The (Illegal) Private Bus System That Works

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Brooklyn's dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit with privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs

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Winston Williams owns and operates this advertising-wrapped dollar van / Lisa Margonelli

America's 20th largest bus service -- hauling 120,000 riders a day -- is profitable and also illegal. It's not really a bus service at all, but a willy-nilly aggregation of 350 licensed and 500 unlicensed privately-owned "dollar vans" that roam the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, picking up passengers from street corners where city buses are either missing or inconvenient. The dollar van fleet is a tantalizing demonstration of how we might supplement mass transit to include privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs, giving people alternative ways to get around, and creating jobs. 

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. 

With its pink advertising wrapping, Winston's van gives the impression that the inside will have a party atmosphere. But it doesn't. The passengers, most of whom are from Jamaica (like Winston) or Trinidad, sit quietly. One Trinidadian woman dressed in business clothes overhears me interviewing Winston and volunteers that vans are a common way to get around the islands. The interior of the van is clean, gray, and institutional -- very much of a piece with Winston's overall business plan to brand his vans and make them mainstream.

He'd like to eventually move beyond the Flatbush route and pick up, say, hipsters in Williamsburg and bring them to Manhattan. If this sounds improbable, it's really not: Think of the incredible popularity of food trucks, which were known as "roach coaches" only 10 years ago. A hip fleet of dollar vans, providing proximity and cheap transit to 20-somethings, could easily catch on. If the vans ran on cleaner engines -- hybrids or natural gas -- they could be part of a greener city. (In another move to raise the profile of his vans beyond Flatbush, Winston allows a music promoter called Dollar Van Demos to film rappers in his vans for broadcast on the Internet.) But no broader growth can happen until the vans can be branded and made attractive to people who don't already know them, says Winston.

Ah, and that's where the illegality comes in. Winston used to have his vans all painted with a green stripe, so they became easily recognized in the neighborhood. While this "uniform" was good for business, his vans also caught the attention of police of various kinds who ticketed him for stopping to pick up passengers, and he accrued fines that ate into profits. This is the paradox of Winston's work: While he is fully licensed, insured, and inspected, his vans are prohibited from doing the one thing they really do -- picking up passengers off the street.

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Lisa Margonelli is a writer on energy and environment. She spent four years and traveled 100,000 miles to write her book, "Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank." More

Lisa Margonelli directs the New America Foundation's Energy Productivity Initiative, which works to promote energy efficiency as a way of ensuring energy security, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and economic security for American families. She spent roughly four years and traveled 100,000 miles to report her book about the oil supply chain, Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long Strange Trip to Your Tank, which the American Library Association named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007. She spent her childhood in Maine where, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, her family heated the house with wood hauled by a horse. Later, fortunately, they got a tractor. The experience instilled a strong appreciation for the convenience of fossil fuels.

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