Over a year ago I described Cape Town’s minibus shared van transit system, where licensed drivers provide shared rides along designated routs. At the time, I suggested such a system, common in many countries around the world, should be considered in the U.S. I was wrong — there are examples of similar service in the U.S., although here they’re generally antagonized by the very agencies dedicated to providing public transportation. Miami, Atlantic City, and San Diego have shared taxi, or jitney, services. However, like in so many other areas, New York city is the most notable case.
Since the late 1970s, thousands of unlicensed “dollar” vans (they now charge $1.50 or $2) have provided rides in several New York City neighborhoods. The industry got started in earnest during the 1980-81 transit strike, and have proliferated despite occasional crackdowns by authorities. In the 1990s, the MTA estimated some 5,000 feeder vans operated in the city, shuttling passengers to subway stations in boroughs where conventional taxis are hard to find. The vans often run in direct competition with busy bus lines, providing faster, more convenient service. Robert Cervero’s 1997 book Paratransit in America features a rare scholarly examination of these vans, illustrated with this map describing the parts of Broolyn, Queens, and The Bronx where the vans are active.
A Brooklyn friend confirms the Flatbush corridor is alive and well, New Yorkers are welcome to chime in about the others. Generally operated by Caribbean immigrants, criticism often focuses on ethnicity and safety since the unregulated vans do not have to be inspected or carry insurance. The MTA and city officials accuse the vans of “poaching” bus riders and unsafe operations, and have sought to curtail the vans through occasional crackdowns over the years. Nonetheless even critics concede the operators are providing transportation services with no public subsidy.
The latest crackdown effort came after a hit-and-run accident in Brooklyn involving a dollar van driver who fled the scene fearing arrest. In response, the city began a ticketing blitz and began the process of designing a sticker to clearly identify which of the vans are among the 279 officially licensed carriers, who are prohibited from picking up passengers on-demand by city rules. For now, at least, an uneasy truce exists. “Some van operators argue that one-size-fit-all standards are wrongheaded,” observes Cervero, who asks “Should everyone be forced to ride in vehicles that are fairly new, meet high liability insurance requirements, and have comfortable, padded seats, paying a premium fare for these provisions?” For the time being in most U.S. cities, the answer is yes.