Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Spectre is Haunting Uber: Jason Dalton’s tale of smartphone possession

We control the horizontal; we control the vertical.

Kalamazoo Uber driver and shooting suspect Jason Dalton’s story of being possessed by the Uber app is only the latest in a long history of such stories, in which people have attributed paranormal or spiritual powers to new technologies. Tales of otherworldly beings communicating through the telegraph, radio, television, or computer screen are motivated by the anxieties that arise with social and political changes driven by new forms of communication and action-at-a-distance. Today, while Uber’s PR department scrambles to keep the phrase “going Uber” from becoming an updated version of “going postal,” it is worth looking more closely at Dalton’s delusions for some insight into the particular fears and dreams of our up-and-coming app-governed existence.

In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce describes the long history of stories of possession and paranormal activity surrounding new and unfamiliar technologies. The telegraph and radio gave rise to stories of spirit possession and the entire phenomenon of the spirit “medium:” a human who, not unlike a radio, was “tuned” to frequencies through which they could talk to the dead. Television and the internet inspired stories of mind control, alien invasion, and being trapped in worlds of illusion. In each case, the paranormal stories that have swirled around new technologies boil down to the hopes and fears these technologies inspire, and such questions as:
  • how can you talk with someone who isn’t present?
  • how can these images seem so real when we know they are not?
  • how can we make sense of this invisible power that flows all around us, and through us?
We may laugh today at people being afraid of telephones and radios, but Dalton’s story owes more than a little to contemporary cultural anxieties over the increasing saturation of our lives with apps designed to influence, and to some extent to control, human behavior. Though exaggerated by his paranoia, each of Dalton’s crazy claims reflect the actual controls and suggestions made by the real Uber app.

In his interview with police, Dalton made these claims:

1. Dalton saw an “Eastern Star” or “devil head” in the app.
2. The app triggered Dalton's actions with colors and sounds.
3. Dalton described possession by the app as more of a “feeling” than a “telling.”
4. Dalton felt that the app was telling him where to drive.
5. Dalton felt that the app gave him special abilities or protections.
6. Through the Uber app, Dalton felt connected to some greater, inexplicable power.

Each of the quotes below (in italics) are from the interview notes made by officers Moorian and Ghiringhelli, and made available by WZZM in Kalamazoo.

1. Dalton saw an “Eastern Star” or “devil head” in the app.
Dalton said that if we only knew, it would blow our mind. Dalton then explains how when he opens up the Uber taxi App a symbol appeared and he recognized that symbol as the Eastern Star symbol. Dalton acknowledged that he recognized the Uber symbol as being that of the Eastern star and a devil head popped up on his screen and when he pressed the button on the app, that is when all the problems started.

Uber did just change its logo, but neither the old nor the new logo matches the “devil’s head” described by Dalton. Nevertheless, as Uber drivers have already started pointing out over at, there are in fact upside-down five-pointed stars (as well as rightside-up ones) all over the background of the newly-designed app. Dalton seems to have fixated on this.

TruYouber: Sure, the new Uber app is covered with up and down-facing pentagrams. But isn’t it more disturbing that it is clearly modeled after the logo of the world-conquering corporation in the dystopian Dave Eggers novel, The Circle?

It was not enough for the devil’s head logo to simply be there: Dalton himself had to speak its name for it to take power over him. When he recognized the symbol and “spoke what the symbol was,” it responded (he claimed) by turning from red to black.
Dalton said that when the Uber symbol is red, it is just picking up and dropping off people, but when he recognized the symbol and spoke what the symbol was, the color changed from red to black.
Dalton said he wishes he would never have spoken what that symbol was when he saw it on his phone. Dalton described the devil figure as a horned cow head or something like that and then it would give you an assignment and it would literally take over your whole body.
Dalton said that if he wouldve never ever mentioned the Uber symbol resembling the Eastern Star, he never wouldve had any problems.

2. The app triggered Dalton's actions with colors and sounds.
Dalton was asked what was different tonight from the other nights and he said as a driver partner with Uber, the icon is red and it had changed to black tonight.

