Theses Doctoral

An Informal Transit System Hiding in Plain Sight: Brooklyn's Dollar Vans and Transportation Planning and Policy in New York City

Goldwyn, Eric Louis

New York’s transit system serves millions of riders each day; the local newspapers complain about the lack of funding for infrastructure projects; and the City Council regularly hosts hearings about Bus Rapid Transit, bike-share, road safety, e-hail taxis, and gondolas. Transportation issues matter to New Yorkers, but these debates, at the policy level, often focus on technology, budgets, and regulations rather than the needs and experiences of passengers. This focus on “technical” matters allows planners and politicians to confine transportation debates to the realm of experts rather than engage the broader public in them.
The failure to address the needs of passengers in Brooklyn and Queens has led to the development of dollar vans. Dollar vans are hybrid bus-taxis, also known as jitneys, that provide vital transportation links to more than 120,000 riders per day and operate beyond the control of the formal transit system governed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). While this ridership pales in comparison to the daily ridership on the subway or bus, it does rival bus ridership in cities like Dallas and Milwaukee and dwarfs the 50,000 peak ridership achieved by Citi Bike, New York’s celebrated bike-share system. More important, the durability of the vans reveals the failures of the existing formal system to serve all New Yorkers.
I argue that this failure is important for three reasons. First, the vans respond to a geographically specific problem: adequate access to inadequate service. The vans thrive in busy transit corridors where MTA-owned buses come too infrequently, are overcrowded, or are regularly stuck in traffic. On these busy routes, the vans provide a more reliable ride and alternative for transit-dependent populations looking to bypass the faltering bus system. Second, regulations fail to reflect daily practice. This gap between practice and policy leaves van operators and passengers in an awkward limbo that criminalizes an industry and jeopardizes the mobility of entire neighborhoods. Third, since the vans operate outside of the formal system, traditional metrics, such as ridership, travel time, vehicle revenue miles, etc., are not collected and compared against the metrics of other modes operated by the MTA. As long as the vans remain an unknown quantity, it is impossible for the City and State to serve transit-dependent populations in Brooklyn and Queens.
In this dissertation, I use a mixed-methods research design to probe the world of the vans and argue that continued regulatory uncertainty, long the friend of the vans, has the potential to upend them as development pressures and capital investment in Central Brooklyn intensifies.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
King, David A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 20, 2017