Commuter van stops, such as the one shown here in Queens, could become more prevalent. (Photo via flickr user AllWaysNY)
In five days, the MTA will pull the plug on numerous bus routes throughout the city, and all of a sudden, denizens of neighborhoods with little subway access will find themselves without the buses upon which they rely for everyday life. To fill the void, New York City will try to turn to the so-called dollar vans that have long operated below the radar. The plan, announced yesterday, is a controversial one with labor opposed to it and politicians wary of an unregulated industry, but it just might be the first step toward a better public-private partnership for transit in New York City.
The details are, for now, simple. The city will start a year-long pilot program under the aegis of David Yassky and the Taxi & Limousin Commission that will add three to six new commuter van lines in Brooklyn and Queens. The vans will replace buses lost to the MTA’s service cuts, and the mayor — who erroneously claimed that “nobody has been out there screaming for more money for the M.T.A. more than I have” — hopes the vans will encourage transit use. “The issue here is not whether it’s more expensive or less expensive,” he said at a press conference. “It’s whether the service exists or not.”
This plan is not without drawbacks and controversies. First, as Fernanda Santos of The Times notes, because this is, in essence, a privatization plan not run by the MTA, subway-bound commuters will have to pay for the two-dollar van rides and then pay for the connecting MetroCard swipe as well. The buses provided a free transfer to other New York City Transit-operated modes of travel.
More pressing though are the concerns of labor. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056 represents bus drivers in Queens, and already its officials have proclaimed that private commuter vans are “clearly not the answer.” According to union president I. Dankee Miller, a lack of industry regulation and oversight leaves passengers exposed to safety risks. In essence, the union is concerned that a successful commuter van program will jeopardize the livelihood of its bus-driving members.
On the other hand, the van owners and drivers themselves recognize the need for more government city and regulation. Noting that vans can never replace buses, one owner bemoaned the union protests. “It is unfortunate that the unions have this on an either-or situation,” Hector Ricketts said.
For now, though, the labor battle is neither here nor there, and this first step should be viewed as a victory for transit advocates who have been pushing the city to expand its potential offerings. Over at Cap’n Transit Rides Again, Cap’n Transit has been pushing for expanded commuter van offerings as the MTA’s service cuts have come into view. Today, he pens a detailed post about the new transit offerings. He writes of the plan — which also includes a $6 York Ave. taxi share program:
It occurred to me that this could be the culmination of a longstanding plot to privatize bus service, or some kind of brinksmanship to get real transit funding out of the legislature, but I think the best explanation is that the Mayor has come to the realization that Silver and Sampson will never properly fund the MTA. He sees it as a managerial challenge to provide good transit for the city, and if he gets to boost private companies and weaken a union or two, so much the better.
I have a few concerns with this plan, though. The first is the suitability of the routes. If they’ve been cut for low ridership, how does the Mayor expect them to work? Jitneys and taxis have lower overhead, but they can’t conjure up profits out of thin air. If the routes were eliminated because they duplicated other routes, then the jitneys will probably succeed. If they are the only transit route to a given place, they stand a good chance of failing.
The second concern is that this would widen the existing divide between the “haves” (Manhattanites with $6 share taxis) and the “have-nots” (outer borough residents with $2 vans). It would establish two tiers of transit service to correspond to the existing two tiers of taxi service, and re-establish the two-fare zone.
This would be okay only if these two pilots eventually merge with the MTA into a single system that would include a range of well-regulated options overlapping throughout the city, from private taxis to share taxis to jitneys to scheduled buses, eventually accepting Metrocards or their smart card replacements and allowing free transfers. Most importantly, it would include quality van service for upscale passengers who are willing to pay a premium to avoid lowest-common-denominator transit.
For those of us who want to see commuter van service emerge as a viable complement to MTA bus services, the Cap’n lays out a list of seven conditions which must apply. These range from tight oversight by Yassky and the TLC; the ability of vans to duplicate existing bus routes; an eventual free transfer between vans and NYC Transit-operated subways and buses; and dedicated lanes for high-occupancy public transit vehicles. The end goal would result in better transit for everyone.
For now, this new plan is but a first step. David Yassky has hoped to expand taxi-like offerings in the outer boroughs, and the commuter vans can accomplish this at a cost to riders that’s lower than a ride in a yellow cab. This move also helps the city pick up the slack that is sure to emerge from this weekend’s service cuts. Only with proper expansion, oversight and control, though, will commuter vans emerge as another viable transit modality in New York City.