The red-to-black shift which Dalton reported seeing is a bit harder to explain. On a normal, non-possessed Uber driver app, the screen does go black—right before a ride request, after which the screen zooms in on a blue circle centered on the hailer’s location, while a ringing/beeping sound alerts the driver to touch the screen to accept the ride. Dalton reported such beeping when the app was taking control of him.
I asked Dalton why the system allowed him to stop for the officers and Dalton said that he didn’t know. Dalton then told us that he did know one thing, that when the system switched from black to red and when the officer was about to say something to him it went beep beep beep for Dalton to log back into the system. ... Dalton said that when the system switched back is when Dalton got his presence back.

The Uber app is, of course, designed to influence driver behavior through the control of information, and through certain visual and audio cues; and Uber does have a history of experimenting on driver behavior by tinkering with the app. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to assume (barring further revelations) that Dalton hallucinated this whole red-to-black shift.
Dalton said that as soon as the police officer stopped him tonight, the symbol went from black to red and he felt like he was no longer being guided. Dalton said that was the reason he didnt shoot the officer because the app went from black back to red. Dalton explained that when the symbol turns to black, it literally has control over you. I asked Dalton why didnt he just uninstall the app and he said it sort of had you at a certain point.

3. Dalton described possession by the app as more of a “feeling” than a “telling.”
Dalton said it also told him to be available all the time. ...he said it wasnt like a telling, it was more of like a control. ...Dalton said that Uber requires a driver to have a car newer than 2007 and when you plug into it, you can actually feel the presence on you.

Significantly, Dalton said that the app didn’t tell him what to do; it rather took control of him through a sort of feeling of presence. This makes sense, because this is just how algorithms influence human behavior, by feeling or intuition, rather then “telling” per se. Paranoias about receiving instructions are so last century—befitting antiquated technologies like radio or television. Today, instead of being given instructions, we rely on algorithms working in the background to guide our behavior; apps like Uber work like video games, by giving users a circumscribed freedom of action within which we intuit or “feel out” the algorithms which assign value to our actions. McKenzie Wark calls this an “intuitive relation to the algorithm;” the most successful game players, or Uber drivers, are those who have “most fully internalized” the algorithm.

Dalton certainly internalized the algorithm; unfortunately, he seems to have confused Uber’s taxi game with a FPS.
Dalton said that he could only tell us that it has the ability to take you over. We confirmed with Dalton that he was referring to the Uber app and Dalton said yes. Dalton then told us that it feels like it is coming from the phone itself and he didnt know how to describe that. ... Dalton said that as he was sitting there with us, it was almost like artificial intelligence that can tap into your body.
Dalton then said that is why he is trying to tell us it is like an artificial presence.
Dalton said that it would take you over to the point that you are like a puppet.

4. Dalton felt that the app was telling him where to drive.

This one is hardly surprising. Uber driver apps are automatically integrated with Google Maps or with Waze, and while Uber drivers are not technically required to use and follow GPS, they are strongly encouraged to do so. Dalton seems to have interpreted this suggestion as mandatory.
I asked Dalton where he was headed when he was stopped and Dalton said that the system was telling him to drive. I asked Dalton if he knew where it was telling him to drive and Dalton said that the system was literally telling him to just take turns (as he made a motion with both hands on a steering wheel making turns).
Dalton said that it starts out that you have to follow the navigation, but it gets to the point where you dont have to drive at all, the car just goes. Dalton said that as long as you have a 2007 or newer car, your phone can link through your car.

Great news for driverless car fans: there is no need to wait five or ten years for scientists to develop self-driving cars when Uber can achieve the same effect right now through the magic of spirit possession!

5. Dalton felt that the app gave him special abilities or protections.

This is one of the most interesting aspects of Dalton’s story. Just like in any deal with the devil, you lose control of yourself, but you gain certain perks in return.
Dalton then told us that when the app would turn from red to black and it was a 5 star driver that is when it was telling you you could drive just as fast as you wanted to.

