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Dollar vans, NYC’s other transit system (queenseagle.com)
103 points by panic 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

A NYC redditor posted a fascinating how-to about Dollar Vans 6 months ago: https://www.reddit.com/r/nyc/comments/ap4t6k/dont_be_intimid...

The model of having large vehicles that pick up a bunch of people, but drop each person off exactly at their doorstep, is something that has been repeatedly proposed for self-driving vehicles in the future (by Tesla and others). I wonder if these dollar vans provide clues about what such a system could look like at an even larger scale.

Most of the reason this works is because vans usually have a mid-range capacity between a car and a bus (10-20 people). 4-seater cars are not economical to do like this, and buses are too big to fill up, and when they're full everyone wants to get off at every stop. The vans with their smaller capacity fill up fast and then only drive to let people off.

Judging by the way dollar vans and similar minibus manifestations work in other places I've been to, there are a couple of things to note here:

- They're not purely pickup/dropoff at the house. They're dropoff at the house, but to pick up you have to walk to the street where they're all usually running. And one end of it is a major pickup location; in the case of these vans, usually a subway station.

- Because they only drive off when full, they only make trips where one end of the route is a major pickup location, creating a hub-and-spoke network. Traveling between spokes is something that these vans do very poorly, because there aren't nearly as many people doing that.

- At said major pickup point, they will usually cause major traffic congestion as they weave in and out of traffic and around each other. Several cities in South America (e.g. Bogota) replaced minibus-only systems with BRT or more formalized public transport because of the benefits of reducing congestion.

This is exactly how transport worked when I was a kid in India.

A nearby city is hub of everything, doctor, shops, food, fashion, ration everything. 15-20 villages are between the next similar city. A single bus starts from City A, usually empty in morning, & picks along people on the way to City B. There,it turns around, & conductors start shouting City A & Villages names, along with dramatic words like Leaving Soon, Hurry Up, Almost Full, Lets Go, Run etc. But it will run only at either its designated time, or if full, whichever is earlier.

This sounds a bit like the inter-city taxi system in Morocco. There's a central taxi park where you go and drivers call out their destination and number of seats remaining. When the taxi is full (or its getting close to the end of the day), it goes. They'll drop you at your specific destination in the other city.

They call these "Grand" taxis. There are also "little" taxis you can take within the city and hire on an individual basis (i.e. you don't need to wait for them to fill up).

This is exactly what we have in Seattle in 3 areas so far. It's a last few mile official transit van. You can go from your house (in about a 3 mile radius) to a park and ride, or from the p&r to your house. They have an app that is like lyft. They scan your bus card. If you ride the bus before or after this it's just a free transfer. The vans hold up to maybe 8 people but usually just have at most 4 or 5.

The main precious resource they are saving is parking at the park and ride centers. In Seattle the p&r sites fill up ever earlier, and inability to park when you get there means you face driving to seattle and paying a large amount of money.

Most of South America has this system, among other names, they're called Combis. Back in '12 my buddy and I accidentally got on a long distance Combi instead of a bus between Cartagena and Santa Marta, about 150 miles, cost us maybe $8 each. They run on urban inner city routes too of course. It's how most of the continent gets around outside of capital cities.

Dollar vans (at least in NYC) don't drop you off "exactly at your doorstep". They will let you off anywhere along the route, but they don't deviate significantly from the route to get to your destination. Most people walk a bit to get to/from the route.

Sounds a bit like Marshrutkas, which are cheap vans that function as the primary “public transit” system in many post-Soviet cities.


I spent a lot of summers as a child in Georgia, and have fond memories of these. At least before the old transit-style vans/minibuses were replaced with proper, licensed buses.

There was no occupancy limit. The limit is however many people can squeeze into the thing. Bench seats were common, so lots of squeezing.

Prices were cheap beyond comparison. $0.05-$0.10 per person to get on any of the city lines, a marshrutka to a town 6 hours away might cost $2-5

At least before the internet was commonplace, there weren't any maps of marshrutka lines anywhere. People knew which lines went where or asked friends. Failing that you pull the first one you see over and ask.

