The high-speed, anything-goes, sort-of-legal world of dollar vans

The high-speed, anything-goes, sort-of-legal world of dollar vans

Photo by Angela Datre

You can live or work along Brooklyn’s traffic-choked Flatbush Avenue and never notice them until someone points one out: a van, speeding to and stopping at a street corner to disgorge passengers. Dozens upon dozens of these vans run up and down this major artery every day, inconspicuous to anyone not schooled in spotting them. Unlike the government-supported transportation systems that serve New York, nothing about the fleet is uniform: some are painted white, others black. Some are inscribed with company names and phone numbers, others entirely blank.

But once you know they’re there, these vans — known as dollar vans because of their low fares — suddenly become ubiquitous along Brooklyn’s busiest corridor. You can see them elsewhere, crossing major routes in central and southeast Brooklyn. They run along Utica Avenue, which connects Marine Park to Crown Heights, and Remsen Avenue, which connects Canarsie to East Flatbush. But Flatbush is the Appian Way for dollar vans.

Operated and patronized mainly by the borough’s immigrant communities from Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, and other Caribbean nations, dollar vans — sometimes referred to as commuter vans, or jitneys — have been a frequent sight in Brooklyn for more than three decades. While far smaller than city buses — they can generally haul a dozen passengers — the vans move thousands of people around the borough each day. Collectively, this motley fleet of Fords (they are almost always Fords) is the city’s largest quasi-legal transportation system. And for as long as they’ve been around, the city government has struggled to figure out what to do with them.

The Kings Plaza Shopping Center, which sits at the narrow mouth of Jamaica Bay, is about as remote a spot as there is in Brooklyn. It’s a good 40-minute walk to the nearest subway station, the Q train at Avenue U. But the mall isn’t cut off from the city’s transportation system. Five MTA bus lines — the B2, B9, B41, B46, and B47 — terminate at Kings Plaza.

On a Saturday afternoon in March, a long line of buses stood idling at the MTA bus terminal outside the mall, waiting for passengers. Yet just 100 yards north of the terminal, dozens of dollar vans also stood by along Flatbush, competing with the MTA buses for the same pool of weary shoppers.

“Flatbuuuush,” boomed a man standing near a white van in faded jeans and a Yankees hat, the last syllable hanging in the air. I hopped in first, and after seven more riders climbed aboard, the bus sped off toward downtown Brooklyn.

A ride up the length of Flatbush offers a 30-minute summary of the vast expanse of Brooklyn. Going north through blue-collar Marine Park and Flatbush, restaurants and auto repair shops flanked by parking lots give way to buzzing stretches of storefronts and clusters of housing complexes.The street cuts through the verdant expanse of Prospect Park and the splendor of Grand Army Plaza before you pass between tony Park Slope and Prospect Heights, close enough to peer down tree-lined streets of stately brownstones. Then you’re surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown Brooklyn, which at this point puts you far closer to Manhattan — both literally and figuratively — than where you began.

An unmarked dollar van attempts a U-turn along Flatbush Avenue between Farragut and Glenwood roads. Photo by Angela Datre.

This particular van, as is common for dollar vans, was manned by a driver and an assistant — that was the 20-something in the baseball cap. The assistant sits in the middle row, opening and shutting the door for commuters and collecting fares. Dollar vans are not shy about making their presence known on Flatbush, and ours proved no exception. It accelerated up and around other vehicles, which often honked in response, and took the liberty of crossing the double yellow line when it needed to pass. The driver-assistant tandem kept their eyes open for new passengers, seeking to fill out the van’s capacity of thirteen. As we traveled, they seemed to keep friendly tabs on their fellow dollar van guys, either by talking over the two-way radio or chatting each other up when vans passed each other.

When a woman requested a stop in Flatlands, the driver showed off his skill behind the wheel, jerking the van ahead of a small white sedan, swinging it across to the right side of the street and bringing it to a halt. By the time the passenger had climbed out and our van had started back up again, the white sedan had managed to pull alongside us. The driver, a black woman with bleached-blonde hair, rolled down her window. The dollar van assistant saw her and slid open his door slightly.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” the woman yelled. The dollar van assistant (he of the Yankees cap) didn’t flinch.

“Welcome to Brooklyn,” he said, closing the door while the rest of the van erupted in laughter.