This tallies with the stories told by several of Dalton’s passengers, that he drove insanely fast, and blew through stop signs and stoplights. The app, apparently, was giving him superhuman driving powers and privileges.
Dalton said that the Iphone can take you over. Dalton explained how you can drive over 100mph and go through stop signs and you can just get places.

The five-star rating system is one of the means whereby Uber (and its similar competitors) encourage drivers and passengers to feel like they have some power within the system. Dalton seems to have taken this very seriously:
Dalton explained how there is a customer service score on Uber and when he tapped the button, he could say anything he wanted to about the person and it would be anonymous. Dalton then said that he could hear other peoples phones ding and their score or rating would go down.

6. Through the Uber app, Dalton felt connected to some greater, inexplicable power.

Dalton attributed great knowledge and power to the Uber app, or some greater power that it was “attached to.”
Dalton said he was seeing himself from outside of his body. Dalton said that this thing knows where everything is through your phone. Dalton said that it knows everything and when I asked what it was he said whatever Uber is attached to.
Dalton said that there is something bigger than Uber just picking up people and dropping them off.

Isn’t this exactly what Uber’s CEO has been claiming all along?

The New Spooks
Dalton then told us that he is not a killer and he knows that he has killed.

Let’s go out on a limb here and assume that the Uber app did not make Dalton shoot all those people. He did it himself. He was bonkers, and confronted with the horror of what he himself had done, he rejected his own actions and blamed them on the conveniently available construct, the “app.” Which we all know to be an uncanny, and untrustworthy, interloper in our social relations. Jason Dalton thought he was being controlled by the app, but, in truth, he had split himself in two—one half a helpless puppet, haplessly looking on while the other half, the ghost in the machine, wrought mayhem.

Or maybe it wasn't Dalton who split himself in two. The very working of the app involves the tracking and profiling of a "data double," a spectral data-Dalton corresponding to the human Dalton, and through which the human Dalton can be tracked, profiled, and manipulated. And Dalton isn’t the only person having trouble telling where his own actions end, and algorithmic controls begin.

Apps like Uber (and Google, Instagram, etc.), through which algorithms massage us, are popular because we embrace the controls they exert on human interactions. They really do seem to know everything, or at least a lot of things. They promise us great new powers, at a (Faustian) bargain. In Uber’s case, the app provides a preprogrammed set of social roles—driver, passenger—into which actual humans can be plugged-in, interchangeably. The app promises freedom, while delivering stress, exploitation, and constant surveillance. Both YouTube and the news are full of videos of drivers having "Uber meltdowns" in which they quit the job, often spectacularly—though thankfully, not as bloodily as Dalton did.

Dalton's tale opens up all kinds of hauntological questions about the dawning algorithmic era. To what extent was it all his own paranoid delusion, and to what extent the new experience of app-enabled alienation? Haunted by our data shadows, all of our senses of individuality and identity, of agency and responsibility, may be scrambled and shuffled by the rollout of socially mediating algorithms. Will we recognize the future that is created as our own doing, or attribute it to the grotesque ideas of an algorithmic brain?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

San Francisco's Early Jitneys

The story of San Francisco's early jitneys is a lot more complicated, and interesting, than the Free-Market fables that are being told about them.

On Fillmore at Sutter in 1920, a jitney driver waits for passengers to cross the street.
Detail of SFMTA photo U06961. SFMTA Photo |

As I wrote last week, San Francisco’s famous jitney tradition may have just come to an end after a little over 100 years. The timing is ironic: jitneys are being claimed as inspiration by a whole host of new “disruptive” app-enabled transportation companies. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick even proclaimed  his own company as the modern equivalent of the jitneys, which he believes were “regulated completely out of existence” by over-regulation soon after they started. The message: don’t regulate Uber!

The real history of the jitneys is a good deal more complicated than this. It does not fit conveniently into the fantasies of deregulation enthusiasts like Kalanick, but instead illustrates how both regulatory systems and markets (“free” or otherwise) are produced through power struggles between competing interests. Here are a few inconvenient facts about jitney history:

  • Jitneys helped promote the automobilization of city streets.
  • The numbers of early jitneys were unsustainable.
  • Jitneys survived because their drivers unionized. 
  • In an important sense, Uber is more like the old streetcar monopoly, than like the jitney.

