Cheap Rides and Cutthroat Competition
Posted June 9, 2018 10:03 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — They appeared during the transit strike of 1980: drivers in New York City packing strangers into cars and vans and charging them $1 for a ride. Some stuck around after the strike, and that, the origin story goes, is how the city’s dollar van industry was born. Nearly four decades later, it has become a shadow transportation network that stretches across the city.
It runs not so much alongside the city’s vast public transportation system as around it, reaching into neighborhoods that are poorly served by buses and subways, where many residents might find taxis and Uber too expensive.
The drivers of dollar vans — or commuter vans, as they’re officially known — are often working-class immigrants. West Indian immigrants ferry people through subway deserts in Brooklyn and Eastern Queens; Chinese immigrants shuttle among the city’s three Chinatowns. Every day, commuter vans pick up as many as 100,000 riders, according to industry advocates, a figure that does not include the many thousands of Latino workers who hop aboard shuttles in New Jersey to get to jobs in New York.
“The original ride-sharing industry,” said Meera Joshi, the taxi and limousine commissioner.
But beneath that shadow industry lies another shadow industry. There are about 275 vans in New York that have permits, paying thousands a year in insurance and meeting stringent licensing requirements. They share their routes with hundreds of illegal competitors, if not more, who not only pick off customers, drivers say, but also make the roads less safe. The fierce competition between drivers has kept fares low — in many places they’re still just $2 — but it has also caused accidents and violent rivalries.
One reason so many van drivers have stayed on the margins is a commuter van law dating to the early 1990s, said Hector Ricketts, who owns a fleet of vans in Queens and as president of the Commuter Van Association of New York has long pushed legislators to revisit regulations. The law, signed by Mayor David N. Dinkins, was harsh. While it offered driver’s licenses, it prohibited them from responding to street hails (to protect yellow-cab drivers) and banned them from existing bus routes. Ricketts said, “It was restrictive to the point of making it impossible to operate legally.”
A legacy of this law has been what one might call authenticity. Without websites and signs, vans relied on passengers to spread the word, and the rules (you pay when you get off, not on). The vans, in turn, became part of the community, their exteriors often wrapped in ads for neighborhood DJs and restaurants. Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform from inside a van in a classic hip-hop video from 1998 that’s an homage to Brooklyn dollar van culture — their old van is upholstered in flags and has tinted windows to hide the passengers. It even gets hassled by the police. (“Are you deaf?” the officer asks Mos Def.)
The legal limbo has, indeed, frequently put commuter vans at odds with the Police Department. Many New Yorkers learn of the vans’ existence only when something goes wrong — when a driver is involved in a hit-and-run, or shot and killed by a rival driver, which happened not long ago in Far Rockaway, Queens. None of this has helped their reputation.
Leroy Morrison, the owner of a van line in Brooklyn and the vice president of the van association, said it was obvious who is to blame: “The rogues! The rogues! The rogues! The rogues!”
The Taxi and Limousine Commission has tried to find ways to indicate which vans are legal — making those vans white, distributing decals. “It was not exactly a raving success,” said Joshi, the commissioner. “A lot depends on changing the choices passengers make,” she said. “But it’s not like they have the luxury of time to pick and choose.”
The City Council passed a package of bills last year aimed at regulating the industry. They struck down some arcane rules — such as one requiring drivers to keep a passenger manifest logging every ride — and increased the penalties for unlicensed vans.
One of the bills’ sponsors, Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, grew up riding dollar vans in Brooklyn. “We needed to find a way to legitimize an industry that the city always goes to,” he said, noting that officials embrace commuter vans in emergencies — after Sept. 11, for example, or when Hurricane Sandy knocked out the subway system — only to forget about them after. Officials have not included the commuter van industry in plans for the coming L train shutdown, which Williams said overlooks its contribution.
“It’s part of the fabric of transportation in the city,” he said. “I don’t know what people would do without it.” Brooklyn
Of all the dollar van routes in the city, the Flatbush Avenue route in Brooklyn is the most well-known. Vans weave through traffic, honking their horns as they gather riders from Downtown Brooklyn to Kings Plaza in Marine Park.
The vans on this route have long been of the classic dollar van variety — with tinted windows and a rope to close the door. Recently, Morrison, the owner of Alexis Van Lines, has gotten an edge on the competition by introducing licensed shuttle buses with automatic doors, cushy seats and private screens.
“We have musical DVDs, we have Bob Marley, we mix it up,” said Morrison, who also operates a summer jitney to Fort Tilden beach. Morrison was born and raised in Jamaica and started driving dollar vans in Brooklyn in the 1980s. “The music is good. The A.C. is good,” he said of his shuttles. “For the guy riding the buses, it’s like riding an airplane.”
The shuttles line up at a spot near the Manhattan Bridge. The three stickers in their windows — from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Transportation and the Taxi and Limousine Commission — indicate they are licensed.
Some head from here to a Chinatown in Flushing, Queens; others go to the Chinatown in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A third route skips Manhattan, shuttling riders directly between Brooklyn and Queens.
The stop is well-organized. When a shuttle reaches capacity, the driver closes the doors and departs, and the next shuttle moves forward. Near the line, drivers gather. They smoke and talk. Sometimes they go to the CitiBike station and get some exercise, pedaling in place.
On board the shuttles, people take naps and eat meals from steaming containers. On one trip to Brooklyn, a driver dropped off big sacks of rice noodles at a few stops.
Commuter vans depart all day from Jamaica Center, heading south to Far Rockaway, and to various points east. Passengers bound for the Rosedale section of Queens used to board licensed vans just outside the train station. But recently, the city moved their hub a block away, in order to create a pedestrian plaza. Since then, drivers say, rogue vans have swooped in, stealing their customers from the old stop.
“The illegals are siphoning off the passengers before they can walk a block west to our stop,” said Ricketts, the president of the Commuter Van Association. Ricketts, himself a Rosedale resident, began driving a dollar van in the 1980s after working as a hospital administrator. In his role as an advocate for the industry, he has been working with the Taxi and Limousine Commission to crack down on the interlopers.
The person in charge of the Rosedale line, or the closest to it, is a woman named Thelma, a former driver turned dispatcher better known as Mama. While vans come and go, she sits with a clipboard and radio keeping track of drivers. Sometimes, she has helpers, young men who direct traffic for tips from the drivers. Sometimes, they’ll play hip-hop from a Bluetooth speaker.
The white shuttles with the peppermint green stripe sidle up to the curb near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Midtown Manhattan is busy, and they can’t linger: They must depart, full or empty, every few minutes. A dispatcher moves them along.
“They come every four minutes — that’s what I like,” says Uvaldo Maldonado, who for the past five years has taken a shuttle to Midtown from Union City, New Jersey, one of several pickup spots on the other side of the Hudson served by these shuttles, many of which are operated by a company called Spanish Transportation Services. From Midtown, Maldonado travels to Staten Island, where he works as a house painter. At the end of the day, he makes the same long trip in reverse.
On the shuttles, the radio is tuned to La Mega 97.9 FM, playing hits in Spanish. Between trips to Manhattan, drivers hang out in Paterson, New Jersey. At any point in the day, 20 can be found in a parking lot eating packed lunches and killing time. One of them, Oscar Venegas, from Peru, says he put himself through hotel school driving shuttles, and now works weekends as a manager at a Midtown hotel. The drivers’ main complaint? The unlicensed vans that sneak between them and try to take their riders, of course. On this line, though, they’re known as piratas.