Brooklyn's Super Convenient but Mostly Illegal Private Bus Service

Dollar Vans offer a much-needed transit link. What's so wrong about that?

Over at TheAtlantic.com, Lisa Margonelli has a great profile of New York's dollar vans, that "willy-nilly aggregation of 350 licensed and 500 unlicensed privately-owned" vans that roam neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens where existing public bus lines fall short.

To see how the dollar van universe works (I'll get to why it's illegal in a minute), I spent a morning riding around with one of Brooklyn's dollar van entrepreneurs, Winston Williams of Blackstreet Van Lines. I caught up with Winston's pink, advertising-covered van on Livingston Street in downtown Brooklyn and hopped in the front seat, and off we went up Flatbush Avenue. Almost all of the dollar vans are Ford E350's, with a high body and side doors and enough seats in the back to hold 14 people. Once you notice them in the parts of Brooklyn and Queens where they work, they're ubiquitous. Winston looks in the rear-view mirror and explains that the trick is to keep a distance between the vans in front and the vans behind to maximize the chance of getting passengers. At $2 a ride, he needs to get 14 people in the van on the 5.6 mile trip from downtown Brooklyn to King's Highway to turn a profit. The cost of licensing, insuring, staffing, and fueling the eight vans in his fleet is considerable.

Some people worry that dollar vans pick up passengers who would otherwise ride the bus, but Columbia Assistant Professor of Urban Planning David King and doctoral student Eric Goldwyn say that's not likely. Dollar vans seem to complement the bus service, and they have real advantages. Goldwyn has ridden in the vans and conducted tallies where he's found that on some corners there are four city buses an hour and 45 to 60 vans, meaning that passengers literally don't have to wait more than a minute for a ride. Also, the vans can be a lot faster than public transit. A service that runs between Chinatowns can get from Flushing to Sunset Park in 20 minutes while the subway will take an hour and 13 minutes at minimum. And for regular riders, there are other perks. "I've heard they offer more services -- for example, they'll wait while a parent walks a child up to the door of daycare or a school." That is service that you can't get from a bus. 

Sounds great. So what's illegal about it? Margonelli explains, in part: "In the late 1950s, cities took over the bankrupt transit lines and tried to make a go of them, retaining for themselves the monopoly on the right to provide service. In the early '60s the feds became involved in propping those systems up, but without much enthusiasm. Meanwhile, private transit were prevented from driving the streets even when they offered services different from the public transit agencies."

Click through to read the whole story.

Photo by Lisa Margonelli.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.