We can get a glimpse of this history in some beautiful photographs of early San Francisco jitneys from the SFMTA Photo Archive.

One of the most fascinating things about most of the photos in the MTA's archive is how utterly boring their intended subject matter would be to anyone but the wonkiest transport historian. In most images, the focus is on streetcar tracks before, during, or after repair work.

Streetcar tracks at 18th and Castro. SFMTA Photo |

But the sides of the frame are filled with the life of the city, captured unintentionally. This photo of a summer afternoon at 18th and Castro in 1915 includes pedestrians, window shoppers, horse-drawn carts, an approaching streetcar, and newsboys hawking papers. This accidental richness reveals the lively street life of the economically diverse, and very pedestrian, city that streetcars, cable cars, and early jitneys served. Most interesting for our purposes is the line of jitneys busily loading passengers:

Jitneys at 18th and Castro, July 1915. Detail of photo U04909 at SFMTA archive.
SFMTA Photo |

“Jitneys,” named after the slang term for a nickel, got their start in late 1914 in Los Angeles, where down-on-their-luck auto owners first got the idea of driving along street car routes, giving rides for the same 5-cent price as the streetcar. The idea caught on quickly due to a rise in unemployment that came with the beginning of World War One. Automobile ownership had been expanding rapidly in the previous years, and among the ranks of the first jitney drivers were many recent auto buyers who, having lost their jobs, had to find a way to put their “Can’t af-Fords” to work. Jitneys were on the streets of San Francisco by December 1914, and the idea spread like wildfire through the cities of the West.

The earliest jitney drivers simply put signboards in their windshields indicating a route (in the above photo, “Castro — Ferry”). They followed this route picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. Unlike the streetcar, stuck on its rails, jitney drivers could make detours, go off route to take passengers to their doors, or turn around and reverse direction at will to maximize business. Just like empty taxicabs do today, they mostly followed established streetcar lines, trying to entice waiting passengers. This antagonized the streetcar companies, which complained that they were losing money because jitneys were poaching their riders.

Valencia-Street jitney at Front and Market, 1915. Detail of photo U04980 at SFMTA archive. 
SFMTA Photo |

The conflict with streetcars was not the only controversy that assailed the early jitney. As viewers of the famous 1906 film shot from a Market Street cable car can attest, urban street traffic was very different before the ascendancy of the automobile (and even in the 1906 film the number of automobiles is exaggerated by the fact that the same half-dozen or so keep circling the camera). Pedestrians—like this Sam Spade-looking character stepping out across Market in front of a jitney in 1915—shared the streets with vehicles on a much more equal basis than today. To such urban walkers, jitneys could be a menace. Though autos had been on the city streets for over a decade, jitneys brought them out in force, travelling en masse down crowded streets. Jitneys were blamed for a wave of collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles, as a natural consequence of the rising numbers of automobiles on the streets, with a lot of inexperienced, amateur drivers at the wheel.

(A few seconds of footage of jitneys driving on Market in 1915 can be seen in the film "Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco," starting at 5:21).

Jitneys in traffic at 6th and Market, 1916. Detail of photo U05299 at SFMTA archive. 
SFMTA Photo |

Jitneys were just as popular with riders, however, as they were dangerous for pedestrians. For the same price as a streetcar, you could get a much faster and more comfortable ride. For many riders, this was their first experience riding in an automobile, which had formerly been a privilege of the rich. Jitneys were said to spread the automobile bug—after all, anyone could join the ranks of auto owners by buying a used car and driving it as a jitney!

Jitneys helped promote the automobilization of city streets. Like TNCs today, they competed directly with fixed-route transit, and possibly even with walking, by making short, quick trips by auto convenient and cheap. They spread the desire for automobiles, and helped normalize the image of city streets filled with cars, heralding the day when urban pedestrians would be relegated to sidewalks, or derided as “jaywalkers.”

