — was that streetcar operators had no incentive to put customers first. Cars grew older, slower, and more crowded without being repaired or replaced. And because railway operators wielded strong political influence, angry customers and employees had no one to listen to their complaints.[3]

Enter the jitney

Then one day, in Los Angeles, a man named L.P. Draper picked up a passenger in his car. He drove him where he was going and accepted a standard streetcar fare — a “jitney nickel” (about $1.10 today) — in return.[4] The jitney was born.

Looking back, the jitney phenomenon benefitted from two huge trends: The recession that began in the fall of 1914 and the arrival of Henry Ford’s Model T.

After World War I, an economic downturn created a major spike in unemployment across the U.S., leaving many men who would normally find work in factories on the streets with no prospects. Cities in the American West were hit particularly hard.[5]

At the same time, car ownership was beginning to take off thanks to the introduction of the Model T — the first affordable automobile marketed to consumers. The Model T was so popular that even people who already owned cars wanted to buy them, creating the first real market for cheaper used cars.[6]

These two forces — newly unemployed workers looking to make ends meet and the chance to buy inexpensive and secondhand cars for the first time — helped give rise to the jitney phenomenon. With only a small upfront investment, anyone could become an entrepreneur and make money driving people around town. Riders, on the other hand, got more flexibility for a similar price. According to one review, a jitney gave people the “opportunity to ride in a car, as is customary on the part of their more prosperous neighbors.”[7] Plus, smoking had just been banned in closed streetcars, and jitneys were open to the outside air.

Soon, jitneys were everywhere. Just months after that first ride in southern California, Seattle’s 518 jitneys were carrying almost 50,000 passengers a day by early 1915.[8] In a two-week period, Kansas City went from zero jitneys to more than 200.[9] In Los Angeles, over 150,000 residents were using jitneys every day.

In most places, jitneys were like a hybrid between a bus and a taxi — operating on a semi-fixed route, but willing to take passengers to their front doors for a little extra. Hours of operation might be highly organized or, as one observer remarked, “largely accidental.”[10] And an elaborate range of schemes emerged around prices, routes and services. Some drivers simply picked up and dropped off passengers anywhere on their normal route to work. Others adhered to stricter pick-up and drop-off spots. One report told the story of a physician who kept an automobile to make night calls but allowed his son to use it as a jitney during the day.[11] Rush hour typically saw the best service, but the variation in jitney supply could be extreme. And there was, of course, a dramatic impact on service whenever it rained (a drawback of the open top).

For drivers and passengers alike, the jitney came to represent a new form of independence — perfectly in step with the larger Progressive movement at the time, trumpeting the message of economic self-determination across the country. Jingles were written, proclaiming the era of corporate extortion and corruption over. As one driver put it, “If I run a jitney I can be my own boss, and go home to lunch when I want to.”[12]

Safety? Not so much.

The downside was that all of this was taking place in an environment of virtually zero oversight. Cities weren’t prepared for the explosive growth of jitneys, and safety concerns were real. Accident rates shot up in cities where jitneys operated. There were no passenger limits, leading to dangerously overcrowded vehicles. There were no rules, so jitney operators picked up and dropped off passengers wherever they wanted — at whatever speed they wanted. And there were no insurance mandates, which meant that injuries caused by jitneys were almost never covered.

And then there were the cars themselves. Most jitneys were not built for heavy use, so wheels got knocked out of alignment. Body carriages broke under the weight of too many riders. Auto manufacturers began to offer specialized jitney models, but most trips happened in more traditional cars. “Anything that runs on four wheels and gasoline and five cents” qualified as a jitney, according to the movement’s own official journal.[13]

Railroads strike back

Still, many people were willing to take the risk if it meant getting where they were going faster and more easily. As a result, railroads started to lose money. What had originally seemed like a small-time irritant was now a major threat. The Seattle Electric Company estimated it was losing $2,450 a day to jitney competition. Houston’s railway operator suffered a loss of $250,000 in 1915 alone.[14]

This drove terrified railway companies to use the one advantage they had over the jitneys: political pressure. They went to municipal authorities complaining that the jitneys represented an existential threat to the entire railway industry — and they were at least partially correct.[15] Railways, ever a high fixed-cost industry, couldn’t reduce trips or personnel (and thus their costs) without making their already-inferior service even less attractive to jitney riders.[16] If measures weren’t taken to protect the streetcar business, they complained, railways would disappear and all that would be left would be dangerous and uncontrollable jitneys.

