By Patrick Donachie
The City Council passed several pieces of legislation regulating the commuter van industry throughout the city, an industry with a prominent role in public transit-starved areas in southeast Queens.
The three pieces of legislation were passed by the Council’s Transportation Committee Tuesday afternoon followed by a Wednesday vote by the full body. Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) co-sponsored two of the pieces of legislation.
Int. 860-A would require an annual report be conducted by the Taxi and Limousine Commission on safety in the commuter van industry, which would include data on licensed and unlicensed vans. The law would also limit the number of licensed commuter vans to 735 citywide. The number could increase if the TLC determines more vans are needed and safety is not affected. Int. 861-A would increase potential civil and criminal penalties for owners of unlicensed commuter vans.
“The legislation will help us solve the dilemma and bring some much-needed control to an often-unregulated industry,” Miller said during the Tuesday committee hearing. “These are necessary to control the proliferation of illegal vans that are creating mayhem in communities and those who choose to operate outside of the law.”
TLC data indicates there are 336 licensed commuter vans operating in the city, with 53 different licensees, 36 of which are located in Queens. However, some commuter vans, particularly many located in southeast Queens, are unlicensed. Miller and other community residents complain about these vans, saying the drivers are often erratic and dangerous.
Despite the concerns, “dollar vans,” nicknamed for the affordable price, are often one of the only means for commuters to reach public transit from residential areas in southeast Queens. The only subways in the area are the E, F and J lines, which terminate in downtown Jamaica and are a significant distance from neighborhoods like Springfield Gardens or South Jamaica.
St. Albans resident Tony Johnson said rides on an MTA bus often turn what should be a 20- to 30-minute commute into an hour or more, speaking during a rally to protest congestion pricing last June. He said he still refused to travel using unlicensed commuter vans.
“Those vans are dangerous,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to save 75 cents and risk your life. At least with the bus, I know I’m going to be safe.”
Additional legislation sponsored by Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) would amend certain regulations on the books for licensed commuter vans, maintaining Department of Transportation oversight on established routes but removing a mandate that drivers must keep a record of passengers.
The TLC said it was supportive of the licensed commuter van industry, with a spokesman saying the commission would increase safety in the industry by supporting licensed owners and operators.
Miller first proposed the legislation in summer of 2015 and in an October 2015 hearing, Meera Joshi, the commissioner and chair of the TLC, said the commuter van industry offered affordable transportation for areas like southeast Queens.
“This is especially true in neighborhoods that have less access to public transit where commuter vans allow passengers to share rides at minimal cost, as little as $2,” she said. “In doing so, commuter vans connect people with other neighborhoods, often other new immigrant communities, at what may be faster times than public transit.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona