Thousands of commuters rely on dollar vans, NYC’s other transit system

Each dollar van driver has their own style — some greet riders with the radio station of the driver's choice, while others have TVs that play movies.  Eagle  photos by Angel Torres.

Each dollar van driver has their own style — some greet riders with the radio station of the driver's choice, while others have TVs that play movies. Eagle photos by Angel Torres.

By Angel Torres

Special to the Eagle

The Jamaica Center transit hub can be a chaotic place, especially for someone unfamiliar with the area.

A total of 28 bus lines stop at the station. So do three different subways and the Long Island Railroad.

There’s also a lesser known, but equally important, mode of transportation: the “dollar van,” which makes up Queens’ sprawling alternative transit network. For many commuters, the vans are the most efficient — and sometimes only — way to get home.

Throughout the day, dozens of dollar van drivers park outside Jamaica Center and shout destinations like “Rosedale,” “Q5” or “Q4,” their voices cutting through the dense crowds. Jamaica commuters have become familiar with the shouting drivers, as well as their vital function.

Dollar vans are large vehicles that provide a taxi carpooling service for New Yorkers, especially residents of “transit deserts” with little access to reliable public transportation. The dollar van name is slightly misleading: A trip usually costs $2 — still 75 cents less than a MetroCard swipe.

The vans often drive along the same routes as buses, and van networks exist in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and the boroughs' Chinatown. The dollar vans — licensed and unlicensed — can transport more than 20 passengers at a time, and operate via a word-of-mouth system that depends on the loyalty of the communities they serve.

“Most of the van clients, I would say, are Carribean folks, Afro-Americans, Spanish,” said an unlicensed driver who asked to remain anonymous. “Folks want to get home to their houses to avoid being robbed or whatever, and the vans will drop them off at their houses, So there’s an element of reduced crime in the neighborhoods. Because of the vans, there’s an element of safety.”

A loyal following

The vans first began serving New York City neighborhoods in the 1980s when a transit strike complicated commutes for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, according to a 2018 New York Times article. The idea stuck and the vans developed a loyal following.

“[People] take the vans so they can get to work faster than the bus because the vans don’t stop regular like the bus,” said David Clarke, a driver who has driven folks through Rosedale for about 20 years. “And if there’s traffic, the driver can take a back street coming to the subway to let them out. It’s faster and more reliable.”

The Queens dollar vans line up at the corner of Parsons Boulevard and Archer Avenue in Jamaica, where passengers get on by simply approaching the drivers and handing them a couple bucks.

Hailing a van on their route is much like hailing a yellow taxi — passengers will stand on street corners and stick their hands out to signal that they need a ride. Once inside the vans, riders are often greeted with music of the driver’s choice. There’s no “Stop Request” button — getting out means yelling the name of the street where you want to exit, or saying words like “corner” or “at the light” to the driver.

“Taking a van is interesting,” said Roxanne Lim, a 23-year-old Queens resident who often commutes via dollar van. “If you’re new, you kind of have to figure out where to stand. They usually pick out straphangers, cause you’re standing awkwardly on the corner ... Vans will usually pass by and honk and you can flag them down by waving at them.”

A dollar van parked near Jamaica Center.

A dollar van parked near Jamaica Center.

Though the vans course the same routes as MTA buses, they have a reputation for being faster and more reliable, which keeps them in business.

“Most people that I go out with, they go, ‘Oh, let’s just take the van.’ We don’t really say, ‘Let’s take the bus’ anymore,” said Jamal Morrissey, a 21-year-old Rosedale resident who was introduced to the vans two years ago.“The bus is for me — if I have to get to school and there’s no vans out here, then maybe I’ll take the bus. The vans are also 75 cents cheaper.”

Vital drivers face financial burden, competition

Despite their loyal following, the van drivers face hardships when it comes to staying in business.

A van driver first has to get licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. The license costs $550, according to the TLC website. After getting a license, a driver needs to get their van insured, which can cost around $15,000 a year, Clarke and several van drivers told the Eagle.

There are currently 269 licensed vans operating in the city, according to NY1, but because of the steep costs of maintaining a license, many van drivers choose to go unlicensed by the TLC, which creates competition between licensed and unlicensed drivers.

Clarke runs a fleet of three vans and said he transports an average of 150 passengers per day. But the costs add up quickly, he said.

Clarke said the price of parts, gas and insurance, combined with the loss of passengers to unlicensed vans, make it hard to earn a profit.

“I would park down [at Jamaica Center] for hours and you don’t even get two passengers, you have to drive empty. And when you go to Rosedale … the unlicensed vans come and they run the lights,” Clarke said. “It don’t even make sense to come here and work a licensed van, because you come out here and you burn the gas and you burn the labor and you don’t make not even $50 to go home to. And you have the insurance where you pay $1,500 a month, and then you have to pay for your parts, you have to buy lunch, you have to buy gas, so it’s a big deficit in the economy for us right now.”

The only visual difference between a licensed and unlicensed van is a blue sticker provided by the TLC on the licensed vans, but Lim said the unlicensed vehicles are easy to spot.

“Similarly to the taxi cabs, I think it’s kind of easy to know which are licensed or unlicensed based on visual cues,” Lim said, adding that she and most riders don’t go out of their way to take licensed vans.

Filling the transit gap

Whether licensed or unlicensed, the van network in New York City has a dedicated following of around 100,000 passengers a day, the Times reported in 2018.

“To most people that don’t know the vans it seems very shady, but for people who live in the area, it’s a well-known convenient thing,” said Rudy Howell, a Rosedale native who’s been taking dollar vans for 17 years. “As you get used to it, you get to recognize some of the drivers because it's usually the same people driving the same routes and they’ll sometimes take you where buses won’t. They’re a nice little part of the Rosedale community.”

At night, the vans will leave at the same times as the buses, as if competing to show the riders that they’re guaranteed to get home first.

Convenience and community aside, the vans also provide safety.

Vans operate on the hours set by drivers, and some are known to work late at night and into the morning, providing safe passage to Queens residents.

“The van is a very big entity to the community because sometimes a passenger wants to go door to door and the van takes them,” Clarke said. “Sometimes the person come and they don’t even have $2, but we still take them, because we’re a part of the community. The community is our family.”