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.