Owen Courreges: The 100-year-old history of Uber in New Orleans

Print More

Owen Courreges

Jitney is probably a word few New Orleanians are familiar with, although historians believe that the work may have originated here.

Back in the early 20th century, systems of shared taxis, appeared in cities throughout America.  The cost for using one of these shared cabs was usually a nickel, or jitney.  The French Creole term “jeton,” which refers to a small coin or token, is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the word “jitney.”  Accordingly, the word probably came from New Orleans.

The basic scheme behind jitneys was simple:  An ordinary citizen could buy a used car or bus and run passengers around, usually far more cheaply and quickly than streetcars could.  Eventually, some jitney operators formed jitney companies and even jitney drivers’ unions.

Unlike normal taxis, jitneys would ride to capacity and normally along a set route or a semi-set route.  This put them in direct competition with transit.  During peak times, when streetcars were running at-capacity and off-schedule, jitney drivers picked up the slack by pulling up to major streetcar stops and offering to take those ill-served transit users to their destination.

You can see the problem here.  Transit companies quickly started losing money hand-over-fist to the jitney operators.

In 1915 Conrad Syme, corporation counsel for the City of Washington, D.C., came to New Orleans to study the jitney situation.   He reported that jitneys were well-established in New Orleans and advised that Washington could have a similar system.

“There are in New Orleans about 400 individually-owned jitneys, comprising cars of all types,” Syme observed. “There is also a jitney mobile line of 6 or 8 cars, capacity 20, going over a regular route of 2 1/2 miles long.  The individual jitneys are licensed at $30 per year.  They are not restricted routes.”

However, Syme also reported that there was already a push to regulate jitneys.

“The desire is strong here,”  reported Syme, “to have the jitneys confined to certain routes.  I think this will be difficult that so far as jitneys run by individual owners or operators are concerned they should and will only be confined to the routes indicated on the card.”

Syme explained that the jitney mobile line, with buses carrying about 20 people at a time, would desire defined routes.  However, it would seriously harm individual jitney operators.

Adding insult to injury, that same year New Orleans passed laws banning jitneys from picking up passengers within 50 feet of an intersection, and requiring them to purchase an unaffordable $5,000 indemnity bond (approximately $45,000 today).  The slowly increasing regulation was beginning to look like death from a thousand cuts.

It was in the midst of this that the New Orleans Jitney Drivers’ Association was formed to challenge the new laws.

The jitney operators claimed that the new laws were designed to protect the streetcar companies, not the public interest.  Accordingly, they sued in Civil District Court to enjoin enforcement of the onerous new jitney restrictions, particularly the indemnity bond.   They fought the issue all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which upheld the restrictions in 1916 and dismissed the injunction.

Ironically, the New Orleans Light and Railway Company (the company that operated the streetcar lines) was actually damaged by this ruling, as it had started getting into the jitney business.  Ultimately, the decline of streetcar profitability due to jitneys helped precipitate the consolidation of all of New Orleans’ streetcar lines of New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (“NOPSI”) in 1922.

NOPSI took a hard line.  It managed to crush its own rail workers’ union in 1929 following a major strike, and set its sights on breaking the jitney operators.

Because the so-called “anti-jitney” law was so onerous, many jitney drivers had little choice but to operate without complying with its restrictions.  NOPSI responded by filing suit against the rogue operators, claiming that they were losing approximately $6,500 per day in revenue attributable to unfair competition from jitneys.  Ultimately, NOPSI received the injunction it sought and defended it all the way up to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the injunction against the jitney drivers in 1930.

Following the ruling against jitney operators, the Associated Press reported that “[p]olice became more alert in enforcing the ‘anti-jitney’ law” and noted that “[a]dditional arrests of drivers were made.”

This push for regulation was hardly restricted to New Orleans.  Cities everywhere began restricting or banning jitneys immediately after they appeared, and continued to do so into the 1920’s.  The obvious goal was to bolster (or in some cases, to rescue) transit corporations saddled with the monopolistic complacency, union difficulties, and an aging rail infrastructure.

This was ultimately the case in New Orleans, where NOPSI succeeded in effectively killing jitneys before they were banned entirely by modern “for hire” vehicle regulations.

At this point you’re probably wondering what the point of this history lesson has been.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Every time you’re waiting for a bus or a streetcar that never seems to come, this is why.  The city has restricted competition and hog-tied you to a bad choice.  In a perfect world, when RTA dropped the ball, some enterprising buck would pick it up.  That, dear readers, simply is not allowed.  Jitneys are gone and unlikely to return.

We have the same problem with taxis.  How many times have you needed a cab during times of peak demand, only to find none are available?  The city is currently debating over whether we allow Uber, a mobile application that connects people with drivers, to operate in the city.  Alas, voices from certain quarters want to fix minimum prices for Uber at an unreasonably high level to protect cab companies and drivers.

