But transportation does not have to be a public enterprise, as an example on the extreme urban side of the spectrum has shown: The hundreds of private “dollar vans” that zip around the streets of Brooklyn and Queens looking for passengers offer an intriguing model of transit that meets customers’ needs because drivers are the owners and operators of the vans. While many of these vans are legal and insured to carry passengers, some are not, and all of them suffer from archaic laws that prohibit them from picking up passengers at curbs. Trundling down Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue, Winston Williams’s Ford 350 van is worlds away from rural Maine. Like Williams, most of his passengers this weekday morning are former residents of Caribbean islands where jitney-style vans provide cheap transit, and they’re familiar with the ritual of flagging down vans and paying two dollars to ride. Williams’s company, Blackstreet Van Lines, runs eight vans, collecting hundreds of people a day. One morning as I ride with Williams, he talks about business ideas — expanding routes to carry hipsters places where subways are inconvenient, branding vans to build a presence, putting advertising on the vans to increase profits. The biggest hurdle to increasing ridership, he says, is resolving the legality of the whole fleet — both legalizing pickups and eliminating the unpermitted vans.Legal issues aside, private vans provide services no public system could support, says David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. The concentration of vans along Flatbush means that sometimes there’s a van every minute, so riders don’t have to wait. Sometimes they’ll take a mother and child to daycare and then wait at the curb while the mother walks the child up to the door of the facility — something a city bus would never do. Always on the lookout for customers, the drivers make routes where customers don’t have other options. A van between Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, for instance, can take as little as 20 minutes when the subway would take over an hour. King says that he sees potential to enhance transit options for everyone by incorporating dollar van type services.For one thing, dollar vans quickly learn passengers’ desired routes, like traveling between Chinatowns. This sort of knowledge could help public transit planners design systems that keep up with riders’ real needs. Dollar vans’ ability to scale up dramatically intrigues King. “According to our estimates, the dollar vans are carrying 120,000 riders a day in New York, which makes them the country’s 20th largest bus system.”
Lisa will write part two of this series next week. I'll have more to say about these issues over the next few weeks.