Questions Linger About Bloomberg’s New Livery Van Service

Commuter_Van.jpgCommuter vans, like this one in Sunset Park, could become a more common sight on New York’s streets. Image: The Brooklyn Ink.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg announced a new pilot program to provide livery van service for transit-starved neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, a proposal stemming from his 2009 campaign transit platform. The push to provide more mobility options in the wake of MTA service cuts is to be applauded, as is the administration’s willingness to experiment with something new. But the jury is still out on this one. In particular, how livery vans will be integrated with the transit system remains a big question mark. 

To clarify what’s in the works, livery vans are going to be a completely new service, not an expansion of the existing commuter van program. Currently-licensed commuter vans operate within specific geographic areas, but lack defined routes, according to a spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Livery vans, in contrast, would travel between fixed pick-up and drop-off spots, though drivers would be able to take any route they choose between them. Drivers would also be allowed to drop off passengers at locations of their choice, he said, not just at fixed stops. 

The fares are likely to be $2, with longer rides costing up to $4, according to media reports, and there won’t be free transfers to MTA subways and buses. "The issue here is not whether it’s more expensive or less expensive; it’s whether the service exists or not," said Bloomberg at Tuesday’s press conference.

Transit advocates expressed guarded praise for the plan, noting that a detailed proposal was still forthcoming. "Providing new options like this is part of providing for a car-free lifestyle," said Transportation Alternatives’ Noah Budnick. The Straphangers Campaign’s Gene Russianoff also believed that livery vans could help improve mobility for New Yorkers, if implemented appropriately. 

In order to make the livery van pilot successful, it’s being accompanied by a major enforcement push. The TLC will target unlicensed vans, unlicensed drivers, and licensed vehicles working outside the the bounds of authorized activities, said the agency spokesperson. The idea is that illegal vans, not subject to safety and insurance requirements, would undercut the more tightly regulated livery service. 

But from there, the picture becomes less clear. One big unknown is exactly where these livery vans will run. The stops will be set in the next few weeks, according to the TLC, and the mayor promised to put the routes in areas affected by MTA bus cuts. But just how the stops connect with buses and trains will determine how much livery cab service will complement transit, and how much it will substitute for it.

The relationship between transit and livery cabs grows even more muddled. We asked the TLC what would happen to these routes if the MTA ever restores bus service to these areas and were told "this program is not tied to any actions the MTA has taken or will take in the future." Decisions to discontinue or expand the service, said the TLC spokesperson, would be made based on livery industry capacity and public appetite for the service. That suggests a very different relationship with service cuts than the mayor suggested.

The presence of Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith at Tuesday’s announcement adds an extra resonance to the question of whether livery vans would replace, rather than augment, MTA service. As mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith’s major transit initiative was a plan to privatize city buses.

Another key question: Though it’s billed as a one-year pilot, according to the TLC, the metrics for success are still under development. In other words, we don’t yet know what the program’s goals are, or what it’s ultimate purpose is.

Finding innovative new ways to bring car-free mobility to transit-poor neighborhoods, particularly in a time of austerity, is a good thing, and in the short-term that’s all this plan is about. But where it is headed in the long run, how it fits into a larger transportation vision, remains completely and problematically opaque.

  • I don’t know if it’s innovation or desperation to take transit ideas from small carribean islands like Grenada.

  • I don’t like that they are having to put out of business a market solution for a taxpayer funded one. I am all for the transit but perhaps we can achieve that integrating the private vans with the bus system. Just my initial reaction. Sounds interesting.

  • I used to take the vans on Guy Brewer Blvd. in southeast Queens, back in the late 80s. I only took them when I was running late and didn’t want to wait for the Q111 or Q113. Riding in the vans was wild, and truly dangerous.

    The drivers of the competing vans would jockey to pull over at the bus stops to grab groups of passengers, which swerving around another van to cut it off, accelerating to the curb and then slamming on the brakes. It was a miracle that waiting passengers weren’t run over.

    You had to push your way onto the always crowded van, while the driver executed two simultaneous actions: closing the van door and accelerating into the traffic lane. The driver had a rope attached to the door, and would pull on it to close the door. So either the driver blindly pulled the rope, risking a passenger’s limb getting caught in the door, or the driver blindly swerved into the traffic lane, risking a collision.

    Once you got on the van, you had to walk in a crouch along 3-4 rows to get a seat, surrounded by passengers and unpadded metal and glass. The driver never waited for you to sit down before stepping on the gas, so you almost always banged something or someone.

  • J:Lai

    In the abstract, this a good service which is flexible and able to fill in certain holes in the transit network (like getting between destinations in the outer boroughs.)

    The reality, at least based on the many anecdotal stories I have heard, are that these vans usually operate in a dangerous manner, and are at best unpleasant to ride in (if not actually terrifying.)

    The solution would seem to be either to allow them to charge more, or else make them part of the MTA so they get paid by the hour, not by the passenger. The second option seems like it is off the table, considering the MTA does not have the funds.

    These vans should be seen as link in between the bus system and private taxis, and the cost structure should reflect that. I think it would be great to have more of them operating in Brooklyn and Queens, especially now that so many bus routes are being eliminated or having service reduced.

  • vnm

    Initial opposition to the van plan has come from the MTA’s labor unions, quoted in the press coverage of the announcement, and advocates for the disabled.

  • Ursula Hahn

    Downtown Brooklyn will experience a continuing problem with illegally operating “dollar vans.” Commissioner Yassky is well acquainted with it as this area was part of his former City Council district, and he has acknowledged that enforcement by NYPD is a must. In fact, illegal vans will become an even greater problem, if the fare of the new “livery” vans is $2 or $4 per ride.

  • Anthony

    @Jass Agreed! Visit any developing country and you’ll see this kind of “service” available to commuters because there is no high-quality public transportation.

    Visit Europe and you’d see rich networks of streetcars, BRT and bike-sharing ensure residents away from heavy rail subways aren’t reliant on cars…or forced to just stay home.

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