August 6, 2010

No free rides allowed!

By No free rides allowed!

Author: Timothy Sandefur

Jonathon Schoenakase of Quincy, Illinois, has been driving folks home from bars when they become too drunk to drive—and he doesn’t even charge them. A nice thing to do—and also a crime. That’s because city ordinances forbid running a shuttle service without a license, and local taxi companies, caring more about their monopoly than about the problem of drunk driving, lobbied politicians to change the law specifically to illegalize Shoenakase’s operation. This isn’t a new thing. As I write in my book, The Right to Earn A Living, New York taxi driver Ray Kottner had his taxi impounded for giving people free rides in 2007.

In fact, such laws have an interesting history, as I explain in this article. In 1953, Reverend T.J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led a boycott of the city buses to protest segregation. Such a boycott was difficult to organize, because the city’s black residents needed transportation. Jemison and his colleagues organized a volunteer shuttle service, but offering that many free rides to people turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and the boycott ended in a compromise with city leaders.

Two years later, when Martin Luther King and his allies were organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, they learned from the Baton Rouge experience, and set up a complicated network of volunteer drivers, whose car maintenance and gas costs were paid by collections taken up at church on Sundays. Montgomery officials reacted with a lawsuit seeking to shut down King’s alternative transportation network as a violation of the city’s taxi ordinances. Just like in Quincy today, it was illegal to offer regular transportation service without a taxi license. And, in fact, the government won—and managed to shut down the boycotters’ shuttles. For the last several months of the boycott, King and his supporters had to walk to their destinations. (They were lucky that courts found bus segregation unconstitutional on the same day that the city got an injunction stopping the shuttles.)

You can learn more here, or in Taylor Branch’s superb book, Parting The Waters.

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