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9 Factoids About NYC's 'Shadow' Transit Network, Dollar Vans

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While New York City's transportation network is extensive, it isn't truly extensive enough to meet the needs of the city's whole population. Enter dollar vans, a vast "shadow" network of unannounced and often-unregulated street vans that largely caters to communities in areas underserved by public transportation. "The informal transportation networks fill that void with frequent departures and dependable schedules, but they lack service maps, posted timetables, and official stations or stops," the New Yorker explains of the phenomena largely born out of a 1980's transit strike, "There is no Web site or kiosk to help you navigate them. Instead, riders come to know these networks through conversations with friends and neighbors, or from happening upon the vans in the street." Want to know more about the rather extensive, somewhat secretive network? Read on.

1) Dollar vans largely exist in "peripheral, low-income neighborhoods that contain large immigrant communities and lack robust public transit."

2) Since 1994, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has been issuing permits to dollar vans. There are 481 licensed dollar vans in the city, although there are many, many more estimated to be operating.

3) The licensed vans are verboten from picking up passengers along the MTA's bus routes.

4) Dollar vans can be particularly attractive to non-English speaking immigrants as they're often operated and ridden by members of particular ethnic communities. On the vans that serve Brooklyn's Chinatown communities:

It is not uncommon for residents of New York's Chinese communities to speak little or no English, even if they have lived in the city for decades. For many of these immigrants, taking the subway or bus can be an uncomfortable experience ... A ride on a Chinatown van, on the other hand, is a relatively familiar experience for a Chinese immigrant. It could easily be a ride on a bus in rural China: tinny, saccharine pop is piped in through the van's speakers; people chat in their local dialects about the price of cabbage ... While I was talking with Chen, Ye Rong, a fifty-six-year-old retired immigrant from Fujian, chimed in, "Here, if I'm cold, I ask the driver and he closes the windows; if I'm hot, he turns on the air conditioning. On the subway, who are you going to ask? They just have one conductor for the whole train. They aren't going to help you. 5) Along Flatbush Avenue, the vans, which are often decorated with Haitian flags and advertisements for local reggae shows, have become such a part of the culture that there are sometimes in-van concerts performed by local hip-hop artists. The phenomena has even sparked something known as Dollar Van Demos.

6) Knowledge of the vans' whereabouts, which cost less than a $2.50 subway ride, are often spread by word-of-mouth, unless someone is lucky enough to catch a glimpse and know what the van is up to.

7) According to the New Yorker, the biggest dollar van hub in the city is out of Jamaica Center in Queens. Jamaica Center is where the E, J, and Z lines meet with the AirTran to J.F.K Airport. A few dollar van lines run to the easternmost border of Queens while others dip into the Rockaways. When Sandy smacked the area and the MTA shut down all operations, dollar vans kept things moving.

8) Dollar vans are becoming so popular in Queens that they're starting to function like an "unofficial transportation system."

9) Edenwald Avenue in the Bronx has been renamed Dorothy Pamela Gomes Way, for a dollar van pioneer who brought the service to the area after the MTA halted a bus line along Edenwald Avenue.
· New York's Shadow Transit [New Yorker]