DMV to Internet-less New Yorkers: Get in Line


In February, the New York State DMV launched a revamped website capable of processing a bevy of transactions without requiring that dreaded visit to a DMV office. To expedite those transactions that still require in-person processing, the site offers a quick and easy online reservation system, with many same-day appointments available.

The new system is nothing short of revolutionary — that is, if you’ve heard of it.

After checking in, those with reservations receive call numbers near the top of the waiting list, essentially jumping the line.

And those who have already been waiting — in person — for hours because they didn’t make reservations? Their wait gets longer.

Basheem “Bar” Graham, 38, recently waited three hours to submit his paperwork for a state ID at the Brooklyn-Atlantic Center DMV. Graham, a construction worker fom East New York, Brooklyn said he was “appalled” upon learning that the waiting list had stopped moving because people with reservations were arriving.

He complained to a supervisor, who told him, “You’re the only one with the power to change things.”

Fabiola Quiñones, a charter-school teacher, described her anger as “level 25,000” after waiting four hours while others zipped through their transactions only minutes after arriving.

In theory, the setup is like that of Apple’s Genius Bar, with walk-ins given low priority to encourage reservations — except the DMV’s clientele isn’t entirely internet-savvy or even connected. In fact, the system could engender stark race, age, and class disparities in access to a basic government service. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, non-white, older, and poorer Americans were far less likely to use the internet than their wealthy, young, and white counterparts.

There is no offline alternative for making reservations in the DMV’s new system.

The challenge of maximizing efficiency through technology while ensuring fairness in the system is considerable.

Jackie McGinnis, a DMV spokesperson, tells the Voice that anyone who is able to visit a branch in person is also able to access the internet — somewhere. “Everyone has access to computers through libraries and other locations, even if they don’t own one,” she said.

Of course, having access to a computer and actually using one are two different things.

Natalie Helbig, a researcher at the Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany, argues the question is not whether the system is fair now, but whether it will broaden its reach going forward, and what efforts New York undertakes to make that happen.

The DMV’s announcement of the system was buried in a press release about the entire slate of changes to the agency’s website. The agency bought Google ads and promoted the system at public events. It also uploaded a PSA in English and in Spanish to YouTube, but conducted no further multilingual outreach. The spokesperson said that signage regarding the reservations was posted in DMV offices, but none was visible at the Brooklyn-Atlantic Center location. (A note about the system was written on a chalkboard posted inside the Midtown office.) The spokesperson also said that the DMV has customer service representatives present at each branch to suggest reservations to complaining customers, but none working during two recent visits by the Voice did so. Also, there was no way to make a reservation at the office.

“Right now, it may look like [the system] is reinforcing the divide, with the people who are more educated, more connected, getting better service,” said Helbig. “My question is, what would happen over time? Look at other states.”

In addition to New York, motor vehicle departments in seven states across the country accept reservations for all in-person services, and many more offer appointments for road tests.

California, where an online reservation system has been operating since 2010, has seen a significant increase in usage over the years, says Jessica Gonzalez, an agency spokesperson. She attributed the rise to the state’s robust bilingual media campaign, which included a PSA that was broadcast on the radio and played in movie theaters, and outreach to reporters at English- and Spanish-language newspapers.

In Kansas, the Department of Revenue (which regulates motor vehicles) allows users to either call or text to obtain their place on the wait list, so that those who do not use the internet may still benefit. The agency advertises its reservation system on the postcard reminders it sends to those with expiring licenses or registration.

As with any marketing campaign, word of mouth might be the most effective tool. After finally submitting his paperwork, Graham stuck around the DMV to recommend the reservation system to strangers facing similar wait times.

See also: Here Are All the Words You’re Not Allowed to Put on a Vanity Plate in New York