Home Buses Dollar van debate: deregulation or privatization

Dollar van debate: deregulation or privatization

by Benjamin Kabak

Union leaders see commuter vans as a threat to their power while city officials believe they can offer a low-cost replacement for lost MTA services. (Photo via flickr user AllWaysNY)

Shortly before the MTA’s service cuts went into place, word got out that the city would turn to commuter and the so-called dollar vans to replace many axed bus routes. The program — overseen by the Taxi & Limousine Commission — would target outer borough areas that no longer have bus service, and it will go into effect on August 16. In the build-up to the program’s debut next week, city officials and union leaders are squaring off over the long- and short-term impact more institutional support of this private industry’s approach to transit will have on the city.

From the get-go, the dollar van program was destined to be controversial. Transit labor unions see a privatized and low-cost alternate to transit service as a threat to jobs, and they argue against these vans by decrying the safety hazards and lack of regulation surrounding the industry. In a point-counterpoint series in last week’s issue of The Brooklyn Paper, TWU President John Samuelsen and TLC commissioner David Yassky squared off. Calling it the “Wal-Martiziation of transit,” Samuelsen decried the dollar vans. These vans, he says, “are not a solution to the city’s expanding need for more bus and subway service.”

The Bloomberg scheme would create an unsafe, unregulated shadow transit system, undermining New York City Transit and the MTA. It’s a tremendous mistake and an affront to every transit worker in the city. Most important, it’s clearly against the will of the people: every rider wants a clean, air-conditioned city bus rather than a seat in an unregulated dollar van…

These unregulated vans exist in tandem with the city’s transport system, cherry-picking passengers on highly trafficked routes. They’re not likely to cover low-traffic areas where the MTA is cutting service because they won’t profit from those routes. The “dollar van” doesn’t accommodate the disabled who use wheelchairs or have the ability to “kneel” to make it easier for a senior citizen to climb on board. A “dollar van” will not pick up an elderly person with a cane, because these operators make money by moving fast, and these passengers take up time and, from their point of view, waste money.

New York City Transit’s bus service is one of the great success stories of our city. It is clean, safe, efficient and, when properly funded, frequent. Mayor Bloomberg is cloaking a union-busting agenda in the sheep’s clothing of economic empowerment for van operators. It’s a smokescreen that New Yorkers should see through — and instead insist on more bus service. They should reject a cut-rate, “Wal-Mart” transit system that will lower safety, comfort and environmentally friendly standards.

Yassky’s piece focuses on the gap-filling nature of the dollar van service plan. In light of the MTA’s service cuts, the city, he says could follow one of two paths: “do nothing, or take action to provide assistance to thousands of New Yorkers.”

The commuter vans that have served parts of Brooklyn and Queens over the years inspired the plan’s foundation, but there are several important differences, among them the fact that the vans will pick up and drop off riders at fixed stops, rather than roaming freely as the vans now often do. The vans will also be required to carry adequate insurance and be driven by specially certified drivers, also in contrast with troublesome unlicensed vans…

The vans, which will hold between six and 20 passengers, will be clearly marked for easy identification. Pick-up and drop-off locations will be marked with signs from the Department of Transportation. In order to maximize convenience for passengers, drop-offs can occur either at the fixed stops or at other locations negotiated with drivers. Those concerned about unlicensed “rogue” vans will be pleased to know that this effort will be accompanied by a strict enforcement plan coordinated jointly by the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the NYPD.

To read Samuelsen’s piece is to transport back in time two months to an era before the service cuts. This dollar-van program, sponsored entirely by the city, is not a union-busting effort aimed at undercutting the MTA. Considering how Albany treats the MTA, it certainly can’t be undercut more than it already has been. It’s not some plot to put transit riders in harm’s way, and it’s not designed to eliminate commuter jobs. But that’s what Samuelsen fears. In the past, he’s said that TWU members should be the ones driving the vans, and now, he uses a populist approach — handicapped accessibility and senior citizen accommodations — to attempt to undercut the city. He didn’t stand with the MTA when the congestion pricing battle raged, and he hasn’t done much to use his position to secure better funding for the authority.

