A Life in Transit

It's 3:00 p.m. on a weekday, peak passenger time, and Elucien Cheridor is driving Miami Mini Bus number 29 with about $60 in singles stuffed inside the jitney's ashtray and four people onboard. On the fourth round of a not so profitable day, Cheridor departs downtown Miami indignant. "This is no business, baby," he blurts out.

Cheridor works ten-hour shifts darting back and forth along NE Second Avenue -- between The Mall at 163rd Street (Miami Mini Bus's terminal) and downtown Miami. Sometimes at the end of a ride he'll hang out out at the mall for a few minutes to chat with fellow Haitian bus drivers. Every day the men stand in a circle and smoke under one of a few trees that sprout from this desolate expanse of parking lot. The conversations are lively, and there's a lot of laughter. Their jitneys are parked nearby in a row.

Cheridor has been driving number 29 for more than a year now. He's married and has three children. The oldest is 21 years old, the smallest is four years, a late addition to the family that came as a surprise. "My wife," he sighs. "She's crazy." He became a jitney driver when he was laid off from his job at a construction company, where he had worked for thirteen years. Already, he says, the monotony of being constantly on the road is starting to wear him down. On occasion he stares blankly at the streets before him while he drives and becomes entranced by the mantra of Haitian talk radio crackling in the background.

But usually Cheridor remains alert. On NW 62nd Street, when two adolescents board the jitney, he becomes suspicious, though he continues to drive for about half a block. The skinny black teenagers in question attempt to squeeze between passengers who are now sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. (In jitney etiquette, drivers allow passengers to settle before paying.)

Cheridor looks at the teenagers through his rear-view mirror and suddenly takes his foot off of the accelerator after they've sat down. "Money?" he eagerly inquires in English, a language Cheridor seldom uses when interacting with mostly Haitian passengers. The two boys ignore him. "Come on, money, money," Cheridor impatiently repeats. But there's no response, only the sound of crunching pebbles, pulverized by the vehicle's rolling tires as Cheridor pulls off to the side of the road.

The boy closest to Cheridor nervously looks at his friend, who is sitting in the back of the minibus. In almost a whisper he tells him to pay the two-dollar tab. But the friend does nothing. Cheridor stops the jitney, turns around, and looks the young men in the eyes. "Money," he roars. The boys get up, grumble about the lack of space and air conditioning, and leap out of the jitney.

A few blocks down a man and a woman are arguing on the street corner. She hails a different jitney and leaves the man, who then flags down Cheridor. As he enters jitney number 29 hoping to catch up with his mate, Cheridor, who witnessed the spat from a distance, banters with his newest customer in Kreyol. Other passengers join in and a few people laugh. The man tells Cheridor he wants out. He starts to exit the jitney seemingly more depressed than when he stepped in. In the confusion he almost forgets to pay. But Cheridor is quick to remind him. "Ou te peye (Have you paid)?" he asks. Embarrassed, the man quickly hands him a dollar. "Hallelujah," Cheridor exclaims, shaking his head.

In light of the incident that has just taken place, three female passengers begin to talk about their role in a male-dominated Haitian society. Soon almost everyone in the jitney is engaged in the discussion. Cheridor pronounces the only English words throughout the debate when at one point he shouts -- in reference to who shoulders the responsibility in a relationship -- "Fifty-fifty, baby. Fifty-fifty." At this, everyone breaks into laughter, even the few people who have remained quiet, including a fourteen-year-old girl returning home from baton practice, a Cuban on his way to visit some friends in Miami Shores, and a woman wearing a royal-blue vest that reads "Welcome to our thrift store," who just got off work.

The journey has come to an end. The handful of passengers still onboard are on their way to the mall. Once Cheridor arrives at the shopping center's parking lot, Eddy Nelson writes in a notebook that number 29 is back. Nelson, a former driver, stands here all day, under the sun, recording the comings and goings of Miami Mini Bus jitneys. He shows Cheridor a Polaroid mug shot of a passenger who threw a rock at jitney number eighteen's window that morning, shattering it completely. But Cheridor doesn't really want to hear about it. He assumes his position under the tree. In a few minutes he'll be headed back to downtown Miami for the fifth time today.  

Of the thirteen jitney companies throughout the county, only a few are thriving despite rocky times in mass transit. There are a number of reasons why some jitney drivers are hanging up their keys. They say mounting insurance costs, rising gasoline prices, and county meddling are forcing them to shut down their engines. A bad rap from the county has hurt the industry as well, says Rene Gil, president of Conchita Transit Express, the only jitney service making rounds in Hialeah. And they lack political clout, especially in comparison to the strong arm that supports the county's bus drivers, the Transport Workers Union, which has effectively fought tooth and nail to protect its members' turf.

