Inside New York City’s Secret Transit System

NYC’s dollar vans fill in the gaps the city’s official transit channels miss.

Stand on the corner outside my Brooklyn apartment for long enough, and you’re sure to get honked at by at least one passing van. In other neighborhoods, that might be street harassment, but here, it’s part of the transportation network–albeit one that doesn’t play by the same rules as a city bus. Dollar vans are the desire lines of public transit. These private, often unregulated shuttles go where subways and buses don’t, operating in peripheral and low-income neighborhoods where the need for public transportation exists but official transit networks aren’t meeting demand.


The New Yorker took a dive into the shadowy world of New York’s dollar van system, mapping the informal flow of people from Chinese communities in Queens to Manhattan’s Chinatown, through Caribbean neighborhoods in Brooklyn and across the Nassau County line into suburban Long Island.

Click to enlarge. Map of NYC Dollar Vans via New Yorker

For some immigrants, a ride in a van is a more comfortable experience than taking the subway. “I’ve learned to read the subway signs a little bit, and I can recognize some English words,” Chen Dao, who recently moved to Queens from China, told the New Yorker. “But it can also be very difficult…If you pass your stop, or you take a little nap, when you bring your head up you know you made a mistake and have no idea where you are.”

For others, the vans are an essential transportation network serving neighborhoods the MTA does not. The Bronx’s only dollar van route arose when the MTA stopped running buses along Edenweld Avenue in 1984. A local couple stepped in with minibuses. “If these people don’t have no transport to go to work, they can’t pay rent, they can’t pay mortgage, they can’t send their kids to school,” one driver said.

Only 481 vans in the city are licensed by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, allowing them to operate under highly restricted rules (like only accepting prearranged pick-ups). Many more than that operate illegally, and dollar van drivers, many of whom are immigrants, have long faced harassment at the hands of the NYPD. Of course, if the city actually wanted to get rid of illegal street transportation, it would have to be able to offer a better alternative in its own system.


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About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.