Transit Service Shrinking? Get Ready for the Rise of the Dollar Van.

Dollar Van Demos, the unlikely union of transportation needs and musical dreams that has entranced New York bloggers, is giving private transit operators in Brooklyn and Queens some of the best press they’ve ever received. But that isn’t the only reason it’s worth taking a fresh look at dollar vans. If the state legislature can’t avert the MTA’s doomsday scenario, the vans may soon see a surge in ridership — perhaps big enough to launch a few recording careers.

Dollar vans are the unmarked and often unregulated 15-passenger vehicles that cruise Flatbush and Utica Avenues in Brooklyn, Jamaica Avenue in Queens, and other outer-borough thoroughfares picking up bus passengers and commuters. Service cuts and fare hikes would make their routes increasingly attractive to transit riders.

While that’s a convenient fail-safe for residents of the transit-poor neighborhoods that dollar vans serve, it’s problematic for the MTA and potentially dangerous for passengers.

It stands to reason that many dollar van trips (now priced at $1.50 or $2.00) would be New York City Transit trips if riders were satisfied with the level of service provided by area buses, so some trips lost to dollar vans not only represent dissatisfied transit customers, but also lost fare-box revenue at a time when the MTA needs every cent.

Furthermore, because many dollar vans are unlicensed and unregulated, and thus uninsured to operate as livery vehicles, passengers can expect little recourse in the event of a crash and little consistency from van to van and driver to driver.


Both the NYPD and the TLC are responsible for oversight of dollar vans but enforcement that would prevent illegal vans from operating and legal vans from poaching MTA passengers from bus stops has been spotty at best, according to City Council Transportation Chair John Liu.

The 63rd Precinct, which covers Mill Basin and Marine Park in Brooklyn — neighborhoods favored by dollar van drivers looking to avoid traffic on Flatbush Avenue — issued 49 moving violation tickets and 48 TLC tickets to the operators of legal dollar vans and impounded 25 illegal vans between June and October of 2008.

Still, that’s just a drop in the bucket.

In 1999, the New York Times estimated that there were between 2400 and 5000 dollar vans operating in New York City, a number that has no doubt fluctuated in recent years, but still represents a sizable fleet of private transit vehicles.

With commuters tightening their belts and MTA fare hikes and service cuts potentially on the way, this number may very well skyrocket, and what has long been a cottage industry loose and nimble enough to launch gimmicks like Dollar Van Demos could become an increasingly crucial part of the transportation network, for better and for worse.

For obvious reasons, it’s refreshing to see the steps that a small, privately owned transportation company will take to draw and please passengers. But for equally obvious reasons, it’s alarming to think that transit riders may have to rely more and more on an unregulated industry to get around their city.

  • James

    Great, another reckless roadway predator for cyclists to have to deal – as if the maniacal gypsy cabs that prowl the boroughs aren’t enough. Not to mention the other nasty externality of additional air pollution in the neighborhoods in which they operate. After all, the vans are more likely to be junkers than the vehicles that the legit taxi companies use.

    Would anyone happen to know if any NYC pols have ever made an initiative toward regulating car services and dollars vans? If the transit system declines this may become more and more necessary.

  • anonymous

    Dollar vans are actually the solution, not the problem. Since they’re smaller than buses, more of them can run at once and so service is more frequent and therefore more desirable. Individual vehicles also don’t have to stop as frequently. There is also not a monopoly as there is in bus and subway transit so there is competition to keep prices reasonable, and if one company starts going under another can take up the slack. The city should recognize dollar vans as a legitimate transit system and license and regulate them.

  • oscarfrye

    i understand the downsides of dollar vans, but at least a dozen people in a van is better than a dozen individual cars.

    And usually these are short trips that get the commuter to some transit hub, after which they’re on a bus/train

  • anonymous

    i understand the downsides of dollar vans, but at least a dozen people in a van is better than a dozen individual cars.

    Or even a dozen people in a bus that’s supposed to hold 50.

  • Lloyd

    I was amazed when I visited Nairobi some years ago at the ubiquity of the matatu vans in that city’s streets – anybody could go anywhere after some quick negotiating with the driver. Most of the were/are Isuzu vans, some were a bit larger. Is NYC ready for matatus?

  • Glenn

    Yes, this is in need of regulation. But given the recent history with the pedicabs, an industry in far more vague competition with the cab drivers, why would dollar-vans even tempt the City Council to enact draconian legislation against them. Remember the good legitimate Pedicab industry was proactively trying to get regulated and instead ended up with a virtual death sentence followed by endless legal battles. Funny how incompetency turns out to bite back.

    This is a critical link the the food chain between taxis and MTA buses. And yes, many dollar vans are feeders to mass transit anyway. But they are also a necessity for many folks in the outerboroughs to avoid needing to buy a car.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Dollar vans, carpools, and deteriorating and limited subway service run at break even. That’s what we’ll have once all the tax and toll money is going to debts and other costs from the past.

    That and bicycles.

    In NYC we’ll survive with a diminished quality of life — except for the bicycles, which I found to provide a superior quality of life once I actually tried it and got over the hump.

  • I \v/ NY

    great, a third world nation form of transportation. maybe we can go back to dirt streets too. all the whackjobs over at cato institute will be so happy.

  • J-Uptown

    NYC polls need to understand that now is the time to fund transit. With ridership increasing, we need service to match, otherwise the general quality of life deteriorates, causing all sorts of regional problems. Yes, dollar vans exist all over the place, and they thrive where state service is poor. A proliferation of poor-quality dollar vans indicates a failure of the state to provide true public transit.

    The health of our public transit system is a direct reflection of the health of our government.

  • bc

    +1 to what James said…I’m consistently almost hit by these on flatbush, and the unregulated part makes me cringe at the thought of what happens when (not if) cyclist is hit. not that that is the only consideration, just bears mentioning..

  • Those vans are fucking nightmares to deal with when riding down flatbush, often speeding, lots of close calls.

  • Ellen

    The City does recognize, license and regulate dollar vans, which they call commuter vans. There are numerous companies that do not go through the system, of course, but the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the City Council have taken steps in the last decade to at least have regulations on the books, even if they’re not all that enforced.

    Chapter 9:
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/tlc/html/rules/rules.shtml

    And search the City Council website for legislation on dollar vans.

    If they were better regulated, I agree with #2 that they’re a potential solution.

  • CH

    Because NYC has a Taxi and Limousine Commission and the legislative authority to regulate these vehicles, there is potential. But unless dollar vans, jitneys, etc. are fully brought into the fold and operate above board with marked operator names, proper insurance, accountability, and a rationalize network of corridors, frequencies, etc., they are more likely to do harm than good.

    There’s a reason these services are cheap, just like the ubiquitous jitneys in New Jersey. When you have inexpensive immigrant labor, do minimal maintenance on vehicles and stick the drivers with the rap for fraudulent registration and insurance documents, it’s no wonder it’s only a $1 fare.

    The long-term downside is that by artificially undercutting the above-board transit operators, the MTA and other bus companies will ultimately opt to focus their resources on corridors where they don’t have direct, unfair competition. So just when you think the bus doesn’t come often enough and the dollar vans are everywhere, the bus will pack up and go somewhere else.

    Another problem is that most of the van/jitney drivers are basically independent contractors working for themselves. They lease a vehicle and then keep the fare revenue. Thus, they’re constantly competing with each other which leads to dangerous driving and an over-supply of service- becoming a source of congestion rather than a solution.

    It’s a complex issue that goes far beyond the price of the fare.

  • chriswnw

    “great, a third world nation form of transportation. maybe we can go back to dirt streets too. all the whackjobs over at cato institute will be so happy.”

    Streetcars and bicycles can also be described as “third world”, given the time they were first invented. Further, the Cato Institute would be likely to use such a term to refer to them.

    Nevermind that shuttle buses, streetcars and bicycles have all undergone technological upgrades since then, and can all be adaptable to modern settings.

    As a person who cycles everywhere, I’d prefer shuttle buses over regular buses in cases where I cannot bike (if I’m injured or if it is snowing). Their routes are more flexible and actually get you to your destination. Further, they can more easily discriminate against problem passengers (thugs, crazies, etc), which standard city buses always seem to be full of. Lastly, they tend to be self-supporting, and don’t require the massive subsidies that public transit agencies do. With sensible safety regulations and dispatching improvements by way of cellphone and internet, they can be upgraded to the modern environment of an American city.

