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A Brief History of Jitneys

"We providing a service to the community. We ain't just giving rides to people. We providing a service." - Becker, August Wilson's Jitney

Rideshare culture is an evolving trend in today’s world. From Lyft, Uber, bike and scooter rideshares, to classic yellow cabs, there are a variety of ways to get around outside of a city’s main public transportation system. Before many of the other rideshare apps and options that exist today, there were jitneys. The word is said to derive from the Louisiana Creole French word jetnée for five cents or a nickel, the first fare charged in these unlicensed cabs.

Jitneys initially emerged in the 1910s, when personal car ownership became more popular and individuals wanted to earn some extra money by charging for a ride. But it wasn’t long before government agencies began cracking down on this informal transportation system, and by 1918, numbers of operating jitneys declined from 62,000 to 6,000 nationwide.

Despite this decrease, jitneys continued on as an essential transportation mode for many underserved communities across the country. The jitney became an integral part of many Black neighborhoods, as taxi companies refused to reliably serve these areas. In addition, many established taxi companies would not hire Black drivers. In the years since, jitneys have continued on in other forms. New York has “dollar vans” or "guaguas," which initially began in the 1980s in response to a transit strike that paused buses and subway trains, but morphed into a system primarily utilized by low-income and immigrant communities without easy or reliable access to public transportation. In the 1990s, city officials in Los Angeles began cracking down on unlicensed “bandit taxis.” Pittsburgh’s jitney scene (where August Wilson’s Jitney takes place) still continues on today.

According to studies, American households spent an average of $9,737 on transportation in 2017, making transportation the second largest expense for American households behind housing. Jitneys live on as a convenient and cheap transportation option, though with jitneys being unregulated, there are few official protections for drivers and passengers. What’s the key to being a safe and successful jitney driver? Build trust with your passengers – many veteran jitney drivers have lists of passengers they’ve cultivated over the years.

"There were a lot of jitney stations in Pittsburgh, located in storefronts with a pay phone. It was a perfect place for a play because you had a set and a community of players who work together and have created something out of nothing, having no jobs. They are generally older men who had jobs working in the steel mills and on the railroad. If they were lucky enough to have a pension, there was a need to supplement with additional income, so they drove jitneys. And I think they do it because they enjoy the company of each other; they have something to do and it's a place to belong. They are a microcosm of the community at large."

—August Wilson (Conversations with August Wilson)

Thumbnail: Photo of Keith Randolph Smith, Amari Cheatom, and Ray Anthony Thomas in August Wilson’s Jitney at Seattle Rep. Photo by Nate Watters.