On a recent Saturday evening, Lester Green stood on the southwest corner of Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, waiting for a ride in a 14-seat, so-called dollar van (fares are actually $2). First emerging in the 1970s to serve West Indian communities in Brooklyn and Queens, the vans established a firmer foothold in the city after a strike halted subway and bus service for nearly two weeks in 1980. Today, the vans provide residents of the city’s outer boroughs with an alternative to the public transportation system—and to “microtransit” options like Uber.
The most successful vans service transit-rich corridors, like Brooklyn’s Flatbush and Utica Avenues, both of which are well served by the bus—indicating that residents still want more options. While the vans attract passengers like Green, who would normally ride the bus, they operate more like hybrid bus-taxis. They make more precise stops, for one thing. They operate more frequently, guarantee riders a seat, cost less than the bus, and get passengers where they need to go more quickly. (They can improvise routes in response to heavy traffic or accidents, thus reducing delays.) “The vans are actually faster than the bus. That’s really the reason why I take them,” said Dionelli Bowen, as he waited for a van at Utica and Eastern Parkway. “It’s faster and cheaper than the bus,” Green agrees. And because there are no strict operating rules or schedules to adhere to, drivers have the latitude to accommodate passengers’ specific needs, such as waiting 30 seconds while a mother drops off her child at day care or deviating off the main route to drop elderly passengers in front of their apartment buildings.
Despite the vans’ benefits and popularity—they serve an estimated 100,000 people daily—local and state laws prohibit them from accepting street hails and operating on routes served by city buses. The regulations are clear, but enforcement is uneven, leading to the development of two classes of vans: commuter vans licensed by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission; and unlicensed pirates. But as Columbia University urban-planning professor David King sees it, “As long as it is illegal for a van to accept a street hail, it is impossible for any of the vans to operate legally.”
Some concerns about the vans are valid. Many are improperly insured, provide no benefits for drivers, and fail to accommodate wheelchair passengers. Some politicians and transit advocates see the vans as a threat to the city’s already-beleaguered public-transportation system. “Every time someone doesn’t swipe onto the bus and takes a van instead, that bus route is at risk of losing service, and that’s bad for our neighborhoods,” says New York City Council member I. Daneek Miller. A former bus driver and labor leader, Miller has pushed the Taxi and Limousine Commission to hold the vans accountable to existing regulations. The TLC regulates nearly 100,000 vehicles with an enforcement team of only 186 agents. With so few inspectors, Miller said, “it’s impossible to know who is driving all these vans and if they’re properly licensed and insured.”
While the vans have their flaws, they remain popular because of the advantages they offer—in a word, customization. Observing how residents in specific neighborhoods travel on a daily basis, van drivers master small geographies and apply their knowledge to outperform centrally planned buses. A few years ago, I spent two weekday mornings per week for three months camped outside Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, counting vans as they picked up and dropped off passengers at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. The vans arrived far more regularly than the buses, pulling up to the curb or stopping in a lane of traffic every minute between 7 AM and 9 AM. Such frequency of service obviates the need for schedules and reassures passengers that they can get a ride quickly.
The New York City transit landscape is entering a period of disruption—especially with the arrival of Uber. But in an era when flexibility and choice are bywords for urban transit, the “dollar” vans have earned their place. “I’m just following the people,” one van driver told me. “I speak to them every day.”