It worked. With railroads on the warpath, many cities were concerned not just about losing tax revenue, but also things like paving projects and street lighting (which railroads were required to pay for) and the loss of suburban service if railways were forced to cut back.[17]

So campaigns to limit jitneys began across the U.S., led by local governments with the help of railway operators and other threatened groups. Minimum hour requirements appeared, requiring drivers be on the road for 12 or 16 hours at a time.[18] Fixed routes were implemented. Jitneys were limited to long trips, or banned from city centers altogether. In some cities, they were required to install night lighting — to combat jitneys being used for “immoral purposes” — and in others, laws appeared mandating that drivers be able to “carry on an intelligent conversation in English.”[19]

Most damaging of all, drivers were required to pay for expensive licenses and insurance policies. These huge upfront costs destroyed the economics of the industry for most drivers, whose fragile finances could not withstand hundreds of dollars of new fees — something the anti-jitney coalition knew and exploited.[20]

And that was just the beginning. Soon, powerful railway interests began distributing political leaflets and bussing voters to the polls to vote for anti-jitney measures. They lobbied the War Industries Board, arguing that steel, gasoline and tires should be used for the war effort and drivers “should be forced to obtain some useful occupations or be compelled to enter the service.”[21] In one case, the San Diego Streetcar Railway Association dumped a large pile of bridge steel and rails in a vacant lot, painted it red, and hung a sign telling passersby that it was steel from planned extensions of the railway that had been abandoned due to jitney competition.[22]

Under enormous pressure, it wasn’t long before jitneys began to disappear. From a record peak of 62,000 jitneys in operation in mid-1915 (just a year after it first appeared), the jitney had all but vanished from American streets by 1919.

Ridesharing today

A century after it was born — and almost as long since it died — we can still learn some lessons from America’s grand (and ill-fated) jitney experiment.

First, the idea that one person should be free to drive another across town — and to use existing assets to make money — has been around for a lot longer than the Internet or smartphones.

For city-dwellers in 1915, a jitney represented freedom: freedom to travel when and where they wanted, and freedom to work their own hours. Today, that desire for freedom is stronger than ever. And with smartphones, it’s easier than ever to make it real.

Second, the jitney experiment taught us that with freedom comes responsibility. Jitneys were dangerous, and as a result, railroads could argue that they didn’t belong on city streets. Today’s technology doesn’t just enable drivers to connect with riders more easily; it also helps keep both drivers and riders safe. Every trip is tracked using GPS. Passengers get to see their driver’s details in advance and to share their ETA with a friend. Two-way feedback, with drivers and riders rating each other, keeps service quality high, and sophisticated algorithms help keep wait times low. Insurance covers every Uber ride.

Third, there’s a middle ground between allowing new, more innovative companies to run wild and suffocating them completely. In 1915, there was a desperate need for regulation to protect the health and safety of jitney riders. But instead of trying to address those concerns in a measured way, local governments and their railroad allies sought to eliminate jitneys completely. Common-sense regulations could have targeted the risks of jitneys while protecting some level of streetcar health — and the public good that came with them.

We’ll never know what the world would look like if jitneys had been allowed to survive. How many people would have bothered to buy cars? What would that have meant for traffic in cities? How would this new independent new workforce have developed?

What we do know is that the desire to earn and move freely won’t go away. And a century later, it’s up to us to balance the spirit of innovation with the desire to ensure consumers are protected and safety requirements are met. Turns out the idea that one person should be free to drive another across town ain’t so new after all.


Sources

[1] Ross D. Eckert and George W. Hilton, “The Jitneys,” The Journal of Law & Economics 15.2 (Oct. 1972), 305.
[2] Eckert, 294.
[3] Carlos Schwantes, “The West Adapts the Automobile: Technology, Unemployment and the Jitney Phenomenon of 1914–1917,” The Western Historical Quarterly 16.3 (July 1985), 310.
[4] Schwantes, 310.
[5] Schwantes, 307.
[6] Schwantes, 310.
[7] F. W. Doolittle, “Economics of the Jitney Bus Movement,” Journal of Engineering 12.2, University of Colorado (Feb, 1916), 2.
[8] Eckert, 295.
[9] Schwantes, 308.
[10] Doolittle, 1.
[11] Eckert, 298.
[12] Schwantes, 314.
[13] Schwantes, 308.
[14] Eckert, 306.
[15] Eckert, 304.
[16] Eckert, 306.
[17] Doolittle, 9 and Eckert, 304.
[18] Eckert, 311.
[19] Eckert 316 and Schwantes, 325.
[20] Eckert, 310.
[21] Eckert, 319.
[22] Schwantes, 320.