The drivers that the Rockaway Advocate interviewed for this piece spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, so their names do not appear here.
The Rockaways know the Dollar Van as something that has been a part of the community for years. Though they provide transportation service where the MTA doesn’t, van drivers don’t feel appreciated or safe in the community they’ve been serving for over three decades.
On April 1, 1980, the MTA drivers held an 11-day citywide transit strike in response to not receiving a pay raise in six years. During those 11 days, people in the neighborhood began driving around and picking up residents for the same price as the bus, which at the time was $1.00. This improvised carpool service made transportation easy and efficient during the strike, even without a regular schedule. After the strike, the buses/trains began to run again, but the new business of the Dollar Van had been established.
Since its appearance in the 80s, the only two things that have changed about the Dollar Van is that fare is now $2.00 and drivers now have a special license. Currently, someone in possession of a van needs to obtain a “Commuter Van License”, a “TLC License” and an updated driver’s license. These licenses can cost up to $500 due to exam fees. The extreme cost of these licenses makes it difficult for drivers to make ends meet. Especially after De Blasio’s policy on illegal commuter vans, drivers are finding it difficult to pay for the large fees: “I can’t find employment in other places, but I can’t afford all of the licenses and exams.” “I have a family to feed, the last thing I’m worried about is license payments.” stated van driver.
The confusion that the Dollar Vans are being pushed out when the MTA strike created the business. “God forbid, the MTA decides to strike again tomorrow. Who’s going to transport the 10 million people in the city? Only us.” said van driver. Dollar Vans have served the community for over 30 years and yet there’s a lack of respect for that legacy.
The government is paying attention to the dollar vans, but not to give them more freedom to run a legitimate business. Due to a rise in traffic accidents involving dollar vans, Mayor De Blasio realized that there needed to be some regulation for the unofficial commuter vans. The “Commuter Safety Van Act” keeps track of how many licensed commuter vans are on the roads and increases the fines for illegally operating vans. This legislation came into existence after a fatal hit and run on Rosedale involving a Dollar Van. With the support of other elected officials, the act was passed in 2017. The voices of elected officials seem to only be heard when there’s an entire peninsula who have an opinion on the matter.
A longtime Rockaway-resident has seen the pros and cons of Dollar Vans and believes that they do provide a service the MTA is lacking. “They are extremely convenient to the community. Even during Superstorm Sandy, they were still on the road when the MTA couldn’t get past the trees that fell down,” one community member told the Advocate. Despite their convenience, she noted the danger that Dollar Vans possess when they aren’t licensed or driving along bus routes, or putting passengers in danger: “Most of these vans aren’t licensed and cause some sort of ruckus when they are waiting for customers.”
When the public hears about dollar van drivers, it’s usually the unfavorable opinions that get the spotlight, but it’s also true that most of these drivers are just trying to put food on the table. Most van drivers get involved in the business due to employers are not hiring them. Given the lack of economic opportunity that they experience, they try to save as much money as they can. Due to the rising price of licenses, some drivers are forced to drive illegally in order to bring money home. Even so, there are benefits to driving a dollar van — such as the appeal of being your own boss. “The job is extremely lucrative! I’m my own boss and I have the option to leave when I want and to come back when I feel like it,” said one driver.
Being a Dollar Van driver does give a sense of independence to the drivers, but that comes with unwritten rules in order to even join. When somebody wants to become a Dollar Van driver, they can’t just purchase/rent a van and follow the route of drivers. The community is tight-knit and internally structured — even though the structure is hard to understand looking from the outside in, there are set rules in place to defend it. One of those rules is that you need to know a current driver and ask to join the business. “If somebody were to randomly be a driver, current drivers usually start with a verbal warning then sometimes they’ll take parts of the car away,” one driver reported. There’s even a set order of which vans pick up passengers at different times so that each driver gets their share of paying customers. The rules are in place to keep the business sustainable for all the drivers — so that drivers don’t have to be in constant competition for passengers and curb space.
Despite all the internal order, for some drivers, there’s still a sense of danger — from trying to work with the police to working out drama between drivers. According to the drivers, The 100th and 101st precinct cause a lot of conflict for the business. “There’s always harassment when it comes to the police – we’re always being pulled over,” stated one driver. In a climate of police brutality, drivers feel especially cautious when being pulled over by police officers. Further, some drivers feel that they are in constant danger from not knowing who’s getting in their vans. “Someone can shoot or stab you from behind,” one driver stated.
“Set your van on fire, take the wheels off your van, break all your windows take all the stuff out of it and just leave you with a shell.” said one driver
Despite all the challenges that dollar van drivers experience, it’s the money that brings them back. “This is a business – one that helps me pay the bills! I won’t be forced to leave because we’re being a ‘problem’” said a driver. Even as the political climate around the vans changes, it doesn’t seem that dollar vans are going anywhere.
~by SHENECA SHARPE