The Last Ride of the Jitney

After 44 years of regular service, San Francisco's last jitney has sat idly on a SoMa street corner for weeks.

Every day since the Nixon Administration, Jess Losa drove from the Caltrain station on Fourth Street to downtown in the blue No. 97 coach. It used to be a decrepit, 1970s GMC van, but more recently it was a 2002 Ford you might mistake for an airport shuttle. Without fail, Losa bobbed and weaved through morning and evening commutes as San Francisco's one and only jitney — a privately-operated one-man bus service.

His route made a loop from the station north on Third Street to Market then back to the trains south on Fourth Street, a trip he was known to make in five sometimes-daunting minutes. Most recently, it cost $2.25 each way, the same as a Muni trip. But in late January, Losa posted a sign near the train station on Fourth Street informing his customers they'd paid their last fare. The jitney is out of service.

Dwindling ridership, combined with mounting penalties (for years' worth of traffic citations he continues to fight) made the solo business too difficult to maintain, Losa told SF Weekly. He's also competing in a city saturated with transit options, from the new (app-hailed taxi alternatives like Uber and private shuttle startup Chariot) and old (taxis, cars, bikes, Muni).

Losa operated his jitney with a no-nonsense attitude on the road and friendly demeanor to his passengers. He even remembers the exact day he started: Feb. 14, 1972. Back then, it cost 15 cents for a one-way ride, and despite stiff competition, it provided a good living for a native of the Philippines who had moved to the U.S. just three years prior.

But by December 1985, Losa had become the sole player in an industry that once flourished in San Francisco.

“I prepared myself in case they kicked me out,” he said of surviving all these years. “My favorite memories are just being left alone by the city for the last 30 years.”

Born during the Panama-Pacific International Expo to ferry around the glut of attendees and workers in town to see San Francisco's recovery from the 1906 earthquake — at a time when there were private streetcar lines competing with what would become Muni — jitneys quickly became a popular way to commute.

Private automobiles were rare in those days, so these shared-ride services reached a varied demographic. In the 1910s, there were more than 1,400 jitneys operating in the city, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. By comparison, there are 1,800 licensed taxis in the city today (and an unknown number of Ubers and Lyfts).

As the decades passed, more and more options for getting around became available, including commuting solo by automobile and an expanded Muni. After BART entered service in the early 1970s, jitney use sharply declined, in part because no new permits were being issued, but mostly because city regulations requiring jitneys to charge fares equal or greater to public transit removed patrons' incentives. Why ride a jitney when the bus costs the same?

The Police Department, which was originally the city agency in charge of jitneys, issued its last jitney permit in 1972. That was the year Losa paid a few thousand dollars to the owner of permit No. 97 and entered the jitney game.

The industry took a further hit in 1978 after voters passed Proposition K, outlawing the sale of jitney permits. (The city also froze sales of taxicab medallions that year.) When a jitney operator retired or died, the city absorbed the permit and it was never reissued.

By late 1985, Losa was a one-man industry.

The jitneys of yesteryear were a regulator's nightmare. They might have had their doors removed to speed up boarding and exiting, or employed milk crates for some of the seating.

Riders could care less. There were other reasons besides speed, cost, and excitement to ditch Muni for a jitney: they served the needs of ethnic minorities from Latin America and Asia, where jitneys were a familiar sight.

“Riders were attracted by the faster services with fewer stops, the greater likelihood of getting a seat during peak hours than on a Muni bus or tram, the ability to talk with friends in their 'native' tongue, and the fact that jitneys were crime-free, unlike Muni,” according to a University of California transportation study published in 1995.

In a way, jitneys have returned in force during the tech boom. At a time when moneyed commuters find Muni too crowded and slow for their liking, private enterprise has reentered the public transportation space. Both Uber and Lyft offer jitney-like carpooling options — UberPool is essentially a jitney in a Prius — and the SFMTA pointed out that Chariot and the now-defunct Leap are modern-day jitneys, albeit much posher ones.

For Losa, the beginning of the end came in February 2015, when ridership dropped by 75 percent. Things worsened after a Bay Area Bike Share stall appeared outside the Caltrain station where Losa dropped off and picked up riders.

The SFMTA then moved the area where he was allowed to idle and wait for passengers, making the No. 97 less visible to potential customers and thus a less desirable option.

This created a situation where Losa began cutting corners — double-parking, parking in bike lanes, and using white zones not meant for a jitney — and subsequently, he started racking up traffic citations.

Losa does not dispute the fact that he was violating the rules, but he said it was a necessary choice. His business depended entirely on getting people to the station on time, and even a few minutes behind schedule could mean the difference between a person getting to the train they wanted versus the one leaving an hour later.

The SFMTA says it tried to meet its last jitney halfway, but rules are rules. “To be clear, permitted vehicles cannot park wherever they want,” said Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesman. “They must continue to follow the same rules and laws to keep the transportation network moving as efficiently as possible for everyone.”

But if tech buses can use Muni stops, why can't jitneys get a break — especially if there's public demand? Losa presented the SFMTA with 300 signatures from riders who did not want his approved parking zone moved away from the Caltrain station. The effort was futile.

As Losa puts it, “I have the rights but they [the city] have the power.”

He said he always paid his tickets on time, save for a series of violations he began to receive in August 2013. Losa says those citations were a mistake, originally issued to a vehicle with a license plate number nearly identical to his jitney.

Nonetheless, penalties have jacked up his tab to around $10,000, and that's money he just doesn't have.

Being a jitney driver is not a lucrative business. Losa has always known this, and in 2001 he applied for a cabdriver medallion, issued by the city to people on a waiting list only after the death of a medallion-holder. His hope was that he could supplement his jitney income by driving a taxi. He knew it could take up to 20 years to obtain the medallion, but he was willing to wait.

Last year, after finding out that he'd barely moved up the list in 14 years of waiting, he was told he could buy a medallion — for a mere $250,000. That kind of money is definitely out of reach for Losa.

The 66-year-old — who's lived in the same apartment on Turk Street in the Tenderloin for 44 years, raising two children with his wife — is not ready to retire. He said he would even consider signing up with one of the modern-day jitney-style services. Being an independent contractor for Uber or Lyft, Losa said, has its appeal.

But don't count out the jitney just yet. In October, when he turns 67, Losa will receive a permit renewal application. “Let's see what happens after that,” he said.

For now, the blue No. 97 will remain parked at Seventh and Berry streets. (Losa's never been able to afford a garage.) But if he can figure out a way to resolve the ticket issue and raise funds to cover operating costs — and if those loyal riders will come back — San Francisco's last jitney may yet rumble through town again.

Related Stories