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Uber is the new jitney: Looking back at Austin City Council's 100-year-old ride-hailing fight

 A yellow poster with an older car on it labeled "jitney". The poster reads "All aboard for that old jitney ride."
Screenshot via YouTube
A sheet music cover for "All Aboard for That Old Jitney Ride."

This story was originally published on Feb.10, 2016.

In May, Austin voters will decide the future of ride-hailers Uber and Lyft, putting to rest an escalating debate about how the city should regulate these businesses. 

But the city has seen this fight before – 100 years ago.

In 1915, the city decided to crackdown on jitneys — unregulated service vehicles that were able to offer cheaper fares than streetcars — because some considered them a public safety liability. The council supported a regulation that would both limit the new system of proto-taxicabs and level the playing field for the city’s already-functioning transportation infrastructure. Needless to say, the arguments were pretty much the same then as they are now.

Jitneys are a public safety concern.

Austin’s jitney proliferation hit critical mass in the spring of 1915, when jitneys were carrying as many as 3,000 passengers a day, according to a 1954 A.T. Jackson article from The Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

As with ride-hailing, there were public safety concerns, as many of the drivers didn’t have set passenger limits or safety standards. “Topless old jalopies even permitted passengers to stand on the running boards,” Jackson wrote.

A June 1915 editorial in The Statesman mulled Houston’s deliberation of the jitney controversy, noting public safety as a chief concern:

“The American people in the mad rush of business have been too careless of life and limb. Mutlipled thousands killed and maimed yearly in the transportation business have raised the oceanwide cry of ‘Safety First.’ A city would be recreant in its duty which permitted an irresponsible or insolvent person to operate a dangerous instrumentality on its streets so that there could be no compensation to people killed or injured through negligence."

Jitneys adversely impact the transportation industry in Austin.

The rides were cheap and on-demand. Jitneys would troll the city’s streetcar lines, which quickly cut deeply into the revenue of the streetcar operator, the Austin Electric Railway Company.

At a January 1915 employee meeting, company President W.J. Jones told 140 drivers, mechanics and executives the jitney uprising had become so serious, the company would have to hold off on planned improvements.

“The jitney car service means a loss to us of about $100 a day or about $40,000 a year,” Jones said, according to The Statesman. “If the automobile competition service continues it means no new power house, no new barn, no new cars and no new club house for the employees as the company has planned to build.”

Jones’ dour prediction did prove true; three years later the company operated at a 3 percent return and, for the first time in nearly a half century, partially shuttered lines in 1920.

Jitney regulation should be decided by voters.

 An excerpt from a Statesman article. Dark text on a white background.
A Statesman article detailing a threat received by the City Clerk after denying a petition to put jitney regulation on the ballot in Austin.

Austinites signed their first petition supporting ridesharing 101 years ago.

On July 7, 1915, the City Clerk denied a petition that protested the city’s ordinance, which defined jitneys and required them to pay $50 registration fees. Nine-hundred fifty-seven people signed the petition – 621 of whom were qualified voters and 336 of whom were unqualified – but it failed to make it onto the ballot.

That wasn’t the only one, however. A 1916 petition, which would have put the ordinance on an April ballot to elect the city’s firemen, fell short by an estimated 120 votes, according to a Feb. 5 Statesman write-up.  That petition didn’t make it onto the ballot either, but the Austin Jitney Association managed to negotiate with the Austin City Council, which passed a resolution to cut that licensing fee down to $25.

The broker in that deal, Austin Mayor A.P. Wooldridge, presented the resolution to council, and it passed on a 4-1 vote. Still, that wasn’t well-received. Days after the petition was rejected, the City Clerk received an anonymous note from his “Jitney Well Wishers.”

Jitneys are unfairly targeted by regulation.

Austin’s jitney controversy ultimately went to the courts. Two separate cases worked their way through the system – a 1915 case even went all the way to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

While the courts ultimately ruled in favor of the City of Austin in the two cases, each of which dealt with jitney drivers who were arrested for violating the city’s ordinance. Both drivers contended the city unlawfully arrested them. District Judge A.S. Fisher sided with the jitney drivers and emphatically struck down the city’s law in an August 14, 1915 decision. He said the city’s law – which required a $5,000 insurance bond, a licensing fee and a passenger cap – was an overreach:

“There is one remarkable fact which appears in this case. While other vehicles, automobiles and others, are charging 25 cents to $1 for every passenger, no sum of any amount is charged against them either as a license fee or occupation tax, while the particular automobile in question, which charges only 5 cents per passenger is taxed from $50 to $100 according to its seating capacity. The City Council may possibly explain this, but so far no satisfactory explanation of this has been furnished this court. The facts in evidence show the ‘jitney’ to be a poor man’s chariot. It would be unfair to the City Council to say that this fact influenced its action”

Fisher’s decision was ultimately overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. 

The jitney regulations later served as a framework for the city's 1932 ordinance regulating taxicabs, or "automobiles engaged in the business of carrying passengers for hire" as the ordinance called them. 

At public testimony the day before the council's 5-0 passage of the ordinance, a representative of the Austin Street Railway Company said the ordinance promoted "unfair competition" because taxis could "pick up passengers indiscriminately while cruising about on the streets." 

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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