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Jitneys: Sociable or Silent Cab Rides?

By Jesse Thompson

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When you don’t own a car to get around town, you probably click a button on your mobile phone to call an Uber or Lyft. Those yellow cars that used to pick us up ages ago…what were they called? Oh, taxis! In the early- to mid-20th century, the Hill District community in Pittsburgh relied primarily on jitney service, an unregistered network of cabs that offered Hill residents shared rides throughout the city. In 1914, jitneys emerged in the U.S. as Ford Model-T owners learned they could earn extra cash by carpooling. Soon after in Pittsburgh, jitneys emerged as essential transport for African-Americans in the Hill during a time of racial segregation. They also offered a sonic experience that was very different from cab rides we experience today, because jitneys connected the neighborhood and encouraged everyday socialization.

To get a sense of the sounds and routines of jitney transport, I talked with Terri Baltimore, the former director of community engagement for the Hill House Association and the current Activities Coordinator at Macedonia FACE Active for Life Center in the Hill District, who was born and raised in the Hill District. Jitney rides were the main transportation for her family since they, like many families in the Hill, did not own a car. Ms. Baltimore recalled how the jitney ride always began with a telephone call. When she finished Sunday dinner with family, there would be a car waiting to take them where they needed. Riding with the same drivers from week to week, Ms. Baltimore remembered that they were like close friends or family who they trusted entirely. During the rides, people would certainly gossip, because how else does the community stay connected with each other’s business? Riders and drivers would catch up on the local news, official and unofficial. Sometimes conversation would turn to activism and civil rights, particularly the events organized by local leader Frankie Mae Pace.


Facing segregation and racial prejudice, Black families were routinely denied transportation in city cabs, and therefore the jitney was integral, ensuring the community’s right to get around town. In fact, over 85% of jitney patrons in Pittsburgh were Black. The jitneys in the Hill were unlike jitneys in other cities, in that they connected the community while fostering a sense of reliability and security for Black Pittsburghers. Ms. Baltimore observed that the main difference between historic jitneys and today’s Ubers is that Ubers are transactional whereas the jitneys of the Hill built relationships.

Pittsburgh Jitney
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Sound clip created by Jesse Thompson

In the audio clip, you will hear a re-creation of a scene at a jitney station, using dialogue directly from August Wilson’s Jitney (1979), one of his many plays about life in Pittsburgh's Hill. Notice how the transaction starts with a ringing telephone. Then, you’ll hear how the ride route is established at the start of the call. As was typical, the driver tells the client what color cab to expect, sets the price of the fare, and informs the rider when they can expect a pickup. In this audio clip, the driver and rider don’t know each other. However, often drivers would recognize each other’s voice, or clients would request their favorite drivers.

The Uber system we have today is not nearly as personable. One driver is not valued any more than the next, so long as they get the rider to their destination. In fact, having a personable, chatty driver can be considered a detraction. Uber lets comfort riders specify the car’s temperature and demand “quiet mode,” with no music or conversation. These priorities are fundamentally different from the historic jitneys of the Hill. As you take your next Uber ride through Pittsburgh, you might initiate a conversation with your driver in an effort to keep the personality, and human connection of the jitney alive.

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Australia, Uber. “Taking Comfort to New Heights: Introducing New Quiet Mode and Extended Wait Rider Preferences to Uber Comfort.” Uber Newsroom, Accessed 2 May 2024. 


Wilson, August. Jitney. New York: Overlook Press, 2003.

Gwin, Ben. The Pittsburgh Neighborhood Guidebook. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2021.


Steigerwald, Bill. “Jitneys Were Pittsburgh’s Answer to Racist, Monopoly Taxicabs.” The Steigerwald Post, 11 Feb. 2024. 

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