Tbilisi roads are insane, marshrutka drivers were on a whole other level. Minivans are really not designed to be floored from every light and thrown into corners. There's a reason nobody cycled on the road there and motorbikes were just as rare: you really do not want to share the road with marshrutka drivers.

To my knowledge, there were zero regulations. Sometimes after flagging one down, you'd hear some really uncomfortable sounds coming from the brakes, or a tyre with visible ply, or a driver who's clearly tipsy, and decide not to risk it.

Gallineras (or just "bus") or chicken buses are this concept as a (beautiful) school bus in central and some central American countries. As well as "collectivos" which are the van version.


Chicken buses are awesome. I’ve been on the one from the second picture in Nicaragua. Someone even had a chicken. The best part is most of them still have US school system wording on the side. I remember seeing “School System of Milwaukee” or something similar.

See also the see also section of that article - share taxis are perhaps the most universal form of public transport. Wherever there is a gap in formal public transport provision, there'll be a guy with a minibus driving a loose approximation of a regular route.


Blue and white ones, a little boxier than these, are called minibuses in Turkey. Cheap, follows a route, but has no predetermined stops except for the initial and terminal ones.

I use these in Bulgaria. Mini busses for less than a buck. Great.

or matatus in east africa.

Or tro tros in west Africa.

I thought they were talking about the jitney buses run by companies like Spanish Transit from Paterson <-> NYC. They're absolutely vital means of transport when the trains are reliably behind schedule (as they currently almost always are) or when the NJTransit buses aren't running on time because of some unknown issue.

I wish they would expand their offerings, because I live and work at two major points of their routes (except that it's different routes) and if they closed the triangle, I'd be able to avoid using Uber or Lyft.

`vital means of transport` - definitely disagree here, those "buses" are also dangerous (constant harassment) and also no AC in the summer, drivers openly smoke while driving with passengers in those. I would think those vans are a horrible way of commuting and local authorities don't inspect or monitor those at all.

Never had a driver who smoked yet. On the other hand, tell me something, how do you get from Paterson or Passaic to NYC or Union City in less than an hour and at an affordable rate? NJTransit is slow whether it's train or bus, and they're at the absolute upper limit of being affordable. When I say they're vital, I absolutely mean it. For those of who have relied on the buses in and out of the City, the NJTransit option simply isn't viable on a daily basis compared to far more reliable and numerous jitneys. Uber & Lyft are simply out of the question on the basis of cost.

Oh, and add in the fact that for those of us who live in Jersey and cannot drive, options are limited overall.

I use NJ transit buses (check 190, practically the same route). Was using those small buses you are talking about and it was a complete nightmare. Agree that it’s not consistent but after a while You get to experience stuff that is just horrendous!

Also the fact that decayed commuting services like that are considered vital for some commuters is a sign of how bad of a state NJ infrastructure is in. Those busses are a clear sign of corruption and a symptom of a much larger problem.

I live within three blocks of the 190 & 74 in Passaic, and only need to walk a few minutes to reach either Passaic or Delawanna stations. That should tell you my neighborhood pretty well. I only take the 190 if I'm going specifically to Rutherford or Secaucus. Otherwise, the jitney takes half the time for less money, or about the same time when bound for Paterson. Difference is that they run 4x more often. You're absolutely right on one point, though. NJTransit is a disgusting system; and it needs a real overhaul - the kind that Murphy is afraid to try because he's so focused on trying to shove through his legal pot. Does he think everyone's going to get high and ignore all his failures?

Do you think the passenger would be willing to pay increased costs for non-smoking drivers and vehicle inspections? I suspect they would only if it was extremely cheap, and that regardless this is of vastly less importance to them compared to the other factors (price, reliability) that often make these vans preferable to the MTA.

During a snow storm/PABT outage this past winter, I observed a jitney line from 8th ave down halfway to 10th. It's pretty crazy to see the mishmash of alternative transit modes people will piece together when their main route (NJT, PATH, NJ bus, etc) goes offline.

