Jitneys remain in driver's seat
David Killian peers around Dumpsters, behind vehicles and into doorways, searching for any sign of potential trouble as he wheels his 1989 Cadillac Brougham into the public-housing complex in the Fineview section of the North Side.
"If you're not on your toes, someone could walk up behind you and blast you in the head for 10 bucks," said unlicensed taxi driver Killian, 38, of the North Side, as he drops off a $3 fare and her groceries.
Unlicensed taxi drivers -- commonly called jitneys -- are standard features in some Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
It's not an occupation for the meek -- at least five jitney drivers have been slain since 1999.
The most recent killing occurred April 30, when Osei Yaw Djin, 54, was gunned down while seated in his car in the Hill District after he refused to give a man a ride. Police have charged John D. Wilson, 19, of West Mifflin, with criminal homicide.
Djin was the second of Robert "Loaf" Thomas' drivers to be killed on duty.
"It was a lot safer back in the day, a lot safer," said Thomas, 50, of Polish Hill, manager of Best Car Service and a jitney driver since he was 19. "There was not too much gun play. Every so often, maybe there were fisticuffs or every so often someone would maybe get stabbed."
Fulfilling a need
Although police and state regulators acknowledge that unlicensed taxis are illegal, they concede jitneys provide crucial mobility in poor communities where many people have no vehicle.
"It's an absolutely necessary service," said city police Cmdr. RaShall Brackney, who oversees the department's Zone 5 station in East Liberty.
The need is especially critical in Pittsburgh's black communities. According to a survey by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research, 48.6 percent of black households in Pittsburgh have no vehicle, compared to 22.5 percent of white households.
At the same time, vehicles are becoming more important because jobs and shopping centers are moving to suburbs and away from minority communities, said Ayanna King, executive director of the Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project -- a nonprofit group that works to improve transportation in minority communities.
Calling a licensed taxi is not a realistic option for many.
"We've heard that complaint for a long time," said Sharon Wilmarth, an information specialist with the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates taxis.
Under state law, licensed taxi companies are required to send cabs to all areas in their territory. Wilmarth said companies that fail to meet the requirement can be punished only if someone files a PUC complaint.
State law allows drivers to refuse calls that they believe could endanger their lives, said Jamie Campolongo, owner of Yellow Cab, Pittsburgh's largest cab company.
"Drivers aren't going to serve anywhere where they think their life is in danger," said Campolongo, past president of the Pennsylvania Taxicab and Paratransit Association.
He said Yellow Cab gets few complaints about unanswered calls for service.
People also turn to jitneys instead of taxis for another reason.
"It's cheaper," said Bill Frass, 61, of the North Side, as he loaded groceries into a jitney vehicle on a recent day at the Giant Eagle on Cedar Avenue in North Side.
He said a licensed cab from his house to the Cedar Avenue grocery store would cost $8 to $10 each way. Because a jitney charges only $5, Frass said he uses an unlicensed taxi two or three times a week.
Buses are inconvenient for some errands.
Stacy Jones, 37, of Fineview, regularly hires Killian to get to a supermarket from her apartment.
"There's a bus route, but when you're carrying groceries, you don't want to take the bus," Jones said.
Enforcement not strict
Jitneys often lack insurance and are not subject to the same maintenance and inspection standards as licensed cabs, said Eric Levis, the PUC's press secretary.
People caught operating jitney vehicles get warning letters first, Wilmarth said, then are cited for repeat or serious violations. The maximum fine is $500.
Since 2002, she said, 175 warning letters have been issued to jitney drivers in the Pittsburgh area, and 17 people have been hit with citations in the same period. She said the PUC does not track the outcome of cases, which are handled by district justices.
Thomas said jitney drivers don't have to worry too much about violating the law "as long as you're not picking people up at the airport or blocking traffic Downtown."
Brackney, the city police commander, said she leaves enforcement of regulations against jitneys to the PUC. Instead of harassing jitney drivers, city police officers take extra care to watch for their safety. Drivers, in turn, are helpful to officers.
"They see everybody. They know everybody, and they're an excellent resource for us as well," Brackney said.
Some businesses, particularly grocery stores, seem to accept the jitneys swarming their parking lots.
"What are they gonna do?" Killian asked. "They need us just like we need them. If people can't get there, they can't shop."
On a recent afternoon, jitney drivers were doing brisk business at the North Side Giant Eagle. Aging luxury cars mixed in the parking lot with brand-new economy models, sport utility vehicles and a couple of Japanese imports parked just around the corner from the store entrance.
Every two or three minutes, a shopper would wheel out a packed grocery cart, be asked if he or she needed a ride and soon would be headed home. Jitney drivers that day were mostly older men sporting baseball caps, but the informal motor pool also included an attractive, bejeweled young woman in a new Chrysler P/T Cruiser with plush zebra-striped seat covers.
"Giant Eagle recognizes that some of our customers use alternate methods of transportation to shop at our supermarkets, including car services," said Rob Borella, director of corporate communications, although adding that the company "does not endorse" jitney services.
Alone vs. groups
Jitney drivers work either independently -- relying on cell phone calls and repeat customers -- or become affiliated with a stand, where they get walk-up customers.
Drivers who work at jitney stands -- such as Thomas of Best Car Service and independent driver Killian -- said they pay a monthly, weekly or daily fee to the manager.
Some stations are no more than a street corner or a pay phone in a convenience store.
Thomas' tiny cinder-block building was built by his father to serve as an apartment but now houses two pay phones, a television and a few chairs for jitneys to use between trips.
"Basically it's a place to come out of the rain, a place to come out of the cold where you can sit and wait for your phone to ring," he said. "It's like a clubhouse."
A low, cinder-block wall surrounds a small porch out front, where drivers can watch passengers approach from the Bedford Dwellings public-housing complex across the Hill District street.
Drivers who work out of Best Car Service agree to charge certain fares, based on distance, and to obey conduct guidelines. Thomas declined to disclose the monthly dues and his cut, if any. Thomas also has a house mechanic to keep vehicles running.
Killian is an independent driver whose regular customers contact him by cell phone. He said he can do better on his own than working out of a stand. One North Side stand, he said, charges $14 per week, plus $5 per daily shift.
Killian, who drives as if he is trying to pack in as many trips as possible, said he can make $125 to $150 on a decent day.
Thomas said he usually is happy with about 10 paying customers per day.
"I'm looking at maybe 60 bucks in my pocket -- minus I buy myself a sandwich, get myself something cold to drink, put my lottery number in, put money away for gas," he said. "I take home maybe 35 bucks, but I'm going home with something."
The number of jitneys in Pittsburgh is anyone's guess.
"I could count 30 or 45 jitney stands that are organized jitney stands," Brackney said, adding that many operate out of convenience shops, from grocery stores or other areas invisible to an outsider but familiar to a community's residents.
Thomas organizes an annual Stop the Violence Rally in the Hill District each Sept. 11 to try to encourage peace. He takes pride in employing people at his jitney stand who otherwise would have trouble finding jobs.
Yet Thomas is fully aware of the dangers of being a jitney.
"When I leave my home, my objective is to come back safely," he said. "I don't know what I'm going out there for or what I'm getting into."
Danger at the wheel
At least five jitney drivers have been fatally shot since 1999: