Exclusive: Dollar Van Operators Says City Pushing Them Out For San Francisco Startup

Leroy Morrison, Vice President of the Commuter Van Association of New York, stands in front of his wheels.

Commuter van (aka dollar van) operators are charging that the city is steering a Silicon Valley startup to supply alternative commuter van service along the L train corridor when the subway line shuts down for needed repairs in April 2019.

Leroy Morrison, vice president of the Commuter Van Association of New York, says the city’s Taxi & limousine Commission (TLC) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) are in collusion with Ford Chariot to get the right type of licenses involved in handling the service while giving longtime dollar van owners – most of whom are Caribbean – the shaft.

The L train runs between Manhattan’s 14th Street and the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick before its end destination at Rockaway Parkway in Canarsie.

The city in the past has worked with dollar van owners in emergency situations. This includes the aftermath of 9/11, the 2005 transit strike and when some bus lines were taken out of commission. Commuter van operators traditionally run in underserved communities of color where mass transit is less than desirable.

“These commuter vans have been serving people for the longest time,” said Morrison, “but now that we have been applying for authorization from the TLC and DOT to make adjustments to start along the corridor in Manhattan and from North 7th Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg they are shutting us down while at the same time helping a multimillion dollar company get licenses to do what we’ve always done.”

A Ford Chariot van. Photo from company website.

Complicating the issue is that while the TLC is the sole regulatory city agency charged with licensing people or companies seeking to get into the taxi/limousine type industry, commuter vans are the exception to this rule. According to a 1994 agreement between the city and the state, both the DOT and TLC regulate the licensing of dollar vans.

TLC spokesperson Allan Fromberg said Ford Chariot applied for a Black Car base license while commuter van licenses are affiliated with “Commuter Van Authorities.” The one fundamental difference is that a van authority license has the authority to serve a zone, bounded on the north, south, east and west, in which they may cover any and all routes at their discretion, while Black Cars operate citywide, he said. 

There is also a requirement in Black Car service that at least 90% of their business must be in a non-cash basis (cards, vouchers or via app), since they are exempt from certain security requirements. Also black car bases must provide the TLC with detailed trip records of both pick-ups and drop-offs.

Ford Chariot operates much like Uber in that they are contacted via app and are paid via debit or credit card. However, according to media reports they have said they are coming to NYC to explicitly run their van service to supplement existing transit solutions, addressing gaps in transit and completing commuter options, which is the traditional role of dollar vans.

Fromberg denied that the TLC steered Ford Chariot to get the correct licenses to serve the L Train corridor.

“They chose the license type that works for them.  We didn’t require them to get one or another type. If they meet all the criteria for what they applied for, they get a license,” said Fromberg via email.

Another TLC spokesperson, Rebecca Harshbarger, characterized Ford Chariot as being in the late stages of obtaining these licenses. She also said the agency meets regularly with commuter van members and characterized their relationship as conversational.

Harshbarger deferred in answering if the commuter van industry approached the TLC – or the TLC approached Ford Chariot – concerning running an alternative route along the L train corridor once it is shuttered.

“I apologize for any inconvenience, but that’s more appropriately answered by DOT, since they are coordinating that issue,” said Harshbarger.

The DOT did not return repeated questions from KCP involving alternative service along the L train corridor once it’s closed. Both the DOT and TLC also did not respond to questions as to their ability to grant dollar van operators an emergency licensing variance to service the corridor.

City Councilmember Jumaane Williams

City Council Member Jumaane Williams (D-Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood) said he has tried to reach out to both the DOT and the TLC and he is also being given the runaround when it comes to Ford Chariot.

“I’m concerned that Chariot is coming from the other side of the country while commuter van drivers have been trying for a long time to get this service and are being given the runaround. This should be a concern for all New Yorkers,” said Williams. “These commuter van drivers, who are mainly immigrants,  are being relegated to the sidelines and whenever there has been an emergency in the past they [the city] go to them.”

Meanwhile, Morrison said he contacted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s community outreach office to no avail and is threatening legal action.

“When the city is in crisis they call us and after the crisis is over they treat us like criminals,” he said.