On the other hand, Yassky’s defense of the vans is far from perfect. It’s true that the city has targeted a few high-traffic former bus routes for implementation. It’s true that the TLC — not exactly thorough with its own taxi regulations — will enforce and oversee insurance and safety regulations. But it’s also true that the city hasn’t fulfilled its end of the funding deal with the MTA. Mayor Bloomberg barely raised a finger to find more money for the cash-strapped authority leading up to the service cuts, and his best plan has been to replace six bus routes with some dollar van service. It is an outcome that is far from ideal.

Right now, the dollar vans are a necessary evil, but privatization of a public transit network tends to run counter to the goals of that public transit network. Instead of offering services everywhere, privatized companies offer service only along profitable routes, and that’s what the TLC will do with their dollar-van trial. When the program kicks off on August 16, the union will protest, the city will defend, and the MTA will look on in vain as companies not beholden to others for their funding will assume bus routes that shouldn’t have been cut had a sensible funding regime been in place.

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31 comments

Aaron August 9, 2010 - 2:48 am

In reality, this is an ADA lawsuit waiting to happen, now that the CIty has sanctioned them and brought them into the light – suing the van operators is probably like nailing jello to the wall, given their fly-by-night nature, but now that the City is basically permitting a new non-ADA transportation service, they’ve made themselves a defendant and it’s only a matter of time before the shit hits the fan. If I, as a disabled person, were along one of these routes, I’d probably be quite unhappy with the situation – basically, the City bought a lawsuit, and I can’t really figure out why. Will be interesting to see what remedy will be constructed – will the vans be shut down or will MTA busses return to the routes? Has the potential to create some interesting law, it’ll depend greatly on how the plaintiff(s) and court frame the issues.

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John Paul N. August 9, 2010 - 3:48 am

Couldn’t the City argue that they are still ADA-compliant if they continue to provide paratransit service to the affected areas?

Why the City continues to justify expensive paratransit and the subsidies that go along with it is beyond my comprehension. Unless the MTA unions also represent paratransit service, if those unions are smart, paratransit should be their target if they want to restore bus service, while reigning in costs.

Very few people have raised the comparison between paratransit and the Essential Air Service that subsidizes airline service to communities far from a major airport. Both are a waste of taxpayer money if the subsidies cover too many of the costs and heavily outweigh the revenue.

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John Paul N. August 9, 2010 - 3:49 am

(Intended as a response to Aaron above.)

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Alon Levy August 9, 2010 - 4:17 am

Not really – paratransit is incredibly inconvenient. You need to make an appointment, and they don’t even notify you when the van will get there exactly until the last moment.

Nowadays, the only thing that’s really ADA-compliant is having the entire transit system be transit-accessible. New York and a few other legacy cities negotiated with the ADA to let them keep most subway stations inaccessible but install elevators gradually. But what the ADA won’t accept is regression, replacing something accessible with something inaccessible.

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Aaron August 9, 2010 - 12:47 pm

Alon is correct. Paratransit is, as a general rule, for people who are within range of transit but who are unable to use it because of their disabilities, and was a compromise that MTA and other major cities asked for in exchange for not having to meet fairly short deadlines to become fully accessible – for all the complaining about the costs, MTA’s costs would’ve skyrocked if it had to make all 460 stations accessible by now. Most disabled people are not eligible for it, in reality, as even those who are not close to an accessible subway station are close to an accessible bus route now (believe it or not, MTA only fairly recently became fully accessible for busses, I know back in ’02 there were still a few routes running inaccessible busses, which just boggles the mind – they’re probably one of the last agencies to retire its inaccessible busses).

The MTA may soon be faced with this problem, and probably incur its own liability if they actually try to deny paratransit eligibility to individuals in these areas because they’re not within the proscribed range of transit (0.5 miles, as I recall). Frankly, I hope they’re not stupid enough to follow the City off of this cliff and they expand eligibility to people who are within 0.5 miles of these “commuter vans.” (I’m not honestly sure if MTA applies the distance test, as I can’t imagine there are all that many residential areas in NYC not within 0.5 miles of a bus route – they may find it administratively easier to not apply it seeing as that part of the test may never actually deny a person, although I suppose there may be parts of SI that qualify).

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Andrew August 14, 2010 - 9:42 pm

All New York City Transit buses have been ADA-compliant since the mid-1990’s – 1995, I think.

Some of the private bus companies used some noncompliant buses until they were taken over by MTA Bus, which continued to operate them until they were phased out around 2006.