Like modern TNCs, the ad-hoc character of jitneys could cause confusion. Remember all the stories about people jumping into a random Prius on the assumption it was the Uber they ordered? This Popular Mechanics story from 1915 will sound familiar:

"Not A Jitney" placards. From Popular Mechanics, June 1915.

San Francisco has become so thoroughly infested with “jitney busses” that drivers of private cars are continually having to explain to would-be passengers that their machines are not for hire. Hundreds of these cars competing with the traction lines are plying the streets of the city. Several motor-car owners, tiring of being frequently mistaken for “jitney” drivers, have labeled their machines with signs reading, “NOT a Jitney,” the “not” being emphasized by an encircling ring. This placard is placed on the windshield, or in some other position where it is plainly visible to the jitney-hunting public. (Popular Mechanics Magazine, 23:6, June 1915, p. 839).

(And as if on cue, here is a new story about someone getting into the wrong car...)

The numbers of early jitneys were unsustainable. Wave after wave of drivers swarmed onto the streets with dreams of making money with jitneys, only to be driven out of business by the oversupply of drivers and the unexpected costs of driving a personal vehicle as a bus. This is eerily similar to Uber’s labor situation today (though it is doubtful that early jitney drivers ever commuted from Stockton or slept in the Safeway parking lot). For a while, each new wave of jitney drivers going out of business was replaced by new drivers jumping into the game, but this couldn’t continue forever.

Economic pressures led drivers to defer maintenance, and to speed and compete in the quest for passengers. These in turn led to a decline in the reputation of the jitney. This might already be implied in Charlie Chaplin's 1915 film A Jitney Elopement, filmed in San Francisco. The little two-seater Chaplin drives in the film would have been no use as a jitney, but it does need to be kick-started a few times, and tears through the city in a high-speed chase.

New regulations put restrictions on jitneys, in part to protect the streetcar industry, but also to protect the safety of passengers and pedestrians. Accused of overcrowding Market street, and undermining the profitability of streetcar lines, the jitneys were pushed off Market to Mission. The results were lauded by the San Francisco Call, but the Jitney Weekly, a trade publication of the Jitney Bus Operators’ Union, portrayed it as class warfare:

Cartoon protesting the limitation of jitneys to Mission Street. Jitney Weekly, September 9, 1916.
Jitneys survived because their drivers unionized. To save their industry, jitney drivers formed associations and unions. In San Francisco, the Jitney Bus Operators’ Union affiliated with the Teamsters and sought to improve the jitney industry’s reputation and viability by promoting moderate regulations (insurance requirements, and limits on numbers of drivers) that would stabilize the industry and head off attempts to quash jitneys altogether.

San Francisco Values: The sign on a jitney at Sutter and Fillmore in 1920 announces that a "Union Driver" is at the wheel. Higher on the windshield, that is no "Lyft" or "Uber" sign, but the Teamsters logo. Detail of photo U06961 at SFMTA archive. SFMTA Photo |

San Francisco was a stronghold of the labor movement, and unionizing was an obvious step for San Francisco’s jitney drivers. Being unionized was seen as a necessary sign of working-class respectability. Blue-collar jitney riders would have largely been union members and supporters, and many people made a point of not patronizing anti-union establishments. One of the reasons San Franciscans preferred jitneys to streetcars in the first place was because so many of them hated—absolutely hated—the United Railroads, which was the dominant streetcar company before the growth of Muni. The URR had a long history of bloody confrontations with workers, and had faced down a series of very public, and popularly supported, strikes. As the URR was also the jitney drivers’ strongest political opponent, unionizing was a good way for jitney drivers to gain public support and good will.

Which leads to a significant point of contrast between TNCs and jitneys: in an important sense, Uber is more like the old streetcar monopoly, than like the jitney.

Whereas jitney drivers were self-organized, Uber operates through a top-down centralized network controlling information, pricing, and access. The jitney expansion was unplanned; Uber hired teams of lawyers before a single car ever hit the street. Jitneys were peer-to-peer; Uber only pretends to be. Uber has also taken an openly anti-union stance, much like the URR of yore, and has even gone so far as to invest money in the development of driverless cars, in the hope of doing away with drivers altogether.

