This story was produced through the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative For Youth (CLARIFY), City Limits’ paid training program for aspiring public-interest journalists.
At the corner of Guy R. Brewer Boulevard and Archer Avenue, in Jamaica, Queens, dozens of people line up each day to board commuter vans to get to work, school, and more.
These vans—commonly referred to as “dollar vans”—offer commuters a way to get around in areas where subway and bus service is limited, according to those who rely on them.
In interviews with City Limits, Queens riders who use the service say they choose commuter vans because they’re often faster, cheaper and more convenient than existing public transit options in the neighborhood.
Commuter vans first emerged in New York City in the 1980s to give rides during the transit strike, according to a New York Times report. Today, the vans are regulated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of Transportation, and most charge a flat fare of $2 per trip.
There were 238 commuter van drivers licensed with the city in 2017, according to TLC data.
Kisha Brown, 47, a daily commuter van rider in Queens, says that she’s been using the vans to get around for the past 26 years.
“I use the vans to get to work on time,” she explains, stating that the vans are “convenient and better than the bus.”
Kwabena Agyapong, a van driver who’s been driving in Queens for 15 years, says he’s noticed more people using his services over the past few years.
“MTA charges $2.75, we charge only $2,” he says. “We stop where they want to get off, closer to their destination, unlike [the] MTA.”
Andrew Kellyman, another longtime driver in Queens, says he’s noticed the opposite: that fewer riders take his vans these days. He finds that his service is often in direct competition with the MTA’s bus system, which has seen its own ridership numbers dwindle over the past several years—though the MTA is looking to attract some of those riders back, including those who use dollar vans, according to a NY1 report in August.
“They [the MTA] capitalize on everything that we used to do that everyone likes us for,” says Kellyman.
But some riders say they’ll be sticking with commuter vans, especially those who live in transit-starved areas of the city. They include Rahsheed Thomson, a 36-year-old who commutes between Jamaica and Far Rockaway.
“Where I come from, only the vans come here,” he says.