    (I’m not a libertarian, by the way. I just happen to agree with them on this particular topic, while disagreeing with them on their pro-highway and anti-bicycle stances.)

  • Pluralism in private transit options may be inevitable, despite the bad side effects on public transit. But these companies should not operate in a lawless zone. They must pay income taxes. Their employees must pay income taxes. They must pay Social Security for their employees. In future years, with health reform, small businesses may be required to buy health insurance for their employees. The vehicles must meet all safety regulations. You want to operate a business in NYC, Mr. Van Operator? Fine, but our laws don’t just apply to other people. They apply to you.

  • MRig

    Dollar vans are an example of the free market rising to meet demand caused by the deficiency of a publicly offered service. Cabs used to be more like dollar vans, before regulation artificially increased barriers to entry, making it harder for new people to enter the taxi business and driving up the price for consumers. It’s important to remember that authorities institute regulation not only to protect public safety, but to protect entrenched interests.

    I’m no libertarian, despite how that paragraph might sound. All I mean to point out is that the problem here is a failure on the part of public actors, and cracking down on the private actors who come in to solve it doesn’t help anything.

  • Clarence

    Ready to really be blown away? Check out what some entrepreneurial group (scratch that, they say they don’t take payment) has decided to do using Metro Cards and free transfers –

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haTmZl1vKrs

    Whatever you think about that morally, they got the math working for sure.

  • great, a third world nation form of transportation.

    No, motoconchos are a third-world form of transportation. Right, Chriswnw?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I guess it was inevitable that Streetsblog would find something positive to say about this degrading system. A few points for all the Ayn Rands out there who find the “free market” character of this intrinsically appealing.

    1) The MTA can make money too, and it used to be private as well. However, how about the “underserved by mass-transit” areas? If the MTA were to close down the unprofitable routes and concentrate on the winners it would make money.

    2)By allowing the dollar vans to poach MTA riders on the high volume corridors during rush hour you are leaving the MTA to serve the outlying points, off hours, low density routes. One way that Dollar Vans self-fulfill the prophecy of MTA inefficiency.

    3)The Dollar Vans clog up the MTA routes, congesting all traffic, private autos, trucks and MTA buses. Dollar vans are the chaos of production stopping for fares in the middle of Flatbush and Church and every bus pad along the way. The MTA buses are slowed and bunched as a result of the traffic chaos resulting from the Dollar Vans operations, a second way that the Dollar Vans self fulfill the prophecy of MTA inefficiency.

    4) What passes for “flexibility” and how wonderfully efficient these vans are is really just an institutionalized ghettoization of transportation. Imagine the same sort of system in Manhattan, I’d love to see the Upper East Side served like this. I saw a dollar van (Liscence from some place called “Maryland”) stop at the middle of the Flatbush and Church to pick up a fare with a baby carriage, cars and trucks whizzing around.

    5) Dollar Vans are the opposite of Bus Rapid Transit. BRT will die quickly if forced to “compete” with Dollar Vans.

    6) Carl Kruger and I do share one thing in common. A dislike of Dollar Vans. Senator Kruger has bravely fought Dollar Vans encroaching on his constituents turf in outer Flatbush Ave. Many scorching speeches later the Dollar Van’s economic position is stronger than ever thanks to Senator Kruger’s brave fight against bridge tolls. Once again, unintended consequences wins the day.

    Oh well.

  • I \v/ NY

    it doesnt matter when they were invented, especially when you consider cars where invented at the same time that streetcars and bikes were. so by your logic are cars “third world”?

    a comprehensive network of regularly scheduled routes with modern high capacity vehicles is advanced transportation hence the fact that you dont see these kinds of operations in poor undeveloped third world countries. however you only see jitneys/guaguas/dalladallas/publicos/motoconchos in poor undeveloped third world countries.

    dont get me wrong, the MTA is a dyfunctional bureaucracy and i want to see privately operated transit service again, but it has to be better than what we have now, not worse. theres a big difference between privately-operated civilized transit (like what we had 80 years ago with the BMT) and this privately-operated anarchist transit with rattletrap minivans run by minimumm wage inexperienced drivers darting in and out of traffic trying to race ahead of the other vans.

    you could easily do quality private transit if the city granted a company the right to exclusive bus lanes along a route because the only way transit will make money is if it operates fast and doesnt inch along in traffic. the hourly operating costs stay the same whether or not a vehicle picks up 5 or 300 people an hour.

