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Jitney cabs serve as “underground” transportation

By Justin Brown

Point Park News Service

Dan Fitzpatrick often hails unlicensed cabs, colloquially known as jitneys, when licensed taxis are unavailable after bar hours in the South Side.

“No cabs would stop, so the first person to pull over said, ‘Do you want a ride? Where are you going? Okay, it’ll be twenty-bucks’,” said Fitzpatrick.

While jitneys have traditionally been used for transportation in poor neighborhoods due to lack of available public transportation because the licensed cabbies deem them dangerous, they are now a mainstay in areas like the South Side as low-cost designated drivers for bar goers.

Jitneys are a clandestine, underground form of illegal taxi drivers. They do not carry the proper license, distributed and regulated by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which is required to legally operate a taxi service.

Traditional jitney drivers can be found in the back of the parking lot of the South Side Giant Eagle sitting on their open-trunks coaxing people who need a ride to-and-from the deprived neighborhoods where public transportation is lacking. The Pittsburgh neighborhoods that the jitneys cater to are Mt. Oliver, Knoxville and Carrick according to a jitney identified as Charles.

“A lot of the cabbies won’t go into the black neighborhoods,” said Charles.

According to an email from Victor Kimmel, a spokesperson for Giant Eagle, the grocery chain has a no solicitation policy, but that does not seem to have stopped the jitney drivers.

“It’s a balance of that if they don’t cause problems and nobody complains then what do you do,” said police officer Jeff Watt during an interview while he was stationed at the South Side Giant Eagle.

Watt, a teacher at the police academy on Washington Boulevard in Pittsburgh, said that the jitneys do not cause problems at the store and that he has not had to confront any of the jitneys in the several years he has been stationed at the grocery store.

“I’ve hear a lot of good stories [about jitneys] than bad ones,” Watt said.

He said he heard about a jitney taking an elderly woman home without charging her upon arrival.

According to Pennsylvania law, legal cab drivers are required to meet a slew of strict requirements to obtain and keep their taxi certificate, and that operating without such a license is illegal.

Such requirements include obtaining the proper insurance, passing a taxi driver course and examination, routine inspections of the vehicles and numerous other requirements.

Furthermore, licensed cabs are required by Pennsylvania law to use meters that determine and regulate fare prices, and the drivers are subject to criminal background checks while applying for a taxi license, according to Jennifer Kocher, press secretary of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC).

“When we have consumers who are hailing a taxi we ask them to check for a PUC number which would start with ‘A’ and go from there,” said Kocher during a phone interview.

The PUC’s bureau of investigation and enforcement handle the citations handed out to jitneys, according to Kocher. She said the two ways to enforce the law are through public complaints to the PUC and through on-the-street enforcement officers who can hand out citations to jitneys.

“These are non-traffic citations,” said Kocher.

The citations and court hearings are not held through municipal courts or magistrates, but through PUC administrative law judges, she said. Also, the local police can only enforce various traffic violations, but they don’t enforce the taxi licensing.

Kocher was unable to return a request for PUC court dockets of recent cases involving jitneys in Pittsburgh.

Officers at the zone three station that patrol the South Side declined an interview, but Police Sergeant Bair did disclose that they do not deal with jitneys often.

Community relations officer Christine Luffy was also unable to return calls for an interview request about police dealing with the jitneys.

Only eight complaints in Pittsburgh have been filed about jitneys in the past two years, according to an email from Kocher. She said these complaints are generally from people being approached by the jitneys, passengers who were ripped off by them or licensed cab drivers complaining about jitneys taking their business.

She said that PUC enforcement against the jitneys is like an endless battle with a hydra; if you cite jitneys in one area, more pop-up in another.

Being an underground operation, jitneys have none of these constraints. Also, despite the illegal nature and the risks involved, jitneys in the South Side provide a service not only to poor communities, but more recently they are chauffeuring bar-goers who need designated drivers.

A bright-yellow jitney ad taped to the window of Canbod-Ican Kitchen, along the 1700 block of East Carson, touts “Don’t drink and drive; Call South Side Kevin,” with a personal cell-phone number that does not belong to any licensed cab company in Pittsburgh.

South Side Kevin would not submit to an interview, but Fitzpatrick, 24, a software engineer living in the South Side who has used Kevin’s service before, said that he is quick, convenient and fair-priced, but Fitzpatrick warned that not all jitney rides might be safe or pleasant.

Such an unnerving experience happened when he used a jitney service to get home from the bars on the South Side. The driver and front-passenger disclosed that the car they were riding in was not theirs, and that it was taken off the lot of a repair shop of one their relative’s workplace.