Could Uber drivers put together an actual peer-to-peer network that could challenge Uber on its own turf—much like the jitney drivers challenged the URR? Unfortunately, any such attempt would face massive difficulties simply because of the size of the incumbent, Uber. While the URR’s monopoly was based on the physical control of streetcar tracks, Uber’s is based on the network effect: smaller networks just can’t compete. And like the URR, Uber is willing and able to spend a lot of money trying to drive competitors out of business, and to stop unionization. Though the mechanisms by which the URR and Uber achieved monopoly are different, the effect of de facto spatial control is substantially the same.

The Jitney Matures

Through the teens there was a long struggle over just who would regulate the jitney industry, and how. Though their numbers never returned to 1915-1916 levels, San Francisco jitneys survived, owing to a good extent to the organizing efforts of the early jitney unions. They became a San Francisco institution: Jack Kerouac described his experience riding in a Mission Street jitney in On The Road:

 She let me take a shower and shave, and then I said good-by and took the bags downstairs and hailed a Frisco taxi-jitney, which was like an ordinary taxi that ran a regular route and you could hail it from any corner and ride to any corner you want for about fifteen cents, cramped in with other passengers like on a bus, but talking and telling jokes like in a private car. Mission Street that last day in Frisco was a great riot of construction work, children playing, whooping Negroes coming home from work, dust, excitement, the great buzzing and vibrating hum of what is really America’s most excited city—and overhead the pure blue sky and the joy of the foggy sea that always rolls in at night to make everybody hungry for food and further excitement. (On the Road, p. 218)

Jitney 97 in 2008. Creative Commons photo by Chris (Flickr).

As documented by the late automotive historian (and San Francisco taxi driver) Mike Sealey, San Francisco’s jitneys got bigger over the years, following a pattern seen in other cities as well (such as with Mexico City’s peseros). Long-wheelbase limousines were used for many years, followed by vans. Jesus Losa, the city’s last jitney driver, drove 23- and 25-passenger buses on his route between 4th and Market and Caltrain. It is no accident that jitneys tend, over time, to look more and more like buses: though there was no love lost between the streetcar and the jitney, modern motorized bus systems carry the dna of both.

San Francisco’s jitney industry entered a terminal decline in the 1970s, and all but expired in the 1980s. Several culprits can be blamed: competition from BART; insurance expenses; and new laws forbidding the transferal of permits. Another contributing factor seems to have been disorganization and hostility among the city’s jitney drivers, which prevented them from uniting to protect their industry.

Until January 20, 2016, Jitney 97, piloted by Jesus Losa, carried on the tradition alone. Uber, far from picking up the torch, may have helped drive the last real jitney out of business.

Thanks to Jesus Losa for sharing his story. Thanks also to Katherine Guyon and others at the SFMTA photo archive for enthusiastic help and great work. The archive is a great resource and everyone interested in San Francisco history should check it out at

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

San Francisco's Last Jitney Has Been Driven Out Of Business

While pundits and CEOs spout platitudes about jitneys, San Francisco’s last real jitney has been driven out of business.

Real San Francisco: Jitney 97 in groovier times. Creative Commons photo by Mark Wahl (Flickr).

RIP: The San Francisco Jitney, 1914-2016

On January 20, 2016, San Francisco’s last jitney ceased operation. Strangely, there was no media fanfare or lament, even though jitneys are frequently in the news—not real jitneys, mind you, but the jitneys of folklore. Jitneys are being claimed as ancestors by all sorts of new “disruptive” modes of transit—including Uber, Lyft, Leap, and (more plausibly) Chariot. Yet while jitneys are being celebrated in legend, the last real jitney quietly expires.

Jesus Losa, operator of Jitney 97, blames operating expenses and a decline in passengers for his troubles. He also tells a shocking tale of harassment by parking officials around Caltrain, racking up $10,000 in tickets, even though his is not a private vehicle, but a licensed San Francisco jitney. It’s as if a Muni bus were ticketed each time it stopped in a bus zone.