After the commotion in the van subsided, he added, “If you want to drive cute, you can't drive cute on Flatbush.”

Let’s clear up the first illusion about dollar vans: they don’t cost a dollar. Today the fare along Flatbush is $2. As with their nominal cousin, the dollar store, inflation has rendered the name “dollar van” obsolete, with only tradition keeping it around. Still, with the MTA charging a base fare of $2.50 for a bus or subway ride, the vans remain the cheapest ride in town.

To the question of whether or not these vans are legal, the answer is bit complicated. Dollar vans fall into two categories in New York City. There are the unlicensed vans, usually fly-by-night operations that try to remain under the radar of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which oversees commuter vehicles. And then there are the licensed ones, which are permitted by the TLC to operate within defined geographical areas.

There are heavy restrictions on legal vans — around 100 of which operate on Flatbush. Eric Goldwyn, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University who has done extensive research on commuter vans, explains that technically, the vans are only allowed to carry passengers who call to prearrange rides. The vans are not supposed to run regular routes or follow a regular schedule. They are not supposed to stop at bus stations. They are not supposed to pick up people who hail them on the curb.

Of course, “supposed to” is the key phrase here, since these licensed vans habitually flout these rules to do business. “You’re not allowed to do street hails, but that’s how they do operate,” Goldwyn said. “So the law and reality are at odds here.”

From the curb, it’s difficult to immediately distinguish between licensed and unlicensed vans. Some better-known companies operating under licenses, like Brooklyn Van Lines and Alexis Van Lines, brand their names on the side of vehicles to signal legitimacy to customers. Vans on some established lines sport advertisements for other businesses, like beauty salons. Illegal vans are unmarked — they bear no TLC tags, no painted-on company name, no identifying number. They are often fly-by-night businesses, operating for brief periods of time. Another telltale sign of unregistered vans, licensed drivers like to say, is that they’re manned by more reckless (and often younger) drivers. But even distinguishing between legal and illegal operators is tricky, since some drivers do both licensed and unlicensed driving. In 2006, a City Council committee suggested designating a uniform color for regulated vans — like yellow for taxis — but the recommendation went nowhere.

“Without the brand, you pretty much have to trust the community that rides in them,” said Lisa Margonelli, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation who has written about the vans. “People will get into strangers’ cars if they feel like they share something with those people.”

Indeed, the morning and afternoon rush hours, when the vans can get packed, attest to people’s comfort with climbing into strangers’ vehicles. The bond that holds the van business together is geographic, obviously, but also ethnic, since many of the Caribbean-born patrons have taken similar vans in the countries.

A driver collects fares for an Alexis Van Lines shuttle. Photo by Stefano Giovannini.

But they had better hope that they’re choosing the right drivers, because on a street at congested as Flatbush, an accident will happen if you drive recklessly for long enough.

While no subway runs along Flatbush Avenue south of Prospect Park, plenty of MTA buses provide service there. The vans aren’t operating in a total transportation wasteland. So the natural question becomes, why would customers still hop in a potentially uninsured van with a potentially reckless driver on an extremely crowded and chaotic street? For the same reason that people race alongside a city bus in traffic, or stick their feet in the closing doors of a subway car, or jet across the street when the light’s red: they’re trying to get somewhere, and they’re in a hurry. The dollar van patrons with whom I spoke use the vans to get to work, to go see their families, to go shopping (usually at Kings Plaza).

Recently, Goldwyn conducted a survey of 200 dollar van passengers, seeking more information about their experiences on the vans. “The vans are much faster, usually,” he said. “They’re much more predictable. If I have 45 minutes to get somewhere, I’m confident the van will get me there, versus the MTA.” In short, they’re doing the MTA’s core job better than the MTA, at least along Flatbush.

For an earlier, informal study, Goldwyn stood at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues and counted the number of buses and commuter vans that passed by. “For some of the buses, one would be coming every fifteen minutes,” he said. At the same spot, a dollar van comes once every minute.

Margonelli says she sees the dollar vans as a self-organizing transit system that can adapt to demand, offering passengers flexibility that they can’t get from the MTA. “Sometimes vans would drop Mom off at daycare with her kids and wait while she brought the child in,” Margonelli said. “And then she’d hop back in the van and go on. So that sort of personal service is a positive thing.” Another, system-wide example of this reorganization followed Hurricane Sandy, when many Brooklynites relied on the vans to reach Manhattan.

