Blogs > Liberty and Power > Free Markets v. Bus Segregation in Montgomery

Aug 25, 2007 12:36 pm

Free Markets v. Bus Segregation in Montgomery

During my research, I happened on this article from Jet (February 9, 1956, 6) on the free market road not taken:

"Faced with wholesale arrests of Negroes on minor traffic charges as a result of Mayor W.A. Gayle's 'get tough policy,' five Negroes filed an application with the Montgomery City Commission asking for a franchise to operate jitneys to serve Negro areas. Officials of the newly-organized Montgomery Transit Lines said they will use 1956 station wagons. Mayor Gayle's reaction to the proposal was prompt: 'If Negroes want to ride a public vehicle, they can ride city busses.'"

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Andrew D. Todd - 8/25/2007

I think you might want to put the jitneys into a broader context of transportation policy. One could probably make a case for local governments functioning as Luddites during the Civil Rights movement, that is, trying to repress the implications of the automobile.

According to Harvard Sitkoff, (_The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1980_, 1981), when the bus strike began, the Montgomery Improvement Association leadership immediately got the black taxicab companies to turn their taxicabs into ad-hoc jitneys, waiving the city-mandated minimum fare. The mayor responded by threatening sanctions for breaking the minimum fare, and the MIA leadership responded by organizing a car pool with about 150 automobiles and about 100 stations. I haven't tracked down a more detailed source, but the organization seems to look a lot like the later "dial-a-ride" schemes, centrally organized jitneys run by transit authorities. The mayor responded by legally harassing the drivers. This is where your applicants for a jitney license come in. There was a whole legal construct designed to create two discrete categories, viz. private automobiles and cabs for the classes, and buses for the masses, excluding jitneys in the middle.

When the dust had ultimately settled, fifty years later, the Montgomery bus system was in an extremely marginal condition, used on a daily basis by about one percent of the population, at effective speeds slower than a bicycle. Mass transit only really works well when you have skyscrapers, or perhaps in a college town. In a large city, transit tends to be naturally segregated in the sense that there are two or three tiers of transit, with different trade-offs of speed and local stops. A more or less similar argument could probably be made for the Greyhound stations and the rise of the Interstate Highway system. The whole "back of the bus" mentality may have reflected the fact that there increasingly wasn't a front of the bus anymore.

There is considerable evidence that buses are not able to compete with jitneys as a general thing, at least in low-density areas, meaning practically anywhere in the South. However, jitneys seem to have been a kind of "moving window" in the sense that they were rapidly succeeded by private automobile ownership. The first burst of "jitneyism" in the North and West, circa 1915, coincided with the peak boom year of the automobile industry. Jitneyism was promptly repressed by a mass of local ordinances sponsored by street car companies. After the automobile industry's 1921 overproduction downturn, the used automobile market took off. Six years of technological progress represented the difference between a machine which was economic if used communally and a machine which was economic if used individually. Something roughly similar seems to have happened in the post office, circa 1915-16, involving disputes between the Wilson Administration's Texan Postmaster-General, Albert Burleson, and rural postal carriers who wanted to use motorcycles to deliver the mail. The carriers wanted rural mail-delivery to be a part-time occupation of mature men with other resources, eg. farmers, but Burleson wanted carriers to be poorly paid young full-timers. The vehicle of Ludditism was paradoxically technological, to demand an impractical standard of mechanical perfection in motorized transport, forcing the vast majority of carriers to use horses. By 1925 or so, the well-equipped rural carrier was driving a bargain-basement Model T Ford, furnished with a caterpillar-tread conversion kit (like a snowmobile, on a larger scale), capable of going more or less anywhere the later four-wheel-drive vehicles would be able to go.

In the 1950's, the South was catching up with the North in terms of mechanization. The advent of the cotton harvester is a fairly good benchmark. It was the sort of machine which could have happened forty years earlier, except for the South's general lack of mechanical competence. One would have to track down statistics on automobile ownership in Alabama and Mississippi, but one suspects that on the eve of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Deep South had reached approximately the point of departure which the rest of the country had reached in 1915. Of course there is a whole mass of factual information which needs to be collected: who rode Montgomery city buses and why, who rode Greyhound buses and why, who ate in Greyhound station restaurants, and were they the same people who rode the bus?

A city bus can be viewed as a similar exercise in paradoxical Ludditism. It is not terribly practical, save on the highest-density routes. However, given its long wheelbase, the bus tends to require special skills to drive, similar to a semi-trailer. That is, it tends to make driving into a "mystery," available only to a special elite (I used to live in Cincinnati, the City of the Seven Hills. To watch a Cincinnati bus driver taking a bus down a hill of three hundred vertical feet, with hairpin turns and a grade of ten percent, is to witness artistry of the highest order). A jitney driver, driving a much smaller vehicle, would not have to exhibit that order of skill. Driving a bus was a kind of public performance of technological priesthood.

If you look at government white papers on transportation from the last traffic-energy-environment crisis, back in the 1960's and 1970's, you find that the more enlightened transportation planners were somewhat interested in jitneys. However, they tended to "assimilate" the jitney, by insisting that it be plugged into a centralized radio-controlled dispatching system with a computer-- and this at a time when computers were still big expensive machines. In effect, the transport planner looked at the toys the Air Force had, and said that he wanted those, too. However, the main thread of the planners' desire was towards an automatic, driverless vehicle running on an automatic road, automatically switched and routed. Since using this system would not be dependent on the ability to drive, nor would it have the high direct labor costs of taxicabs, the whole notion of public transportation would be effectively abolished, in approximately the same sense that the party-line telephone and the manual switchboard were being abolished.

The foregoing is a very brief and conjectural sketch. Now, one can detect similar or analogous responses to other technologies, for example, the response of authoritarian governments to internet cafes. It is hard to say how far one can expand the analogy.

Editorial, Change transportation mindset, Montgomery Advertiser, circa June 22, 2007

James H. Bruns, Motorized Mail, 1997 (Krause Publications, Iola, WI)

Tomorrow's Transportation: New Systems for the Urban Future, U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Metropolitan Development, Urban Transportation Administration, Washington D.C., 1968 (Library of Congress catalog number 68-61300)

Metrotran-2000: A Study of Future Concepts in Metropolitan Transportation for the Year 2000, Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories, Inc., by: Robert A. Wolf, Transportation Research Department, CAL No. 150, October 1967