Most jitney drivers are owner-operators. They own their vans and keep 100 percent of the passenger fare. But they must pay jitney companies a fee to operate under, say, the Miami Mini Bus moniker. Most owner-operators must also purchase insurance and the operating license required by the county. Any expenses incurred at the pump or on the road come out of their pockets as well. On a good day a jitney driver can make up to $150. When the opportunity presents itself, most drivers will stop for more passengers than they can seat.

There are large companies such as Miami Mini Bus, which boasts 58 registered jitneys, and smaller operations, like American Jitney, Inc., with only two jitneys on the road. Each company runs its buses along one authorized route. In theory jitneys exist to service areas that are neglected by other forms of transportation. But a few of the minibuses covering the downtown circuit as well as Conchita Transit Express in Hialeah vie with Miami-Dade County's bus service, or Metrobus, for some of the same passengers. Competition, however, is limited.

The passenger transportation regulatory division, part of the Miami-Dade County Consumer Services Department, sets buffer zones to curtail competition between jitneys and Metrobuses. It prohibits jitneys from duplicating Metrobus routes by more than 30 percent -- a rule with which many in the jitney industry are dissatisfied. Some protest that prescribed routes contribute to a dwindling supply of riders. But Steven Oxenhandler, director of the passenger transportation regulatory division, which also licenses and inspects jitneys, asserts that the county hasn't encroached on all routes. "There are a lot of routes that are not operated by the county because they're just not profitable for MDTA [Miami Dade Transit Agency]," Oxenhandler explains. "They could be developed by jitneys."

The only problem, says Pierre Francisque, the owner of a one-man operation called Florida Jitney Transportation, is that it costs at least $3000 to put a jitney on the road. In order to get someone to invest that kind of money on a minivan, those streets need some gold in them. "You have to put in an emergency door; you have to pay for the license, insurance. It's a lot of money," Francisque asserts. "Then they can't catch nobody to ride." A few years ago, one by one, all fourteen Florida Jitney Transportation drivers began dropping out of Francisque's company. His county-approved route, which runs from The Mall at 163rd Street to 36th Street, was dry. He began asking the county to let him change it, but his proposals, including one for moving into Biscayne Boulevard, have been struck down. "It's never been steady work for me," Francisque says. "I've tried but I've never been able to make it work properly."

In fact the very concept that the county should monopolize money-making routes seems askew, according to Franklin D. Kreutzer, a long-time attorney who has represented various players in the jitney industry. "The government should use subsidies to run on routes that are not profitable," Kreutzer argues. "There are subsidized buses running on profitable routes and yet there are some routes that are not serviced. That's what subsidies should be used for. Profitable routes should be given to the private companies that are prepared to give service. The private sector will do a good job. If they don't, they'll simply be replaced. That should be the concept behind mass transit."

It wasn't always this way. The county didn't get into the bus business until 1960, when Metro-Dade bought out private operators and consolidated the city bus system. Jitneys were born about 30 years earlier, and they were monitored by the city. Back then, up until the early 1960s, jitneys were usually seven-passenger Buicks, Packards, Plymouths, and Cadillacs.

In 1946 Ernest Johnson, now owner of Sun Jitney and part-owner of Liberty City Jitney, which dates back to the 1930s and is still chugging along, came out of the Army and formed Miami Beach Jitney Service. He found reliable patrons among black women who needed rides across the causeway to work in the homes and hotels of whites in Miami Beach. Back then buffer zones were construed on color lines, Johnson says. His jitney service could only pick up blacks who had special identification cards allowing them to set foot on Miami Beach. Washington Avenue, Collins Avenue, and Ocean Drive were off-limits. "We could only travel up and down Meridian Avenue," Johnson recalls.  

In 1955 Johnson invested in Liberty City Jitney. While he says he still has a minority interest in the company, he thinks it's in its final death throes. "It's not hauling any people," Johnson notes. He then created Sun Jitney in 1982, which also serves parts of Liberty City. Today he's the proud father of nineteen jitneys equipped with closed-circuit radios. But Johnson is weary of this concern as well. Jitneys are up against the Goliath of public transportation and sooner or later, Johnson asserts, jitneys will no longer exist: "The county buses, it seems, want to put jitneys out of business."

The hard times started when the reign of alternative-transportation guru Ziggy Zilber ended.

During the late Eighties and early Nineties, Miami-Dade County was awash in unbridled jitneys, thanks to a vague law passed by the state legislature in 1981 that made it illegal for counties to regulate "intercity" bus travel. The law was designed to keep counties from overseeing bus routes between cities. But Zilber, who once owned a cab company and later Metro Minibus jitney company, came up with his own interpretation and concluded that the county lacked regulatory power over jitneys. Zilber himself came to dominate the industry.

