The New Yorker Maps NYC’s Shadow Transit System

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Aaron Reiss explores New York City’s shadow transportation system – a network of so-called “dollar vans” that serve mostly low- income areas with large immigrant communities. The system lacks “service maps, posted timetables, and official stations or stops,” but Ross uses interactive maps and videos made with Nate Lavey to detail routes in Chinatown, Flatbush, Eastern Queens, Eastern New Jersey, and the Bronx.

Not too surprisingly, this ingenious shadow system faces serious regulatory obstacles. Vans have had a long and tumultuous regulatory history, with oversight changing hands several times in the past thirty or so years and the largely immigrant drivers facing police harassment. Since 1994, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has been issuing van licenses, allowing vehicles to serve parts of the city with sufficient public need. Still, the number of illegal, unlicensed vans continues to outstrip by far the 481 licensed ones. The licensed vans operate under highly restrictive rules, which forbid them from picking up along New York City’s innumerable bus routes and require all pick-ups to be prearranged and documented in a passenger manifest.

In August last year Sean Malone of the Charles Koch Institute spoke to Reason TV about a film he had made featuring a Jamaican immigrant, Hector Ricketts, who faced regulatory hurdles after starting a commuter van service that transported healthcare workers to New York City’s outer boroughs. Thankfully, with the help of the Institute for Justice, Ricketts was allowed to stay in business.

Reiss’s article and Malone’s film both highlight the perversities of regulations that shield traditional public transit from competition in a free market. You might think that policymakers concerned with improving opportunities in low-income areas would want to celebrate and encourage the entrepreneurial initiative and community service represented by “dollar vans” and the service run by Hector Ricketts. Instead, they choose to chase such enterprising service providers into the legal shadows.