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Aaron August 9, 2010 - 1:01 pm

BTW, Essential Air Service is incomparable to paratransit. With that, people do have alternatives (drive or take a bus to a city with a more profitable airport) even if that alternative sucks (excluding Alaska here, because Alaska is in a league of its own, and I believe has some additional state provisions such as the Marine Highway system). Paratransit, at its federal minimum, is for people who have no alternative – no other accessible transit in the area, and nobody with a brain is going to pick driving over paratransit if they can physically drive (and can afford to), even in Manhattan. I understand the point you’re trying to make, but as I said in my prior comment, the operators, when lobbying regarding the ADA back in ’90, basically picked paratransit over having to make their subway systems fully accessible. Kind of a bum deal for people like me, but I understand and appreciate the need for it.

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John Paul N. August 13, 2010 - 5:12 pm

I had read Alon’s and your comments on Monday, but I didn’t get a chance to reply b/c I’ve been busy this week.

I don’t have much to add except that I do understand now that paratransit eligibility is more stringent than I had thought, thanks for clarifying that for me.

Paratransit’s not a bad thing. But the news media highlights all of its abuses, e.g. people regularly using it to go to casinos (though they have the right, priority should go to people with more urgent needs like going to see a doctor), Access-A-Ride drivers sleeping in the middle of the day. People can take advantage of anything, but I’m less tolerant of this kind of misuse, if it occurs frequently.

If only the MTA had chosen, or had the ability, to prioritize subway accessibility over route extensions.

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Curious August 9, 2010 - 7:19 am

Funny how dollar vans are a “necessary evil” only made necessary by the evil of service cuts.

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Dollar Van Demos August 9, 2010 - 10:30 am

One good aspect of the dollar vans is that the money the generate stays in the community. The MTA sucks money from NYC, takes it upstate and only returns a fraction of the revenue along with dwindling services. Or they build an unnecessary stadium instead.

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Alon Levy August 9, 2010 - 1:43 pm

Really? What MTA revenue goes Upstate, specifically? It’s definitely not the fares; those go to operating about half the system.

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JebO August 10, 2010 - 8:29 pm

They build an unnecessary stadium? What are you talking about?

Actually, the exact opposite of what you’re saying is the truth. Sure, the MTA does pay to build some of its buses upstate. Where are dollar vans built? Overseas?

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[…] Dollar van debate: deregulation or privatization :: Second Ave. Sagas […]

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Al D August 9, 2010 - 10:45 am

I have 2 separate comments, directly and indirectly related to the post.

1. The City has little to no influence in the MTA. It is out-voted on the MTA Board. Therefore, its (the City’s) strategy is to not increase its funding of agency for which it has no control over, and instead take every opportunity to regain control, however small, over the city’s transit infrastructure. It seized this particular opportunity where the State/MTA has failed.

2. That fella Samuelsen, while funny with some sound bytes, “Wal-martization”, whatever that really means, is, like most people, venting his anger in the wrong place. I find it curious to read here (in the replies) and to believe myself that the State government, at least the Democratic Machine, is beholden to “Big Labor”, and yet the TWU suffers so at the hand of the State. So Samuelsen should drive, yes, drive, to Albany and sound-byte to his heart’s content at the correct audience if he truly had the best interest of his union members at heart.

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sharon August 9, 2010 - 12:32 pm

ever take a look at the twu titles pay rates before generous benefits. Impossible to provide affordable service when many workers get way above market rates. Higher than the same job at city agencies. Add to the fact that you have multiple cleaner titles just ment to pad the payrolls. The vans are the better way to go as long. Many routes have a short peak demand and then empty the rest of the day. Let the mta focus on providing service where it is really needed. Many of the brooklyn express bus routes should be replaced by vans . The mta should install more elevators at all renovated stations such as ave u, ave m, kings highway and sheaphead bay on the brighton. The cost of the elevators would be paid for by the cost savings of canning the express bus routes and the reduction in access a ride spending

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SEAN August 9, 2010 - 10:45 am

I’ve sene these vans in Edgewater, Guttenburg & North Bergen. Most of the drivers speed & are reckless. I refuse to board one knowing that a NJT bus will show up within 10 minutes of my arival at a bus stop. That is especially true along busy River Road.

