They go by names like Jerk Chicken, Lizard, Scooby Doo and Young Blood. They hustle across Brooklyn and Queens seven days a week, some risking arrest, in order to serve tens of thousands of customers who rely on them.
They are dollar van drivers, and they ferry commuters largely neglected by New York City’s vast public transit system — people who live in neighborhoods beyond the subway’s reach, where buses are often late and Uber and Lyft are too expensive.
The dollar vans — mini school buses with tinted windows that roll through the streets blaring reggae or R&B — make up a loosely organized industry and many drivers operate illegally without the required city permits. The vans have at times drawn scrutiny because of collisions, and have been criticized for contributing to congestion by sometimes blocking bus lanes to pick up passengers.
The developers of a new app are hoping to generate more business for these modern jitneys and challenge the public bus system in the way that Uber has taken on the yellow taxi industry.
The app, Dollaride, allows users to see where licensed vans are operating within a one-mile radius, as well as where they are headed, helping commuters decide whether taking a van might be faster than waiting for a bus.
For drivers, the app enables them to spot passengers more easily — while the vans follow designated routes, there are no marked stops so riders must flag drivers. For the operators of van companies, the app could allow them to more easily identify demand and plan future routes.
Though the app currently only includes licensed vans, its developers hope it will encourage unlicensed vans to register with the city.
Passengers can also pay the $2 fare through the app instead of using cash. (The single ride fare for subways and buses is $2.75.)
Rising rent and gentrification means “there’s a class of people getting pushed farther and farther away from the epicenter, where all the resources are and where public transportation is strongest,” said Sulaiman Sanni, a 34-year-old Nigerian-American, who developed the app.
“Our mission is to make transportation accessible to anyone anywhere, starting with the people who live in transit deserts,” he added. “A lot of us in New York, including the regulators, realize that our public transit system is going in a downward spiral.”
The first dollar vans are thought to have appeared on the streets of New York around 1980, when drivers offered rides to strangers for $1 during a transit strike. After the Sept. 11 attack and another transit strike in 2005, city officials encouraged people to ride dollar vans.
Lisa Sargeant, who works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates New York’s subway and buses, says she prefers to commute by dollar van from Flatlands, in southeast Brooklyn, to work.
“The dollar van is faster, it’s cheaper, it’s on time,” Ms. Sargeant said. “I trust the dollar van more than transit, unfortunately. Transit only really works if you live in Manhattan.”
The concept was imported from West Africa and the Caribbean, where informal minibuses like the bright yellow in Nigeria or the in Jamaica are the de facto modes of public transport.
The nationalities of dollar van drivers reflect recent waves of immigration to New York — West Indians, who were followed by West Africans, and, most recently, Haitians, many of whom arrived after the 2010 earthquake.
About 120,000 people take dollar vans in New York City every day, about double the number from two decades ago, according to industry estimates. There are roughly 2,000 drivers, three-quarters of them operating illegally.
Many van owners say stringent licensing requirements and high insurance costs have led them to choose to stay underground.
One major route connects Chinatowns in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Another slices through Brooklyn, while a number of smaller routes flow east from Jamaica, in Queens, like rivulets. Some routes also link Manhattan and New Jersey.
One of the aims of Dollaride is to help identify areas in Brooklyn and Queens that are ripe for new routes because they are in so-called transit deserts. The service will also work with companies seeking to provide alternative means of transportation to their employees.
Gateway JFK, a business improvement district near Kennedy Airport, is working on a pilot with Dollaride to create a route to ferry employees to and from subway stations.
“We’re in Queens, but where we are located is far from public transit,” said Scott Grimm-Lyon, the executive director of Gateway JFK. “Our workers and residents face what is known as the last mile problem during their commute. The proposed pilot with Dollaride will offer us a way to tackle the last mile problem directly.”
Mr. Sanni said he was also working with the city’s Department of Transportation to determine where Dollaride can create new routes that do not conflict with public transit.
Alana Morales, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said that while some vans operate illegally, cooperation among transit agencies and the dollar van industry “may reveal opportunities for commuter vans to expand their role — while at the same time enhancing vans’ compliance with laws and regulations.”
At least three main dollar van routes are the same as those of the M.T.A., Mr. Sanni said, which has riled some officials. “They, rightfully so, want to be protective of their riders and don’t want competition on the streets,” he said. “But competition also demonstrates that there’s a need.”
Craig Cipriano, acting president of the M.T.A. Bus Company, said buses were the safest mode of travel in New York. “Dollar vans attempt to lure customers, who are waiting at regular bus stops, with vehicles that can be unregulated and uninspected,” he said in an email. “They often obstruct bus lanes and traffic, delaying our bus customers.”
Dollar van operators believe the Dollaride app will make their system easier to use and will entice new riders.
Aaron James, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, operates the James Empire Express, a licensed fleet of vans on Eastern Parkway, a major thoroughfare in Brooklyn. “The app enhances the rider’s experience, what time the driver will come,” he said. “They don’t have to stand around waiting and wondering how long it’s going to take for a van to arrive.”
Winston Williams, who was born in Jamaica and runs Blackstreet Van Lines in Brooklyn, said passengers generally learn about dollar vans through word-of-mouth and it can take years to build enough trust with customers so that they became regular riders.
Dean Harris, an electrician, said dollar vans were virtually the only alternative to a car in southeastern Queens, where he lives and works.
“The M.T.A. was designed so poorly,” he said, as he rode in a van. “In the mornings, I can’t wait. Time is money.”
Mr. Sanni said the idea for Dollaride germinated when he was growing up in East New York, Brooklyn, in the 1990s, where his family had moved from Lagos.
Mr. Sanni used to walk for 30 minutes with his sister to the nearest subway stop to go to school. “What I didn’t know at the time,’’ he added, “but I realized when I got older, was how limiting your life can be if you can’t freely access different resources or experiences outside of your home or your neighborhood.”
The post Can ‘Scooby Doo’ and the Rest of the Dollar Vans Go High-Tech? appeared first on New York Times.