I've spent a fair bit of time driving in New York City, since the early 90's. When is autonomous driving ever going to get to NYC? It sometimes seems insane to drive there. I have a hard time imagining computer drivers being able to deal with NYC human drivers. (Same goes for Boston, only more so.)

What is it about the driving that doesn't seem reasonable for a computer to deal with? I've never been.

Often what appears to be hard is because it hits things that are hard for humans. Full 360 degree constant coverage isn't a problem, fast reaction times are easy (so if it's about quickly stopping/starting that should be easily better). Complex parts come from more "human" standards, if you can only come out of a junction easily by making eye contact with an oncoming car for example.

>Complex parts come from more "human" standards, if you can only come out of a junction easily by making eye contact with an oncoming car for example.

It's that kind of thing. If you drive like you would in some calmer and less congested city you'll never get anywhere. You often have to take your space because no one is going to give it to you. It's not just vehicles. If a car pauses at a crosswalk because someone has stepped into it, the rest of the crowd will smell hesitancy and just cross en masse against the light.

Plus lots of police manually directing traffic at intersections. Lots of partially blocked streets because of construction and delivery vehicles. Parts of the city are really nerve-wracking to drive in at busy times of the day.

I actually do think it's worse than Boston with respect to a previous comment although the layout is much more of a grid which makes things easier in some respects.

> What is it about the driving that doesn't seem reasonable for a computer to deal with?

Computers are still learning how to deal with freeway driving, why do you think city driving isn't a harder problem?

> Complex parts come from more "human" standards, if you can only come out of a junction easily by making eye contact with an oncoming car for example.

If you want computers to drive alongside humans, this is still a valuable piece of information.

I didn't say it was easier, but was wondering what would make it so much more difficult that the other user had a hard time imagining it.

> If you want computers to drive alongside humans, this is still a valuable piece of information.

Valuable is different from required though.

What is it about the driving that doesn't seem reasonable for a computer to deal with?

It's not just the other humans, though that's a big part. There have been times when the condition and design of the streets and roads themselves have been challenging.

meh. try driving in India.

India. A lot of the big Southeast Asia cities. Even places like Paris, Florence, or Rome. I probably wouldn't drive in any of those (although language is part of the issue) and I don't really have a problem driving in New York City even though I don't like doing it.

The Caribbean islands have a lot of these types of vans on ring roads and elsewhere. So cheap and nice and fast and amazingly decorated in some cases. But forget seatbelts and be prepared to squeeze. Was really $1 in the Caribbean though when I was there briefly.

>The license costs $550, according to the TLC website. After getting a license, a driver needs to get their van insured, which can cost around $15,000 a year, Clarke and several van drivers told the Eagle.

Well no wonder there's many unlicensed vans. They way the incentives are set up they may as well print "don't even bother" at the top of the license form in big bold letters.

With those kinds of costs in addition to the cost of running the van you'd be making pennies. Run unlicensed and on normal insurance (or better yet, read the statutes and figure out where the risk/reward sweet spot is) and you'd save a ton of money. If you don't have a lot of money or a legitimate business that needs protecting then it's a no brainier.

Edit: Down-voting me won't make running above the table any more financially attractive. If the insurance made financial sense the state wouldn't need to force them to get it or at the very least it would not be the owner's primary gripe. Most small businesses love to advertise their credentials and how insured they are. Every other business complains about labor cost and regulation. These guys are complaining about insurance. That should be a massive tip off that something is wrong.

The costs of running a commercial service are always higher. Between insurance, licensing, generally stricter rules on technical aspects (like periodic service checks, etc.) you start spending a lot. The liability is a lot higher for these cases.

This is exactly why Uber went the route of "we're just a tech company even the drivers are basically driving taxis". Having those drivers conform to the same rules would have made the fare just as expensive as a taxi fare.

NYC ubers have always been licensed by the NYC taxi regulators, not as taxis, but they are regulated quite aggressively.

