Free the Jitney! When Buses, Rail, Bikes and Feet Ain't Enough

After the Golden Age: Boarding jitnesy for a real estate development tour of Hollywoodland, 1928. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
After the Golden Age: Boarding jitneys for a real estate development tour of Hollywoodland, 1928. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Posted Mondays, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws -- as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert -- may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Chap. 213, Laws of 1917
Year: 1917
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: James Rojas


The Golden Age of Jitneys lasted, apparently, from 1914 to 1917.

As far as all things golden, this short period is more nugget than Fort Knox, more costume jewelry than Cartier bracelet.

After all, you need fifty years (or fifty columns - the latest scheduled to post July 26) to reach a Golden Anniversary.

But jitneys -- privately-owned vehicles that roam city streets, picking up and discharging passengers -- went from zenith to nadir faster than a harried cabbie racing through a yellow light.

That's too bad, James Rojas says, and a long-ago overreaction that should be rectified.

Rojas is a city planner, founder of Place It! workshops and the Latino Urban Forum. He's also a former Metro employee as well as the first person to be featured twice in the Laws That Shaped L.A. column series. [Read, "Why Los Angeles Isn't a Beach Town."]

This time around, Rojas nominates Chapter 213 from the Laws of 1917. This California World World I era regulation was among a series of escalating public policy and enforcement obstacles enacted during that era that crashed the jitneys' fast-growing business model while preserving the mass public transportation status quo.

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"This," Rojas says, "kind of dictated the way we were going to do transportation in L.A. for the next one hundred or so years."

Why did jitneys become so popular so suddenly, only to stall and sputter into Americana museums, Historic Filipinotown pride and joy and NSFW Hamptons tunes? Not to mention fleets galore of underground or "gypsy" cabs, cars services, limo service, dollar vans and a host of other names that don't contain more traditional municipal transportation proper nouns such as "Authority" or "Agency?"

In great part, because jitneys were out-lobbied -- then and to this day -- by large transportation authorities or companies. In Los Angeles, the illegalization of jitneys came via a series of laws supported by the Los Angeles Railway, owners and operators of some of the city's fabled streetcars.

A 1922 summary of the 1917 law read in part: "In California, the operator of automobiles engaged in carriage must obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the [Railroad] Commission, except those operating in good faith at the time the act became effective."

Another key line: "The Commission, in denying an application for a certificate of convenience and necessity for the operation of a stage line, said: 'No person has a vested right to engage in a public utility service.'"

During a 1955 transit workers strike, Anita Olmos (pictured here with her husband, Abraham) was charged with operating an illegal jitney-for-hire. The charges were dismissed. Photo courtesy USC Digital Archives
During a 1955 transit workers strike, Anita Olmos (pictured here with her husband, Abraham) was charged with operating an illegal jitney-for-hire. The charges were dismissed. Photo courtesy USC Digital Archives

The issue resonates today when so many people in and around Los Angeles -- and of course elsewhere across the nation -- are incensed with traffic woes and desperate for transportation solutions. Desperate for a new Golden Age of multi-nodal, multi-approach mobility. Desperate, perhaps, for the return of the jitney?

Yes, for those who know where to find one in L.A. neighborhoods now. Yes, based on what this driver went through even before being arrested and sentenced to a surprisingly long five-month prison stint. (Nice piece, LAW.)

Okay, let's back up here a moment and idle, like a lost livery in a pre-GPS world. How else can we categorize these jalopies?

Jitneys are cousins of taxicabs and descendants of stagecoaches. They are known throughout the world by many names -- tuk-tuks in Thailand, tap-taps in Haiti, Jeepneys -- see this image, from here in L.A.'s Historic Filipinotown.

Juan Matute, a program director at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, explains: "Jitneys allow shared rides on private vehicles for a fraction of the cost of providing formalized public transportation."

Again, Matute: "Jitneys can be quite flexible, but because they are less regulated than public transportation, there's always a concern that they are unsafe."

And: "Jitneys can respond to customer demand to fill gaps in coverage offered by public transit networks -- helping to identify the need for future route expansion."

Jitneys were once kings of L.A. transportation -- or at least upstart princes. In 1915, according to data cited in this chapter of this book by William B. Friedricks, 1,800 upstart jitneys carried 150,000 riders daily. That was more than ten percent of the number of passengers carried by the established Los Angeles Railway that year.

L.A.'s jitneys often traveled alongside established and maintained streetcar lines. Jitneys charged a bargain five cents per ride. Jitneys were more responsive to the micro-needs of passengers. Jitneys required very little capital expense to operate.

Jitneys -- then and in the underground forms they still exist today -- can either piggyback and poach from larger mass transit operations or work niches and fill in gaps.

"[A jitney is] market and demand driven, flexible, and requires very little subsides," Rojas says. "It reaches any location in L.A. County where there is a road, any time of day."

Rojas is not in favor of privatizing everyone's commute. Nor does he seek the mass transit promise like the one made in Cold War-era Budapest, Hungary -- that a bus line had to be within a short walk of every domicile in the city.

Instead, Rojas pushes for equanimity. "I think we have to let the free market help solve public transportation," he says. "Its like the NYC MTA runs the buses and subways and private companies run the taxis. It's a balanced set-up."

The Jeepney, crafted in 2009, by the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Public Matters
The Jeepney, crafted in 2009, by the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Public Matters

It wasn't until 2008 when at least one area in L.A. benefited from an obvious, overdue and mature big-city decision: to let cabs pick people up where the people are, as opposed to at a handful of designated taxi stands.

The previous, absurdist policy was like preferring the occasional tropical storm followed by extended draught to just getting some regular, steady rain.

Meanwhile, riffing from Rojas' mention of NYC taxis, jitneys -- which don't hold pricey taxi medallions -- have had mixed success back east. Here, for example, is a great 2011 read from Lisa Margonelli for the Atlantic.

Earlier this year, Atlantic senior editor Megan McArdle wrote a print story headlined, "Why You Can't Get a Taxi." The article appears to have helped spark a run, still ongoing, of mentions of Uber, the technology-meets-taxi start-up. In case these mentions are mandatory, we're glad to have just obliged.

[Uber, by the way, should not be confused with Ubar, the so-called lost city or "Atlantis of the Sands" that was rediscovered thanks in part to scientists and satellites from the Jet Propulsion Lab.*]

Also, USC* professor James E. Moore wrote this op-ed more than seven years ago. The piece, which mentions jitneys and is headlined, "Take the Boot off Private Transit," begins: "If we are serious about improving transit and easing traffic in Los Angeles and nationwide, we should allow smart entrepreneurs and successful corporations to make money moving people from place to place."

Before this week's column concludes, we close where so many Los Angeles conversations begin - talking about space.

Not of the outer variety -- sorry JPL -- but more terrestrial public space. Public transportation requires not just right of ways for roads or rails or paths, but also sufficient and comfortable room to wait for a bus or train or pedicab or car or van or horse-drawn carriage... or jitney.

"We need to think about public space as the entry point to mobility," Rojas says. "It's where we enter and leave our house or apartment. It's where we board public transportation. It's a critical link to the success of transit systems."

Adds Rojas: "The problem with L.A. is that we can build all the subways and light rails in the world, but if we do not have the public space to support them, it will not work."


*Jeremy Rosenberg serves on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. The views expressed here are his own. He also works for USC and has written for JPL and UCLA.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or follow him @losjeremy or leave a comment at the bottom of this page

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