BY PAUL BUFANO
Esther Robinson passed up several unlicensed vans while she waited at the corner of Parsons Boulevard and Archer Avenue in the blistering heat. Although she was anxious to get home, she would only ride in a licensed van.
“There’s no doubt that some people would be afraid to ride in an unlicensed van,” said Robinson. “It depends on the driver, but I’ve been in many vans that weren’t following all the rules.”
Unlicensed commuter vans have been operating illegally in southeast Queens for about two decades, say officials. While some travelers appreciate the service they provide, there are many who do not. Critics attack the vans on two fronts: they say they are recklessly driven, and that they poach city revenue.
“Most commuters don’t even know to check to see if the van has a DOT (Department of Transportation) sticker or if the driver has a proper license,” said David Clarke, a DOT licensed driver. “They only find out it’s unlicensed when the van is pulled over by the police for running a red light or speeding.”
Most vans charge the same fee of $2, but the unlicensed vans tend to be quicker because they are usually speeding, he said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1056 leads the opposition against the vans. ATU 1056 president and business agent I. Daneek Miller recently called for city and state agencies to address the problem.
“Our main goal is to deal with the dangerous and illegal manner that both licensed and unlicensed vans operate along MTA bus routes,” said Miller. “Forget about whether the vans are assisting some commuters, as they speed along bus routes they endanger citizens and result in us losing thousands of dollars a day. They are simply not helping the city and it’s just not fair.”
Councilmember Leroy Comrie wants to see unlicensed van drivers receive the tools to legitimize their business. The vans will be much easier to regulate once they are all legalized, he said.
“These vans have been institutionalized in the area over many years, and if they are going to create opportunities they should be helped,” said Comrie. “If we are able to eliminate the illegal vans there would be less competition and we would then have a better chance to enforce safe driving.”
Akeen Henry is an unlicensed van driver. He said he has no choice but to drive without a license because the current system makes getting one too difficult.
“I have a family to support and I need to make money, but these guys make it unfair to do it the right way,” he said. “They only say I’m breaking laws because they don’t want to share any of the money to be made.”
Residents have also raised safety concerns about the unlicensed vans, said Yvonne Reddick, district manager of Community Board 12.
“Our interest is the safety of the people boarding and riding these vans,” said Reddick. “Many times people are only interested in getting to where they have to go in the shortest amount of time possible, rather than whether it’s safe or not.”
Enforcement has to be stricter to keep the streets safe, said Reddick. The MTA, NYPD and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) have to work together in order to solve this problem, she continued.
“The NYPD predominantly enforces traffic laws that include moving and parking violations,” said officer Mark Costa of the 103rd Precinct. “The NYPD can enforce illegal vans, but it isn’t prioritized over issues involving crime and violence. Organizations like the TLC go after the issue in full force and have the manpower to do so.”
The TLC has stepped up its efforts by working with the NYPD to deal with the illegally operating vans in Queens, said Allan Fromberg, spokesperson for the TLC.
“We have taken 300 unlicensed vans off the street this calendar year to date, so I would say we are dealing with the issue quite effectively,” said Fromberg. “We don’t have the manpower to properly address the issue alone, which is why we have been working with the NYPD. Riding these vans is a matter of convenience, but people can take some simple steps like checking for TLC plates to recognize if the van is properly licensed or not.”