26 February 2020

Jitneys: Early Automobile Ridesharing

Car sharing is not a recent phenomenon, it is as old as the automobile industry itself. One of the more interesting events was the Jitney episode of 1914-1915, wherein private automobiles were used as rivals to street railways.

Jitney was slang for a nickel or five cents, the common fare for these services and as the craze quickly swept the nation these cars and busses became known as “Jitneys.”

The Jitney phenomenon was said to have started in Los Angeles on July 1 1914 when L. P. Draper picked up a passenger in his Ford Model T touring car and accepted a nickel fare as payment. Draper insisted this action was legal as he held a chauffer’s license.

The idea of Jitneys soon came to SLC and by January 1915 they were seen by many as a nuisance and a threat to the railway street cars, although others defended the Jitney as faster and far less stinky than the alternative. In SLC there were a number of independent operators as well as one company, the Street Auto Service Co, Inc., which operated 15 Jitney busses.

As with other cities in the nation, the SLC Board of Commissioners (now called the City Council) unanimously passed a special Jitney ordinance designed to vastly limit the Jitney’s ability to compete with public transportation. SLC regulation was swift and harsh: 
  1. A special Jitney license was required at more than double the rate of a normal taxicab; 
  2. Routes of Jitneys were fixed and drivers could not deviate; 
  3. Jitneys could not operate on Main Street; 
  4. Drivers must be at least 21 years old and a registered chauffer; 
  5. Special signage and lights must be added to each Jitney car; 
  6. Jitneys could not charge more than 5 cents fare; 
  7. Fire, police, and other city employees could ride for free; 
  8. Jitneys must be in continuous operation for 16 hours a day between 6am and 12 midnight; 
  9. A $5,000 bond per vehicle in case of accident must be secured (this was later reduced to $2,500)
This new city ordinance went into effect on April 1, 1915, and by April 4 nearly all of the SLC Jitney operators surrendered their licenses leaving only 2 Jitney busses in operation out of previous fleet of nearly 40 (Salt Lake Tribune 1915-04-10). 

The Street Auto Service Co also struggled and the company was eventually acquired by a package delivery service. The requirement for the bond and the high license fee proved to be too costly for the SLC Jitneys to operate and the surviving Jitneys soon morphed into taxi or package delivery services.

By comparison, SLC’s ordinance was among the strictest in the nation, especially the high fees and requirement for 16 hours of continuous operation. Jitney drivers could no longer squeeze in a few hours of driving just before or after work, it had to be an all day job.

Of note, Salt Lake County also regulated the Jitneys but the ordinance was not as strict as SLC and was developed in consultation with the County’s Jitney drivers; as a consequence, Jitneys were still in operation in Salt Lake County jurisdiction for another year until the Utah Legislature decided it needed to get involved.

A Jitney bus operated by the Street Auto Service Co, January 13 1915.
Note rail streetcar in background. This is a Studebaker touring bus operated
by a corporation but most independent Jitney operators used
their own Ford Model T automobiles. Image from UDSH.

Showing the rear of the Studebaker bus that will seat 10 people.
This is a pay-as-you-enter with the entrance in the front and the
exit at the rear. The rear door is operated by the driver and the rear
steps drops when the door is opened. Image from UDSH.

Advertisement for the Auto Street Service,
Salt Lake Tribune 1915-01-16.

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