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

1:05 PM EDT on April 13, 2009

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.

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