This harassment has also cost him passengers. Losa’s loading zone at Caltrain was moved far from the entrance, to the white-curb zone behind the taxi stand on Townsend—where, he says, passengers have trouble finding him. On top of this, parking officers, once again, ticket him if he stands in this zone for more than five minutes, even though he drives a public jitney, not a private vehicle, and often needs more time to fill his 23-seat bus with passengers walking over from the Caltrain entrance.

Jitneys (technically: semi-fixed route shared vehicles for hire) first hit the streets of San Francisco just over a hundred years ago, in late 1914. Their fortunes waxed and waned until the 1970s, when a combination of competition from the newly-built BART system, increased insurance costs, and changes in licensing rules pushed them into a decline. Losa started driving his jitney in 1972. Since 1985, his jitney, number 97, has been the only remaining one in operation in San Francisco.

Urban Legend

Just under a month after Losa stopped driving, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told a story about jitneys at the 2016 TED talks in Vancouver. (The presence of the CEOs of Uber and AirBnB at the once-progressive TED talks led to some controversy, and the speculation that “we have reached peak TED”). The version of the jitney story that Kalanick told is one that has been tossed around by free-market apologists for the last few decades: the jitney was a disruptive transit innovation that moved people in shared vehicles instead of private ones; this innovation, despite being popular, was quickly quashed by the streetcar lobby. Jitneys, according to this story, were a long-ago innovation ahead of their time. They are claimed as the inspiration for the new “ridesharing” services like Uber, Lyft, etc, and serve as a lesson about the negative consequences of over-regulation.

There are several problems with this story—not the least being that jitneys did not disappear, but survived (almost) up to the present, precisely in those places (such as San Francisco) where they were regulated. The real history is a lot more complicated than Kalanick’s neoliberal fable (I’m planning to write about some of this history in an upcoming post). As far as the demise of jitney 97 is concerned, regulators do not look innocent—but neither does Uber.

While Losa was pushed to the back of the line on Townsend, Uber and Lyft drivers (as documented by Kelly Dessaint) drive right up to the front, using a zone officially reserved for Muni and bikesharing. Mind you, they can get $288 tickets for stopping there! But this doesn’t stop passengers from hailing there. In fact, Uber’s passenger app encourages them to do so, indicating this as a “Suggested Pickup Point.”

The Uber app encourages Caltrain passengers to hail from a "suggested pickup point" on Townsend, where drivers risk a $288 ticket.

It is no concern of Uber’s whether neophytes among its rapidly turning-over horde of expendable drivers get stung by these tickets. Any drivers who wise up and learn to avoid picking up there are quickly replaced by clueless new recruits. So as long as Uber drivers continue to spawn at a high enough rate that they can throw themselves against the bus stop like wave after wave of kamikazes, Uber can continue to service passengers right at the Caltrain entrance. The rules are just different when you're as big as Uber.

Thrown Under The Bus

While they try to claim its heritage, Lyft and Uber are no replacement for the jitney. A Lyft Line or Uber Pool trip between Caltrain and Fourth and Market (Losa’s route) costs about $5, over twice the jitney fare, which is tied to the rate charged by Muni. Lyft Line and Uber Pool carry between one and four passengers per trip; Jitney 97 had seats for 23. Which means that, at their most efficient, it still takes more than five TNC cars to carry the capacity of the last jitney. And while Losa served the streets of San Francisco for 44 years, the typical Uber driver is lucky to last six months.

It is powerfully ironic that the last public, licensed jitney has been driven out of business, even while the city cuts deals with Silicon Valley corporations to allow private tech shuttles to use the city’s bus stops. But sadly, it isn’t really surprising that the powerful get their way while the little guy gets squeezed out. As for Losa, he says his plan now is to relax, and he doubts he will be able to get back in business. When I ask him about getting some journalists interested in telling his story, he laughs, and is skeptical that it will do any good.

Nevertheless, I’m writing this post in the hope that some journalist (a real one, not the writer of some dorky blog about “taxicab subjects”) will pick up Losa’s story. It deserves to be heard.