Dollar vans also offer passengers a bit of entertainment. Some vans play Top 40 radio, others a mix of Caribbean music. A few even have video screens. Generally, while most commuters sat silently, there was a sense that chatting — or talking on a cell phone — got you fewer side eyes than it would have on a bus.

Robert “Buzz” Paaswell is a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York and former executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority. Four years ago, he co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing against further integrating the vans into the city’s transit system. I asked Paaswell about the vans today. Like dollar van proponents, he acknowledged their biggest advantage: They fulfill a market need that otherwise wouldn’t be met, often with service cheaper and faster than the city can provide.

But he also spoke of the dangers of the informal system. “The bad thing about them is that they're not regulated; they're unreliable; you don't know who's driving; they don't have to have insurance,” he said. “If it's a rainy day and a driver doesn't feel like coming, you think there's a dollar van coming — you stand out and wait for them. There's no rhyme or reason to them.”

Driving along Flatbush near the corner of Ditmas Avenue. Photo by Angela Datre.

During one of my rides, the driver turned around and told the group that we’d be stopping at a gas station to fill up. One dollar van rider told me of a time when halfway through a ride, the driver passed off his passengers to a buddy, forcing everyone to get off one vehicle and board another.

Timothy James, a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 9 — which includes parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and Flatbush — acknowledged that rides on the vans can be a bit hair-raising. But he’s fond of the vans — which, he says, are to an extent a victim of the area in which they operate “Flatbush Avenue in general is a madcap street south of Empire Boulevard, and you see a lot of reckless driving,” James said. “It’s not just dollar vans. You see it with commuter drivers and trucks. There’s just a general sense of ‘every driver for himself.’”

Still, James added a refrain I heard several times from dollar van passengers. “I would not take my child in a dollar van,” he said. “It’s just kind of where I draw the line.” More often than not during my rides, though, there were kids riding along in the vans with their parents.

Loosely organized van services are popular in developing countries in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and the Caribbean. But one hallmark of a first-class city is a publicly funded transit system, which New York certainly has. So what does it say about the MTA if a vast swath of southern Brooklyn chooses illicit vans over the buses?

It’s often the case that new businesses pop up in the footprint old ones left behind. A pivotal moment in the history of dollar vans, which have tended to proliferate when the city’s transportation system can’t meet demand, was the 1980 transit strike. For ten days, the city’s subways and buses were completely halted as the Transport Workers Union, demanding higher wages, walked off the job.

But dollar vans predate the strike. “Most people talk about this 1980 transit strike as being the origin moment of the vans,” Goldwyn saidd. “But they were around before then.” All through the previous decade, federal investment in transit had been on the decline.

In the past three decades, it’s been during moments when MTA services went down, whether because of a strike or because of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, that the dollar vans have really shone.

During the subway strike, only cars with three or more passengers were allowed onto any of the East River crossings connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. People tried just about anything to speed up their commutes, including using roller blades and horses. Entrepreneurial van owners went out and took advantage of the rule in their own way. “That is what sort of gave it its critical mass,” Goldwyn said.

During the ’80s, the city and the state played a game of hot potato over who should regulate the burgeoning dollar van business. Then, in 1993, New York City passed a law that, on paper, sought to regulate the commuter vans by stipulating how permits would be issued. But in practice, the City Council regularly shot down applications for more vans. “The gossip would essentially be that the council was very much in the pocket of the Transport Workers Union, who were very obstructionist to any sort of advancement of non-union transit service,” Goldwyn said.

In 1997, following a successful lawsuit challenging the city law, and the intervention of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the vans were put under the auspices of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which has given them their semi-legal status since. (“Cynically, I think it was just a way of currying favor in the black community,” Goldwyn said of the Giuliani’s administration’s action.)

One of the commission’s biggest efforts to bring the vans into the fold was a massive failure. In 2010, the TLC tried to replace three closed bus routes in the borough by contracting dollar vans to replace them. But due to poor advertising of the switch and a two-month period during which no service was being offered, very few customers made the jump from buses to dollar vans. According to TLC statistics at the time, 1,580 riders used the B23 line daily before it closed. Only two used the contracted dollar vans when they took over the route.