By 1991 the county estimated it was losing nearly $400,000 per month in Metrobus fares to the vans. By way of political connections and ruthless business tactics, Zilber all but emptied many a cabby's coffer as well. Cab drivers even sent lobbyists to Tallahassee to fight a statewide bill spearheaded by Zilber that would have explicitly terminated Miami-Dade's power to regulate jitneys. But the bill passed. Zilber's power eventually waned when former Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed his jitney bill in June 1991.

Thereafter Miami-Dade began to crack down on the minibuses. The county pulled more than 170 unlicensed jitneys off the streets. "Passengers were sitting on crates," maintains Manny Palmero, marketing services manager of the MDTA. "Miami-Dade police would start pulling jitneys over at seven in the morning. Passengers were deboarded and were given Metrobus transfers."

The owner of Conchita Transit Express, a legal operation during the massive jitney roundup, claims the company was caught in the crossfire. "Our vehicles were towed; some of our drivers were arrested; we were called outlaws," comments Rene Gil, Conchita's president. "We still haven't been able to recover from the jitney crackdown. The county tarnished our image, and it's hurt our business ever since. How many people would be willing to invest in a company that's been portrayed as illegal and unsafe? Not many. We don't even like to use the word jitney anymore."

The county continues to impound illegal jitneys for being unlicensed and to yank decrepit licensed ones off the roads. (So far this year code enforcers have busted six illegal jitneys.) Indeed some jitneys are in such a state of disrepair that getting out without harm to limb or life looks like top priority. Even efficient Conchita Transit Express buses can be packed with passengers suffering through a non-air-conditioned ride. Because of high gasoline prices, Gil says, sometimes his drivers can't afford to make repairs immediately.

Yet for thousands of people from Florida City to Hialeah, minibuses remain the transportation mode of choice. People from all walks of life ride jitneys: from college students and elementary school kids to elderly folks who can't drive any more and people who can't afford to.

When New Times asked a dozen jitney travelers why they chose the private shuttle over the county's Metrobuses, they all answered that it was faster. "Time means a lot for everybody these days," Sun Jitney owner Johnson says. There's no doubt independent jitney networks help to fill a void in local transportation needs. But according to those who drive them, unless jitneys are allowed to expand their routes, passengers may soon be left with even fewer alternative-transit options.

Across from the Opa-Locka-Hialeah Flea Market, on NW 42nd Avenue and 127th Street, four Hispanic men look out for Golden Glades-bound Metrobus number 42. In the twenty minutes they've been waiting, at least three Conchita Transit Express jitneys have passed. There's no bench to sit on, so Juan Morales joins a fellow commuter who is crouched on the sidewalk. "I wouldn't be sitting here if I was going Conchita's way," muses Morales as another sky-blue shuttle enters the pulguero's (flea market) parking lot. Passengers pour out of the minibus. Flea market shoppers carrying nylon bags rush on to the bus after a day of trolling through a maze of five-dollar T-shirts and cheap lingerie. But over at number 42's stop, a man silently leans against a chain-link fence with his arms crossed. Another stands on the avenue's edge. They gaze beyond the horizon like hitchhikers anticipating a ride. Cars are zooming by and the sun's rays on this Sunday afternoon are piercing through the low-lying clouds of an overcast sky.  

Of the approximately 600 county-owned buses, number 42 is the only one that transports weekend passengers to the flea market at hourly intervals. For the same fare of $1.25, a jitney from Conchita's fifteen-member fleet pulls over every fourteen minutes, wherever there are passengers along its zigzag course between Hialeah and Miami Lakes.

In Hialeah, Conchita Transit Express is considered a model form of neighborhood transportation. Its history goes back to 1986 when Concepcion Gil -- the original Conchita -- and her husband, Conrado Gil, founded the jitney company. They heard the county was accepting bids for private minibus providers to act as a feeder service for Metrorail. Before Conchita Transit Express, the couple owned a school bus company. But in 1994 Concepcion Gil faced legal troubles for her role in a Medicare-fraud scheme. Later the Gils divorced, and until he died last year Conrado Gil was left to run the company with their son, Rene Gil.

All in all Conchita is highly regarded and quite successful. Recently the MDTA even began running similar shuttles along Conchita's route during the week to compete for the same passengers. During last year's penny-tax debate, politicians placed Conchita on a pedestal. Even Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez was inspired. He revisited an idea he proposed during his 1997 re-election campaign: the creation of the Hialeah Circulator Service, a privately owned shuttle operation managed by the city.