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BrooklynBus August 9, 2010 - 11:42 am

I have several points to make. First of all the MTA has not been looking out in vain. They made a public statement in support of the vans. That was wrong. They should have remained silent. If they welcome the vans, that provides an incentive for them to discontinue more routes in the future which they might have kept, if they know vans will take them over. If the vans are successful, I can see the day where 25% of the low performing routes become van routes. This would be a poor idea if the fare you pay is now dependent on the routes you take, returning us to the non-sensical fare structure we once had prior to Metrocard where some lines transferred and others required extra fares.

Point 2. Why do the signs look like they have been in storage for 20 years? Has the TLC attempted this before? Also what is the difference between “No Standing” and No Standing Anytime”? There is none. Why does DOT have to make everything so confusing. Also these vans will not be operating 24 hours a day, so why should parking be banned at all times and not only when the vans are in operation?

Point 3. You are criticizing Samuelson unnecessarily. I think some of his fears are justified. It is not his job to appeal to Albany for more money. It is the MTA you should be criticizing for not publicizing the fact that the service cuts were necessitated by Albany slashing the funding. They remained silent prior to the public hearings. They didn’t even make an announcement prior to the first speaker that they forced into the cuts due to Albany. So speaker after speaker got up and blamed the MTA as if it was their doing. Much of the hostility toward them could have been avoided if in the months prior to the hearing they would have let it be known what Albany was doing which most people at the time were unaware of.

Also, perhaps Samuelson didn’t support congestion pricing because he didn’t think it was a good idea. Did that ever occur to you?

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ajedrez August 9, 2010 - 4:57 pm

With the SmartCard being implemented, maybe the MTA could work out a way of reimbursing the dollar vans for the fare. The MTA could install a farebox on the van, and reimburse the dollar van company $2 for every rider.
As far as Albany goes, the crowd would’ve just called the MTA a bunch of liars. It was published in the service reductions booklet and nobody cared.

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BrooklynBus August 10, 2010 - 7:49 pm

I was also thinking about reimbursement. I don’t know how it would work, but if it could work, then I have no problems with the vans if they are safe and regulated and could operated more efficiently than buses on lightly utilized routes. The only bad point is that the chance that routes like the B23 and B71 would ever be extended is reduced. There is a reason why those routes are lightly utilized. Another good point about the vans is that if successful, they could operate more frequently than buses.

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ajedrez August 10, 2010 - 9:54 pm

I see what you mean, but there might be some way of getting the dollar vans to take over a connecting route.
For example, the B23 connects with the B67 and B69 at Cortelyou Road/McDonald Avenue. The MTA could pay the operator to extend the dollar van route on to the B69 route.
As far as the B71 goes, the only route that it could realistically be combined with would be the B14, but that doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to be taken over, as it is relatively efficient.

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sharon August 9, 2010 - 12:26 pm

“He didn’t stand with the MTA when the congestion pricing battle raged, and he hasn’t done much to use his position to secure better funding for the authority.”

He did not support congestion pricing because his members are the ones who DRIVE TO work. The only people who drive to work are the ones who get off street or special permit parking

Drive by any depot or Coney island train yard tons of mta workers cars

Drive by a police or fire station cars parked on the side walk and in no standing zones

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BrooklynBus August 10, 2010 - 7:51 pm

But the MTA workers don’t illegally park and most park within the property.

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sharon August 12, 2010 - 12:27 am

true but how could he support a plan that would drive up the cost of his members commute to work. Not all transit workers live in the city or along a route that is easy to get to by public transit.

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Andrew August 14, 2010 - 9:44 pm

How many TWU workers drive to work within the (formerly) proposed congestion pricing zone?

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BrooklynBus August 17, 2010 - 10:30 pm

The ones that work at depot(s) within the congestion zone.

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Benjamin Kabak August 18, 2010 - 12:02 am

There is a solitary bus depot in the congestion pricing zone. One. That’s it.

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rhywun August 10, 2010 - 11:13 pm

For once I agree with the union – they are right to fear for their jobs. In this economy – and I have a feeling the state of the economy is rather more dire than politicians are letting on -, we simply can’t afford the generous salaries and benefits that union workers won during better times. Meanwhile, the hordes of immigrants arriving in town, and continuing to offset the loss of the city’s middle class and in fact drive the population to record numbers, are looking like an increasingly attractive source of cheap labor. Some won’t like it but that is the future – unless another cycle of Wall Street and Main Street bubbles comes along and manages to delay the inevitable a few more years.

