Vans and Minibuses and Things That Go

The white minibus stops in the traffic in front of Tafarai Tribe on Flatbush Avenue, the door opens and a burly man sweeps the garbage out of the bus onto the street. “What’s going to happen to that?” I instinctively ask. “Nothing,” he says, as the door swings closed and the bus inches northbound toward Prospect Park.

The vans and minibuses serving mostly West Indian riders that ply Flatbush Avenue have operated for decades if not more, ferrying passengers to downtown Brooklyn. In 1980 during a transit strike these “dollar vans,” known for their Christian slogans and Haitian flags helped thousands of New Yorkers get where the trains and buses weren’t going or weren’t going fast enough. They still do.

Over $4 shade-grown fair-trade coffee in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Crown Heights the chatter isn’t about congestion pricing, Cuomo’s MTA and fixing the subway. It’s about Chariot and Ourbus and Via. Is it just that they’ve got apps and the other rides don’t or is there something else at play? What would happen if the hipsters and the rest of us without a bike or a great transit option put down our phones for a few minutes and took a minibus to work instead of contributing to the problem by taking Uber, Lyft or Juno? With credit to Richard Scarry, my annual pick for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’m talking about New York’s ubiquitous if unofficial vans and minibuses and things that go.

In Flatbush, Far Rockaway, Flushing, Jamaica, Chinatown and downtown Brooklyn, thirteen seat vans and larger minibuses continue to serve parts of the city that remain underserved by the MTA. The dollar van is now $3 but that can still be a bargain. Borough Park with its large Orthodox Jewish community, has a 50 year old bus system that moves people between Borough Park and Williamsburg for $3.25 for adults and $1 for kids with discounted deals as well. And it even has a website and schedule! Just don’t try and ride on Shabbat or any of the community’s thousand other “thou shalt not work” holidays.

Longer haul private bus companies also meet a need and would probably benefit from some love rather than suspicion from the City and State. After long weekends in New York, my son regularly rides the “Chinatown bus” from Lafayette Street back to his job in Pennsylvania. That these informal and licensed vans, minibuses and coaches fill a void and offer less costly transit for countless New Yorkers goes without saying. Which begs the question, why do too many politicians tend to focus instead on the app driven services backed by Sandhill Road VC as if they were the Silicon Valley’s next unicorns?

What the proven businesses lack in technology and (sometimes) posted timetables, they make up for in terms of frequency, dependability, cost and conversation. Though not as colorful, even on a Winter’s day the minibuses make me think of the ubiquitous peseros in Mexico City. Back in 2014, The New Yorker did a good piece on the dollar vans called, New York’s Shadow Transit.

With the L train shutdown and other transit nightmares upon us, perhaps it’s time the city looked to its homegrown transportation solutions rather than the latest shiny thing.

Yours in transit,

Joel

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