> NYC ubers have always been licensed by the NYC taxi regulators, not as taxis, but they are regulated quite aggressively.

They are taxis - they're a separate class of taxis from the yellow taxis, but they are considered taxis (and regulated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission).

Right, I just mean that they're regulated like for-hire "black cars", which are regulated by the TLC, just not under the medallion system that yellow cabs are

But should the costs be higher?

So much of these costs are protectionist measures implemented by government to protect the interests of established businesses.

To borrow a turn of phrase from the gun rights camp, business licenses, if they exist at all, should be low-cost and shall-issue.

So much of them are necessary measures to protect people, though. The trouble is distinguishing the two.

For example, medallions are obviously and pretty explicitly a protectionist measure. On the other hand requirements to display fares clearly and use an approved meter are there to help customers from being ripped off.

Medallions protect against the negative of there being too many taxis, causing congestion and revenue loss for drivers, which would lead to more dangerous driving and poorly maintained vehicles.

Maybe some costs are protectionist measures but I for one see plenty of value in having an actual insurance, or knowing that the car is properly checked, that the driver understands the concept of driving as a job, etc. Insurance being the biggest chunk, basically to make sure that you (the potential victim) can be compensated. Those costs are there to protect the regular person.

Imagine "home" restaurants, where people can just sell food from their own kitchen with the same kind of regulatory oversight your private kitchen gets. What's the recourse when you eventually get sick or worse? Who do you blame for allowing this? How do you get compensated?

There are good examples now where people argued against the value of regulation right up until they got burned (see the lack of regulation in crypto and how easily this was exploited with no recourse from the victims).

Are they? In the quote at least, the vastly bigger expense is insurance, which is likely provided by the market based on statistics of some kind, not some arbitrary number from the government.

Yes, but "the market" has figured out that you can sue the pants off an insured business whereas an uninsured business is not worth paying a lawyer to go after. Just carrying the insurance makes you a higher risk of costing the insurance company money by itself.

If insurance made financial sense to carry for the average or averagely unlucky operator the state wouldn't need to make it mandatory and drivers wouldn't grumble about it or at the very least it wouldn't be their primary gripe. They'd gripe about labor costs and labor laws like every other business does.

> Just carrying the insurance makes you a higher risk of costing the insurance company money by itself.

Insurance companies aren't typically run as charities.

> If insurance made financial sense to carry for the average or averagely unlucky operator the state wouldn't need to make it mandatory...

The state is worried about the damage they can potentially cause to others. Their employees, their customers, innocent pedestrians, buildings.

> They'd gripe about labor costs and labor laws like every other business does.

That seems unlikely, considering the drivers are largely independent contractors. They don't tend to complain about labor costs, as they call them "profits".

Insurance is for the victims, not the perpetrators who can just declare bankruptcy and go work for their brother's replacement company.

With fleet maintenance, and other economies of scale it can be cheaper to meet those standards

That expensive insurance covers the fact that it's getting substantially more mileage (and thus risk) than a personal-use vehicle, and that ~20 people could be injured or killed in an accident.

There's a reason it's required.

I vaguely remember a news article while back a taxi organization in the city had self insured its drivers and one bad accident has enough claims to bankrupt the entire organization.

Edit: here is the article. They were found liable for $8M for paralyzing a passenger. A chicago company was liable for $26M in another case.


> Well no wonder there's many unlicensed vans.

Practically and economically, yes, it makes sense. No wonder, indeed.

But I find it really sad that the government fails to simply enforce the insurance requirement. These vans are an important part of the transportation solution for many people and the government is failing to protect these riders. Regulation defiant buses are rewarded and regulation compliant buses are penalized.

I haven't taken these in a while but there is a huge word by mouth van system that connects the five Burroughs (besides SI). Someone tried using huge coach bus equivalent and was offering $1 a ride but that got shut down pretty quickly because of apparent traffic issues these coach bus were making.

I'm curious what makes these succeed in NYC while Chariot failed in SF.

It's a grey market system. Don't really have to heed to regulations and investors. And they're all privately owned and decentralized.

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