"We've desegregated schools, [we've] desegregated the housing lists, but I still can't get a cab from the mayor's office to the Hill House," Richard LeGrande told a forum on local taxi and jitney service held by state Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District) on July 25.
LeGrande is founder or member of a number of public-transportation advocacy groups, yet says he still has problems traveling in Pittsburgh -- except when he uses the unregulated illegal jitneys employed in predominantly black and poor neighborhoods for decades. Cabs "won't stop," he told the forum, which included representatives from the Public Utility Commission (which regulates taxis) and James Campolongo, president and owner of Yellow Cab. "You call, they won't come. I call Roberta and she's here in a minute."
In a survey of residents of the Hill and other poor and black neighborhoods conducted by members of the Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project and Wheatley's office, 49 percent of respondents had extremely limited access to private cars or none at all, and 85 percent used jitneys at least once a week. Many claimed Yellow Cab, which controls more than 90 percent of the taxi market, does not serve blacks or black neighborhoods. Two-thirds of respondents said they couldn't get service when they called a taxi.
Tyrone Munson of the Hill District told the forum he called Yellow Cab and was asked by the phone operator whether he was black and had enough money to pay for the trip.
"I've told them, 'If you get me to where I need to get, I can pay you when I get there,' but the trustability just isn't there," Munson said.
Unusual payment arrangements are made all the time with jitney drivers, Munson said, including discounts, flat rates and billing riders once a week or month. Jitney riders enjoy other perks as well: Drivers may help carry groceries or pick up medicines from the pharmacy. And many riders know their drivers personally, noted LaDonna Sifford, the youth policy coordinator of PTEP.
PUC officials were on hand not to crack down on jitneys, apparently, but to crack down on Yellow Cab. Michael Hoffman, director of the PUC's bureau of transportation and safety, said that agency had "no interest in dislodging jitney service," but wanted to know if "there is a way to legitimize things but not take away from transportation needs." He was most concerned that residents knew of proper complaint procedures when Yellow Cab refused them service.
Questioning a rider's race, Yellow Cab's Campolongo told the meeting, "wouldn't be tolerated; that's a terminable offense. Fifty percent of our phone operators are African American and all phone conversations are recorded. You call us, it's recorded, they're gone.
"We haven't been responsive enough to the [black] community," he added, but "we don't receive many complaints from your district." Later, he said the company had fired 30 drivers in the past 90 days for ride refusals, noting, "It's not just the Hill; we have white people coming from the opera who want to go six blocks that get refused."
Concluded Richard LeGrande: "Jitneys are a free-market response to a spatial mismatch of services that have moved out of the inner city. Whatever you come up with for fixing these problems, please don't fix what works for us."