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sharon August 12, 2010 - 12:32 am

The TWu workers DESERVE a fair pay and job security but it is the work rules more than the salaries that is the problem

The middle class is moving out because the high taxes have driven out their employers . The area I live in is now 70% 1st generation asian immigrants home owners and mexicans who pay far less taxes and have more children then the departing Italians.

The TWU 11% raise with no give backs that the arbitrator awarded was criminal NY payoff scheme . After all the layoffs the MTA payroll is still HIGHER than last year. Crazy

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sharon August 12, 2010 - 12:36 am

Expanding OPTO to half length train at 15 min wait is a boon for riders, many who need connections and would save some cost as you are running fewer cars overall and employees. Can be rolled out with no layoffs the air conditioning alone cost 40% of the electrical cost of running a train(source bombardair rail)

The union has said NO for 10 years

Broad banding of maintenance titles which has be put foward by the MTA 10 years ago would have saved money, improve service and could have been done with no layoffs over time

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The TWU’s approach to dollar vans: Join ‘em and sue ‘em :: Second Ave. Sagas August 12, 2010 - 1:35 am

[…] to privatize these bus routes, TWU President John Samuelsen has called these replacement offerings the Wal-Mar-tization of transit. The vans, he alleges, are unsafe and undercut union jobs and should not be embraced by New Yorkers […]

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zurlita August 17, 2010 - 1:08 am

I have traveled all over Europe and Canada and, unfortunately, I have to admit that we have the worst public transportation. Even the poorest European countries (the ex-communist ones) have a better public transportation than our. I will briefly present you several big differences between their and our public transportation.

Their public transportation system is like a spider web where the buses, trolleybuses, microbuses, trams and subways lines are intersecting each other, making easy to cross large distances in few minutes. Here all buses go to New York. If you want to travel from Maywood to Elizabeth, instead of going straight, you have to go to New York for a connection, which takes you more time and more money.

The system in Europe is integrated and you can use the same kind of pass on all means of transportation. People buy the pass from the vending machines available at all stops. They board let’s say the bus and validate their passes at a small machine that prints the date and time of boarding. The public transport system employs controllers who board the buses randomly, but frequently in order to check who has or doesn’t have the valid pass. Those who don’t have a valid pass are charged a penalty fee equivalent with the price of 100 passes. Here we spend too much time on boarding until every person pays the fare, gets back the change from the driver, and so on.

At every bus stop you can find posted the schedule of all lines that serve that stop. Here I found a bus stop in front of the Police in Rochelle Park that didn’t mention what bus line was stopping there. I wrote about this to MTA and they addressed this issue after few months. And I have reasons to believe that this wasn’t a singular case.

Information about the prices, routes, connections etc. are available in several languages or at least in English, even though in Europe English is the official language only in Great Britain.

But the most important aspect is that the buses/trolleybuses/microbuses/trams/subways run frequently there. People don’t need to wait for more than 3-5 minutes during the day and 10-15 minutes between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to get a ride. Here the buses run one or two per hour. When you arrive at the bus stop you don’t know if you just missed the bus and you have to wait for another hour or maybe the next bus will come in 2 minutes. This is because there is no visible schedule at the bus stop except for the terminals and Garden State Plaza stop.

The price is probably as important as the frequency of running. Well, in Europe the public transportation is cheap. You can ride the bus for two hours for no more than the equivalent of 0,5-2 dollars (depends on which country). Here you pay this money only for crossing the Tunnel in 10 minutes.

I don’t discuss now about how old, noisy, and polluting are our buses. This kind of buses used to run in Europe during the ‘70s and now you can see them only at museums. But this is another discussion…

I’ve heard voices saying that the public transportation here is expensive because there aren’t enough customers. Well, if the services provided by MTA are so poor and inefficient, why are you surprised that people prefer the dollar vans? Maybe this alternative to MTA is not very comfortable, but at least it serves the population faster and cheaper. Anyway, I wish all those reading these comments to have the chance to travel using the public transportation in Europe and Canada to see how backward we are in this area.

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