If you drive through low income neighborhoods in New York City, as I do regularly, you see them everywhere, or rather, you hear before you see them, the so-called Dollar Vans.
They slow as they approach busy corners, are often shrink-wrapped with advertising and sometimes blast music to get attention. The passengers who depend on them know to look for the alternative working-class transportation system of New York City’s outer boroughs.
In neighborhoods yet to gentrify, crowded and far from both hipsters (and the media gaze they bring) and subway lines, with crowded and irregular and slow bus service, the vans serve a need and population that the city and its public transportation system have failed.
They are such a part of the fabric of certain New York City neighborhoods that they are easily missed by those not looking for them. As many as 100,000 New Yorkers travel in these vans every day. In any other location, 100,000 people traveling on an alternative transportation system would get noticed. But Gotham is so large that 100,000 people can get lost in the daily shuffle, especially if the population is working class and of color.
The vans started during the 1980 transit strike, when the buses and trains halted as the mighty United Transportation Workers Union drew a line in the sand protesting austerity. After the strike ended and the union won modest gains that weakened it for a generation, the vans continued. While the name has endured, the fare now is a bit more than a dollar.
Within the urban economy, systems develop to solve problems government has failed to address. With a robust and rational taxi and mass transit system there seemingly shouldn’t be room for the Lyfts and Ubers of the world. But a failed system offers opportunities. Like so much in poor neighborhoods, the vans are spontaneous, often unregulated, and fluid attempts to fill in the gaps. New York has always been a haven of sorts for working class entrepreneurs, who can find a way to provide a needed service at a good price to their neighbors, often immigrants too, in places like Flatbush in Brooklyn and Eastern Queens where people get used to finding their own way.
The drivers, small business owners, have much in common with earlier groups of immigrant entrepreneurs. In ethnic neighborhoods devoid of stores or produce at the turn of the 20th century, Italian and Jewish pushcart peddlers brought the goods to the neighborhood and in the process made livings. Eventually, some of the peddlers exchanged their carts for storefronts, selling clothing and what was known then as dry goods. Many of the large department stores of the late 19th century had origin stories that mirrored this path to success. Some, like Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears, used their accumulated and vast wealth to improve the world.
But much as changed since 1900. Then, the economic space was growing and the distance between peddler and store owner wasn’t as vast as say between van driver and, well that’s just it, what? There isn’t a logical step forward for these entrepreneurs. So, what are they then? Are they entrepreneurs, if entrepreneurs are small businessmen (and women) who dream of making it into larger businesses. In 1900, enough peddlers make it to feed the myth of the self-made man. But, today the hundreds, if not thousands of dollar van drivers are stuck, without a clear path forward. They hustler ever faster to stay ahead.
Like generations before them, they are pouring time, energy and resources into making something of themselves. But, their future seems unclear. The MTA could, if it started caring about these communities, take away the customer base. The city could crack down on the unregulated aspects of the business. It could take a harder line, like it has on the Ubers of NYC. And, big companies such as Uber could discover this market and step into it.
The dollar van drivers are like so many New Yorkers, hustling to make a living in a society that may not care if their succeed or fail. I hope that enough of them make it to keep the American dream alive for another generation of immigrants. They are an example of the endless economic hustle, the ability of New Yorkers to make due and fill the gaps left by a city that has forgotten the masses.