  • the roll of dollar vans doesn’t need to be filled with big gas-powered vans. It could just as easily be filled with light electric vehicles such as electric assist pedicabs, light electric 4-wheelers like the Global Electric Motorcar (GEM) six-seat version (e6) neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), or the TATA ACE Electric MaxiCab, etc.

    Light electric vehicles and bicycles could play a much larger roll in NYC transportation, if only we redefine the uses of public space for low-power vehicles rather than high-power vehicles.

    Vehicles with lower peak speeds don’t require much regulation at intersections and can operate much closer together with much lower risk of accidents.

  • chriswnw

    Hey, “third world” was your term, not mine.

    Shuttle buses operate all over developed countries, but usually only serving airports or hotels. There is no good reason why their service should be restricted to only those two venues. Rather than banning them, subject them to licensing requirements and safety regulations.

  • I used to take a dollar van (actually it was a $4 van) that ran the exact same route as one of the Bay Ridge express buses. Man, that thing was rickety. But $5 was such a rip-off. Actually, $4 is a rip-off too–I only take the train now.

    chriswnw,

    Libertarians aren’t pro-highway, it just seems that way. The honest ones admit that highways are subsidized as much as if not more than transit. Rather, they would seek to put all the cost of any form of transportation on the user. And yes, this would eliminate unprofitable routes, to which the response is, one should have known that before moving there. It all depends on whether you believe transit should function as a sort of welfare.

  • chriswnw

    Again, I’m not a free market libertarian. Many pubic utilities are subject to monopoly and would be better off publicly owned (including roads, railroad tracks, waterways, electrical lines, etc), but transportation service is not one of them. The transportation infrastructure, yes, but the vehicles themselves, no. And if MTA can’t compete, they deserve to go belly up — it obviously means that the service they provide is inferior. They don’t have any inherent right to guaranteed ridership. To be perfectly consistent, I don’t think that our domestic auto manufacturers should be rescued either — they should also go bankrupt.

  • chriswnw

    The other issue with highways is eminent domain. Their construction involved the destruction of a number of neighborhoods. They divide cities and have a limited number of crossings. There is also evidence that they can create congestion, inducing people to take longer trips that might not have been feasible before and causing cars to bunch up around the on-ramps rather than dispersing throughout the surface streets. I think they make sense to connect separate metro areas to each other, but not as metropolitan expressways. If a private company wants to create one at their own expense and toll it, that’s okay with me, but they should be required to build it as unobtrusively as possible (like underground). In many areas, that might not be profitable.

  • Actually, most libertarians DO support public ownership of utility infrastructure. There are fringe types who want e.g. all roads to be private, but… they’re fringe.

    Anyway, it has long angered me that the MTA is granted a legal monopoly on transit along its routes, yet is unwilling and/or unable to provide the service that people actually demand.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Libertarians are Republicans who smoke dope.

  • chriswnw

    Hmm…maybe i’d be a moderate libertarian then. I don’t smoke weed though.

  • I take the dollar vans from Flatbush all the time. I never take the bus up Flatbush, unless I FEEL like wasting my time. Even when the 2 is running normally, the vans are faster along the stretch they service.

    The vast majority of the vans I’ve taken are registered and I’ve read accounts of crackdowns on those unregulated vans in the media.

    I agree dollar vans could be safer, but propaganda that portrays them as an enemy to a strong public transportation system makes no sense.

  • Chriswnw, I was agreeing with you.

  • Dollar vans have caused tensions in Sunset Park as well, where nearly 100 licensed and unlicensed vans appear everyday to make trips to Manhattan and Queens.

    Take a look at what is happening here:

    http://blogs.journalism.cuny.edu/interactive2010/2009/10/16/dollar-vans-bring-change-and-conflict-to-sunset-park/

  • The only logical person here.

    Oh boo fucking hoo, the monopolized MTA has to deal with *GASP* competition??? Oh, those poor poor babies! You mean, that if consumers choose to take the risk of riding in an uninsured vehicle that the business should be shut down? The REAL threat is the government. It always has been. It’s been stifling entrepreneurs with heaps of “regulations” for decades. 

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