There’s a perverse feedback loop at play for the city government: lack of transit funding causes a cut in services and allows a market for private vans to develop. And when more cuts need to be made, the MTA looks to these enterprises with little oversight to fill in the gaps again.

“The shortfalls in funding for the MTA have left us with a system that doesn't have a capacity to meet all the needs,” Paaswell said. “It allows some of these dollar vans to come in, and obviously they fill a need. But you can't rely on them. If you're in an accident, you're screwed. It's just not the way to run a transportation system.”

“A lot of people think it’s a bad job. It’s not. It’s a good job.”

Jean, 55, has been driving dollar vans in Brooklyn for two decades. Since moving to New York from Haiti 25 years ago, this is how he’s made a living. When we spoke, he was working as a backseat assistant to another driver. At one point while we were talking, a black SUV pulled out in front of the van about halfway between Grand Army Plaza and Kings Plaza.

“Fuck you, pussy,” the driver yelled in a heavy Haitian accent. Jean explained that sometimes scammers try to get into accidents with licensed vans to claim insurance money.

“Since I came here, I got married and divorced,” Jean said. “I had two kids. One is 25, and one is 18. So far I’m doing good. But I’ve been surviving my driving.” But he says that supporting them and his four other children abroad has stretched his dollar van salary, even though he claims that in the past he’s been able to pocket $5,000 a month.

Goldwyn estimates the average annual salary of a dollar van driver to be $40,000. Of course, this is without the benefits that MTA transit workers get through their unions. There’s no health care, no formal sick days, no pensions. If a driver doesn’t show up, he doesn’t get paid.

A driver hangs out the window of his van along Flatbush Avenue, the central corridor for dollar vans. Photo by Stefano Giovannini.

“They're creating non-union jobs, which pay a lot less,” Paaswell said. “While you might say, ‘That's terrific; it's a job,’ the reason you have a union is so you can pay people real wages.”

There’s also little regulation of the drivers themselves. MTA bus drivers are subject to random drug testing. They must complete a six week training course in bus operation before they’re licensed, and they take annual refresher courses. Passengers on dollar vans, Paaswell believes, are taking a big chance.

“There's always a risk when you're getting into an unregulated van,” he said. “And when you get in an accident, nobody is responsible. I wouldn't want to be in a vehicle like that.”

Jean works for Blackstreet Van Lines, one of the avenue’s licensed operators. Even so, he still feels the heat from police.

“You get a hard time sometimes from police,” he said. “They pull you over for no reason. I can tell you that police don’t like dollar vans. Definitely.”

According to Allan Fromberg, the TLC’s deputy commissioner for public affairs, the Police Department seized almost 500 illegal vans citywide since July of last year. Although the commission declined to offer an estimate on the number of illicit dollar vans still out there, Goldwyn noted a clever system the licensed drivers themselves use to measure the illegal market. “A lot of guys keep notebooks of the license plate numbers of the unlicensed vans, and they talk every now and again,” he explained. (Goldwyn says the licensed drivers identified 500 illegal vehicles on Flatbush.)

Enforcement against unlicensed vans is likely to be stepped up under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, as it implements its plan to bring traffic deaths in the city to zero. Police officials have already told Community Board 9 that they expect to crack down on dollar vans breaking traffic laws along Flatbush.

But the city’s going to have its work cut out for it policing dollar vans. They’ve bedeviled politicians and transportation planners for decades, and they’re not going to disappear quietly. Unless, or until, the city radically expands public transportation options in southeastern Brooklyn, the demand is going to be there.

“In places where the MTA can't provide good service, you're always going to see entrepreneurs coming out, and they will provide service,” Paaswell said. “The question is, are there other ways you can serve the same need and not have people at risk?”

Dino Grandoni is technology editor at the Huffington Post. He lives in Fort Greene.

Angela Datre is a freelance photographer. Her photos have appeared in Newsday, Front Magazine, and The Source.

Stefano Giovannini is a freelance photographer. His work has appeared in Jane, Entertainment Weekly, Nylon, and Rolling Stone. Originally from Milan, he now lives in Brooklyn.

Also in this issue

Q&A: Allen James of Save Our Streets

The anti-violence activist on the struggle to end the bloodshed in Crown Heights. Interview by Eli Rosenberg

Fort Greene Fleas

Spring is finally here. So, too, is the daily parade of dogs and their owners through Fort Greene Park. Photos by Anthony Rhoades