Dollar vans, the ubiquitous and sometimes-legal shuttles frequenting Brooklyn and Queens, are on track for their latest set of regulations. The vans, which first popped up during the 1980 transit strike and came under city oversight as “commuter vans” in 1993, are typically faster than the bus but less expensive than taxis and for-hire vehicles.
The vans have been required to prominently display a decal and license number from the Taxi and Limousine Commission since 2015, when there were 49 authorized companies operating 585 vans, according to TLC. Under a plan that unanimously passed the City Council transportation committee yesterday, dollar van licenses would be capped at 735, and TLC would have the authority to increase the number of licenses once it completes a study of the industry by July of this year.
The study, required to be updated annually, would look at both legal and illegal operators, examining routing, ridership, and safety.
It wouldn’t be the first time the city has chewed over the issue: A Giuliani administration report, mandated by the City Council in 1997, claimed the city could sustain additional van service without hurting the ridership of MTA bus routes, which unlike the vans are operated by unionized workers.
Residents in neighborhoods served by the vans often complain about dangerous driving, particularly by illegal operators. A second bill that cleared the committee yesterday would establish a criminal penalty for unlicensed commuter van operation, including up to sixty days in jail, and double existing civil penalties for the violation.
“There have been many concerns about commuter vans throughout the boroughs and particularly in southeast Queens,” said Councilmember I. Daneek Miller, lead sponsor of both bills. “This legislation will help us will help us solve the dilemma and bring some much needed controls to an often-unregulated industry.”
A third bill, from Councilmember Jumaane Williams, would actually wipe away outdated regulations on the industry, eliminating the requirement for operators to produce “public support statements” before they are granted a license, but retaining the requirement for the Department of Transportation to approve each route’s necessity and notify affected councilmembers and community boards.
It also eliminates the requirement for dollar van operators to carry a passenger manifest, since in practice dollar van rides are rarely, if ever, pre-arranged.
Ultimately, responsibility for cracking down on dangerous and unlicensed van drivers rests with NYPD. “They weren’t really involved in the bills themselves, but we have a constant dialogue,” Williams said.
The bills got their first hearing in October 2015, before behind-the-scenes negotiations took over. The de Blasio administration was generally supportive of the bills at the 2015 hearing, while offering lots of suggested changes. Asked why it took nearly fifteen months for the bills to re-emerge for a vote, Williams was mum. “It was a long time in the oven,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s here now.”
“We very much appreciate working with the City Council to increase safety in the commuter van industry by supporting the licensed commuter van industry,” said TLC spokesperson Allan Fromberg.
The legislation is expected to clear the full council later today.