Conchita, a stimulus for the proposal and an obvious contender, was not selected as a candidate. The likely choice for the new Hialeah service will be a fleet of 25 passenger buses with wheelchair capacity. Gil's minibuses can hold up to fifteen passengers and aren't wheelchair friendly. Yet Gil still dreams of a lucrative city deal. "Ever since I started in this business we've wanted a government contract, but we haven't been able to get there," Gil complains. He would happily expand Conchita to include bigger buses, but there are no willing investors, he says. "There's money to be made, but people don't want to join the operation because they think that sooner or later the county is going to put us out of business."

(In the past jitney companies and the MDTA have discussed forming partnerships. But the county has purchased its own minibuses instead and is starting to gain ground again on routes where it had been losing business. Still, jitneys serve a purpose, the MDTA's Palmero asserts. "But," he adds, "MDTA has no plans to subcontract them." So far the only collaboration between the two is that jitneys and Metrobuses accept each other's transfer passes.)

Despite Conchita's inability to tap into public coffers, the company is doing fairly well, thanks to a healthy crop of weekday workers and weekend flea market shoppers ripe for the riding. But Conchita can't travel beyond Miami Lakes. The county forbids it from doing so. Last year, Gil applied for a route modification to include the west side of the Palmetto Expressway. It hasn't been approved by the county yet.

So Gil is focused on his drivers and passengers. Conchita will flourish if they are content, he says. Unlike other jitney companies, Conchita provides insurance and legal coverage for its operators. The company consults them on maintenance and allows them to hire their own part-time drivers for relief during workdays that average fifteen hours. "If you're able to take people to work on a daily basis without failing them, they will be working for years and so will we," Gil says. "Once you start not being reliable then you lose the ridership. They go away for a very long time until you can prove yourself again."

On this day a Conchita Transit Express jitney is traveling east on José Martí Boulevard. An elderly Cuban man sitting in the back of the van shouts to the driver, "Oye, aqui mismo en esta esquina (Hey, right on this corner)." The driver begins to slow down as the senior citizen, clad in a long-sleeve, peach-color guayabera, rises from his seat. The viejito's well-groomed head of cotton-white hair sways from side to side to the Spanish version of "I Love You, Baby," playing on oldies radio station Clasica 92 (WCMQ-FM 92.3) as he slides down the aisle using the railings above. Unlike Metrobuses, jitneys stop on demand. This Conchita driver doesn't even bother to pull over. He lets the man out at a red stoplight in the middle of traffic.  

Beverly Walker, owner of King Jitney, Inc., wants to get rid of the twenty-year-old business she inherited from her father ten years ago when he suffered a stroke. "Back then business was good," she asserts. King Jitney, which travels from NW 79th Street and 27th Avenue to downtown, had twenty drivers. But Walker fired most of them when they stopped paying the $100 per week fee she charged them for driving under her company's flag. "They were poor payers," she complains. "Now I only have two drivers. I'm not making any money." She says drivers constantly complain to her about high gasoline prices and insurance costs ($500 per month).

Unaffordable auto insurance is one of the reasons Loreta Ferrer left the business. "The $4000 a year I paid in insurance was killing me," she says. Ferrer, a driver of thirteen years and part-owner of American Jitney, Inc., says she won't be driving the jitney parked outside her house anytime soon. She shared driving responsibilities with her husband of 36 years. When he died in February she began to face more difficulties as a solo driver. "No es facil (It's not easy)," comments Ferrer.

In addition to the daily tension of dealing with the public, the fact that she's a woman sometimes put her at a disadvantage, she claims. Furthermore the upkeep of a jitney was too much for her to handle alone. In the end there was little compensation; American Jitney picks up too few commuters along its MDTA-approved route (from NW 67th Avenue and 25th Street to the Orange Bowl). "They don't let us traffic in downtown," Ferrer complains. "They don't give us places that are rich in passengers."

Business may not be booming for Daniel Fils-Aime, owner of Miami Mini Bus, but it is steady. With 58 registered jitneys, he maintains his is the largest alternative-transportation provider in the county. But while it may be profitable for Fils-Aime to run close to 60 buses on the same line, the people who drive under his company flag say they must struggle to stay afloat. It points out the precarious nature of the enterprise. "They have too many vehicles on that route," contends Steven Oxenhandler, director of the county's passenger transportation regulatory division. "It's impossible for drivers on that route to make a decent living when they're competing for the same passengers."

Two Metrobuses also travel part of that route, as does Pierre Francisque, though these days not very often. There's little money in it, but the driver of the only minivan still in circulation for Florida Jitney Transportation does occasionally make the rounds near 163rd Street, "just to make the people see that my jitney still exists," he says.

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