NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The (Illegal) Private Bus System that Works

October 11, 2011

Privately-owned mini-transit entrepreneurs, such as the dollar van fleet, are giving people alternative ways to get around and are creating jobs, says The Atlantic.

  • In Brooklyn, almost all of the dollar vans are Ford E350s, with a high body and side doors and enough seats in the back to hold 14 people.
  • At $2 a ride, one operator needs to get 14 people in the van on the 5.6 mile trip from downtown Brooklyn to King's Highway to turn a profit.

While some people worry that dollar vans pick up passengers who would otherwise ride the bus, dollar vans seem to complement the bus service.  Their advantages include being a lot faster than public transit and van drivers waiting for regular riders to arrive.

However, the service is technically illegal.  While most its operators are fully licensed, insured and have proper inspection for their vehicles, the vans are prohibited from doing the one thing they really do -- picking up passengers off the street

  • In 1993, New York outlawed dollar vans entirely.
  • It took the intervention of some activist van owners with the help of the Institute for Justice to get them legalized.

What's interesting about dollar vans is that they could gravitate to where the riders are and where they want to go faster than public transit, which requires more infrastructure and meetings.  In some cities, bus routes have histories going back decades, and they don't change to reflect how people's lives and work habits have changed.

Source: Lisa Margonelli, "The (Illegal) Private Bus System that Works," The Atlantic, October 5, 2011.

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