Does this sound familiar?  It’s history repeating itself.  This time, we need to consider whether we’re going to protect entrenched interests or stand up for the public.

Squeezing out competition hasn’t worked in the past.  It’s been awful for consumers and workers alike.  A free and more open market is virtually always preferable to one paralyzed by rent-seeking and overregulation.  What is good for NOPSI, RTA, or the taxi industry is not necessarily good for you and I, the people actually being served.

Hopefully, we understand that more now than we did 99 years ago.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

15 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The 100-year-old history of Uber in New Orleans

  1. A very interesting history. So exactly whose interests are being protected? Primarily Yevgeniy Gekker’s? It seems more than a little fishy that “Gekker has been listed as an agent, member or officer in more than 50 companies registered in Louisiana” and has so many taxi permits that he’s “far ahead of the next largest CPNC holder, who controls just 70 of the permits. In fact, if the remaining top five CPNC holders were added together, they would account for 210 CPNCs, only three more than Gekker.”


  2. No cabs at peak times really hits home, but it is more than just that. When I have traveled in major metro areas in Mexico I have taken advantage of a transit system similar to jitneys. They are usually modified vans similar to VW micro-busses and are prolific. These ‘combis’ travel mostly along established routes and are independently owned. The fares are cheap and they are always around, this was the cheapest most reliable transit.

    Today we see RTA routes that pass by once an hour, and sometimes even use double length busses that are mostly empty most of the time. It is a shame that we do not have transportation options that scale in the opposite direction. We would be better served by having smaller and more frequent offerings– what is old should be new again.

  3. There are many problems with transit as it exists, but Uber is a completely third world model. Regulations are not just to take your money, as most conservatives would have you believe. How do you know the condition of the vehicle you’re paying to drive in? Is it going to fall to pieces in traffic as you’re riding in it? Is this driver accountable to anyone? The whole thing sounds like a nightmare.

  4. Very simple: Regulation for the purpose of economic protectionism = bad in 95% of the cases. Regulation for purpose of health and safety = good (presuming it is done in a reasoned manner). The regulation that bans Uber is the former type, = bad. And if Uber has health and safety issues, regulate that aspect only.

  5. If they can provide a better level of customer service, they will have my business (taxing back and forth from movie sets all week). You cannot even reserve a so-called legitimate cab to get to a early call time set like 4 or 5AM and I have been stranded without a ride. So when I see the guys at Walmart or where ever they can be found, I get their contact information. *Cabbie – keep over-looking our local dollar…*

  6. T75,

    That’s poppycock. The regulations involved here go well beyond providing basic protections for consumers. The condition of the vehicle can be shown through annual inspections, and the driver is accountable to Uber and civil authorities. The only missing element is the Taxi Bureau, which in New Orleans has shown to be a grand embarrassment. That, right there, is your “nightmare.”

  7. Mr. C.
    Yes…. but what and where are workable solutions that protect us from the same old-same old, that puts Tourists 1ST? Mine?.. I can only praise your work- Keep it up-

    but to bitch is easy- we need Jane Jacobs basics/CS (common sense) ASAP!!!! or it’s Uber/Urban Experts who will “Reform” us and Make It White (ooops, sorry to Mr. Pitt) Exploit Us Right.
    Or we ignore all- like we do to the rewards of real estate agents and on the thousands++++ of illegal https://www.airbnb.com- rentals and become a true Boutique Destination- where locals serve vegan gumbo to survive.
    Best from 5510 Freret-

    p.s. There is some good “Market Urbanism” lip-service here-

  8. Cab service in New Orleans is absolutely abysmal. I couldn’t even describe more eloquently than N’awlins Cab themselves why it is so terrible: http://nawlinscab.com/arrival

    ^^That’s a 13 bullet point rage at the customer on why it’s our fault that cabs aren’t dependable. The opening line says it best: “The biggest misnomer by the public is that ordering a cab is a guarantee of service.”

    What a nightmare. With the crime as bad as it is today in New Orleans, its critical for people to be able to get around the city in a safe way. And sitting on street corner alone for 45 minutes waiting for a cab that’s not guaranteed to come get you is not the answer, even if N’awlins Cab says it is.

    T75- you must not be familiar with Uber. I’ve lived in 4 other cities and used it consistently over the last 5 years. It takes the experience of getting a cab from where it is today-worse than dealing with your cable company– to more like the experience you have in dealing with Amazon.com. It’s mindblowing how fast and reliable and pleasant it is every single time.

    The people of New Orleans deserve better than this, and the free market will 100% take care of it, if we let them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.