Van-demonium! Cops crack down on dollar vans, activist group calls it racist

Van-demonium! Cops crack down on dollar vans, activist group calls it racist
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Park Slope cops have been ticketing and seizing dollar vans since January, a move activists are calling a racially motivated blow against drivers trying to make a living.

Prospect Heights’ 78th police precinct has cited nine drivers and seized 14 of the vans, which these days charge $2 for sometimes-wild rides along major thoroughfares such as Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, according to cops. A community organizer argues that the crackdown is a racist reaction to black and Caribbean people who are just looking to bring home a paycheck.

“Most drivers are Caribbean or people of color,” said Imani Henry, an organizer with the community group Equality for Flatbush, which is campaigning to stop the anti-van initiative. “This is their income and people are trying to feed their families.”

A longtime dollar-van rider echoed Henry’s concerns, saying that the city is trying to scrub Flatbush Avenue of its trademark conveyances to appease future residents of luxury developments along the thoroughfare.

“This is gentrification 101,” said Derrick Edwards, who has lived on Flatbush Avenue for four years.

Another veteran dollar-van commuter said the no-frills rides fill in the gaps left by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s spotty service.

“The MTA is not always reliable,” said Cheryl Sealey, a Flatbush resident. “Folks use them as regular transportation not because they’re cheaper or anything, but to cut the time people have to wait at bus stations to get to work on time.”

But cops’ take is that the lead-footed drivers piloting un-permitted passenger vans and illegally picking up street hails pose a hazard to everyone else on the road.

“We want to send a message that they’re not safe,” said community affairs officer Brian Laffey.

Slopers and Prospect Heights residents complain that the vans often block traffic near bus stops to pick up and drop off passengers, according to Laffey. The 78th Precinct is still pouncing on scofflaw private-shuttle drivers and handing them over to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which will seize the vehicles and charge owners $1,500 to get them back, Laffey said.

Dollar vans are rolling liabilities because they often do not have adequate insurance, and there are no guarantees that the vans have been properly inspected and registered or that drivers are properly licensed, according to a Taxi and Limousine Commission rep.

Van drivers playing by the rules, which would technically include only picking up passengers who call ahead for rides, have nothing to fear, the spokesman said. The city offers licenses for passenger-van drivers and operators which are contingent on thrice-yearly van inspections, rider insurance, and drug tests and background checks for drivers.

Dollar van drivers and company owners unsuccessfully lobbied to get a shot at the 6,000 livery-cab street hail permits the city sold off for $1,500 each starting in 2012. All but 10 of the permits have been sold, according to city records. The illegal-but-long-tolerated vans are so ingrained into Brooklynites’ transit habits that the city recruited dollar-van hacks to pick up pedestrians along terminated bus routes in 2010, but the plan fell apart when no one would use the vans, officials said.

The buggies also plied the roads in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and hurricanes Irene and Sandy, when the city’s public transit network shuddered to a halt.

Reach reporter Megan Riesz at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her on Twitter @meganriesz.