“Both the driver and passenger were definitely shady,” said Fitzpatrick during an interview at his home. “Midway through the ride I was definitely asking myself why I took this jitney.”

Fitzpatrick said that he arrived home safely that night, and that he just wanted to sleep the experience off.

Jitney drivers are also at risk, such as being robbed by passengers, according to jitneys during two separate interviews at the Giant Eagle.

“Any time you deal with money, you know, it’s dangerous,” said a jitney identified as Willie.

He said that riders will ask for a ride and then rob them, knowing they have a days worth of cash from fares.

“With a lot of younger people, you have to be careful because they will try to rob you, or take your car,” said Charles.

Charles and Watt both verified that most of the jitneys at the Giant Eagle do not operate there after 12 a.m. around the time when the store closes.

Both jitney drivers said that they were never robbed since they started, but that they know people who have been.

Another problem that arises with jitneys is that there is no regulation on the rate of fares, such as licensed taxis carrying meters, which affects both the driver and passenger.

Fitzpatrick recalled being ripped off by a jitney while visiting New York City this past summer. He said that he was approached by a jitney while looking for a ride out of the city. He discovered that the jitney charged him double than the licensed cab when he took the relatively same route back to the city.

The lack of rate-regulation can affect jitneys too. While speaking with Willie, two white men in soiled jeans and work-clothes walked up and asked for a ride. Willie and another jitney waved them in, but Willie decided to let the other driver take them because the men were trying to bid for the best deal.

“Nah’ man, you go wit’ them,” said Willie. “I ain’t doing that.”

“You don’t want them anyway,” said another jitney driver to Willie. “You’d take them and they’d try to rip you off.”

When asked why the jitneys at the grocery store do not pursue a license, they said that it was too expensive, the process was too strict and demanding and that since they were not being pursued that it was unnecessary.

According to the email from Kocher, the average application for the PUC Certificate of Public Convenience (the taxi “license”) costs about $350. She also said that there have been no licenses issued in the past year.

In spite of the PUC enforcement and the dangers involved,  jitneys continue to operate in the South Side like they have since the void of taxi services has existed there.

While attending Pitt several years ago, Ian Kollmar, 23, said that he used a jitney service at Station Square because he and a group of friends were unable to obtain a taxi. After drinking at one of the clubs to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday, Kollmar’s friend called a jitney who operated on weekends.

“The guy, he was like the stereotypical pizza-man kind of dude,” said Kollmar, a director of recruiting who works with Fitzpatrick. He said that the jitney drove at excessive speeds in a rickety, old car, but that he and his group of about five people were able to get back to Oakland safely.

“If there were licensed cabs around I wouldn’t [use jitneys],” said Kollmar. “But the fact is, there aren’t and there’s not many options other than walking in the area; especially when you are out drinking, you can’t drive.”

Kollmar offered a remedy for the jitney problem and lack of service. He said that while he was living and working in San Francisco several years ago that he would use rideshares, a digital platform for requesting transportation.

Kollmar said that the jitney’s participated in rideshares because they could surpass California’s similar taxi regulations by asking for donations, instead of fares.

Such services include Zimride, a social network for hitching rides or requesting jitneys, and Lyft, a real-time smartphone app that allows for tracking and requesting jitneys.

Kollmar said that he prefers this service to traditional jitneys because the businesses that operate them ensure they meet specific requirements.

Such requirements for certain rideshare jitneys include having valid driver’s licenses, proper insurance that covers passengers and passing criminal background checks on every jitney involved with the rideshares, according to Kollmar (these policies were also verified on the Lyft website).

“Even though they don’t have a taxi license and they use loopholes to get around that they still have a way to make sure that this is more of a safe bet,” Kollmar said.

Kollmar said that the rideshare business is booming out west, and that not only could rideshares fix the issues of lack of transportation and the illegality of jitney operations in the South Side, but that they are potentially lucrative too.

“There are actually multiple services that have blossomed; I think it was in the past year,” said Kollmar. “They’ve gotten to the point where they are getting venture capital funding.”

Jitneys in the South Side also make a fair amount of money from their operations, whilst providing a service that the cab companies in Pittsburgh allegedly cannot fill, according to Charles.

“About the first three weeks of the month I average about $75 to $85 dollars a day,” said Charles. “You wouldn’t even burn half-a-tank of gas a day.”

Jitneys can be found with relative ease by looking and asking around, according to Fitzpatrick. On top of providing a designated driver to bar-hoppers, jitneys have an adventurous allure, he said.

“It’s kinda’ a good story,” he said. “You never know what you are going to find.”

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