New York's War Against the Vans
APRIL 01, 1992 by ROBERT ZIMMERMAN
Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he wrote this article, is now a writer and historian, specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.
In 1981, New York City had a transit strike. Only the Staten Island Ferry was running. Al Manti, a fireman living in Brooklyn, decided to help some of his local friends by driving them to the ferry so they could get to work in lower Manhattan. “We did it for fun,” says Manti. It worked so well that he decided, once the strike ended, to buy a 15-passenger van and go into business. He contacted city and state agencies, filled out the appropriate forms, and received a license to provide transportation from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Manti soon received hundreds of phone calls from local residents looking for an alternative to the city’s public transit system. “I could’ve filled 50 vans, and still not met the demand.”
Almost as quickly, he began to have problems with city authorities. The city held a special hearing and reduced his license so he could transport commuters only from the Bay Ridge section of western Brooklyn to Manhattan. Then the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) organized a “crackdown on illegal van services.” Transit police were assigned full-time to observe Manti’s operation. One day he received 97 tickets. Sometimes the police would force Manti’s van to the side of the road, and then give him a ticket for illegal parking. His family was put under surveillance. When he began to fear that the police would plant drugs in his vehicle and arrest him, he decided to fight back. He sued the Transit Authority for harassment.
The MTA countersued, claiming that his company was “damaging the agency.” For almost 10 years Manti fought the MTA, spending over $100,000 in legal fees. Instead of letting this beat him, he expanded his company so he could earn more money to pay his attorneys. “Sometimes,” he says, “when I realize that I have spent more time fighting this battle than with my children, I have regrets. Yet I couldn’t let the city do this.”
From the beginning, Manti went out of his way to obey the law. He obtained a New York State Transportation Department license, followed its rules requiring state inspections three times a year, purchased the expensive insurance demanded by the state, and obtained the proper licenses for himself and his drivers.
After almost 10 years, the courts ruled that the MTA had been harassing Manti. The MTA dropped its case and paid him $1,000,000 to settle. “If I had had an additional $100,000 to spend,” he says, “I would have taken the case all the way and won a much bigger settlement. I just don’t have that kind of money.”
Throughout New York City, both legal and illegal van services have sprouted since the mid-1980s. Earl Simmons, executive director of the Jamaican Association of Van Owners/Operators, owns two vans and has operated them since 1987. “I bought a brand new van and started my business to get over the economic crunch,” he says. Like most of the drivers, Simmons emigrated from the Caribbean, where private bus ownership is common.
New York’s private vans, unlike city-owned buses, don’t require exact change and will let passengers off at convenient points. Commuters who use them agree that they provide better service than the public bus lines. Typical comments include: “They’re faster.” “They’re safer.” “They’re more reliable.”
By 1990 the vans were seriously cutting into the MTA’s business, and the agency began another crackdown. In July of that year, the city announced a policy to enforce city regulations and to issue summonses for a wide variety of violations, ranging from driving a van that’s not properly registered to improperly picking up and dropping off passengers. Fines ranged from $50 to $250.
Transit police were assigned to the areas near bus stops, issuing summonses and preventing vans from picking up passengers. MTA police often issued large numbers of additional summonses as a form of harassment. “Sometimes when they stop your van they would keep you there for a half hour,” says Simmons. “Or they would stop your van and issue a parking ticket.” In the first two days of this crackdown, two drivers were arrested and 60 summonses were issued.
Even though many of the drivers had decided to obtain licenses, this crackdown was aimed at both the legal and illegal drivers. “Regardless of whether you are legal or illegal, you get harassed,” says Simmons. “There is a direct attempt by the police department to issue as many moving violations to van operators as they possibly can.”
Jeffrey Shernoff, a lawyer representing 14 van owners, points out that in trying to obtain legal licenses, “every one of [these owners] was strenuously opposed by the Transit Authority and all of the public transportation authorities on whose territory they thought [the van drivers] impinged.”
According to New York State Transportation Department rules, privately owned vans can only pick up or drop off passengers by pre-arranged appointment, and cannot do so at city bus stops. Vehicles used to transport passengers are to have special licenses and be inspected three times a year. The driver must have a special license and a special insurance policy. A new state law specifies that only New York State insurance companies can issue this policy. Since there are only two New York companies offering this coverage, policies can cost as much as $8,000 a year.
The MTA is quick to defend its legal monopoly. “[The vans] siphon off our revenue,” said Transit spokesman Termaine Garden in 1990, and in 1991 the MTA claimed that the vans diverted over $30 million a year from the public transportation system. Not surprisingly, the Transport Workers Union is on the side of the MTA, since they see private drivers as competitors. “They are brazen—grabbing people off the bus routes,” says Pete Lynch, an assistant to the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union.
None of this has reduced the use of private vans. In fact, when the city announced its crackdown in July 1990, it estimated there were 1,600 illegal vans. A year later, the city estimated there were more than 2,500. And of the more than $4 million in fines imposed by the city, $150,000 had been collected.
Because of police patrols, commuters and van drivers often have to sneak about to avoid detection. “It’s like I’m buying drugs to go to work,” says Wall Street lawyer George Freehill. And if police pull a van over, they often force the passengers off. Freehill relates one incident: “They stopped us on the FDR Drive, during rush hour, blocking traffic. They gave the driver a ticket for illegally carrying passengers. Then they tried to force the passengers to stay in the van while they weighed it, to give him another ticket for driving an overweight vehicle on the FDR. We all refused, getting out of the van. Then they gave him a ticket anyway for having an overweight vehicle, refusing to let anyone else see the scale. Finally, they forbid us from returning to the van, making all 13 passengers walk along the highway, which has no shoulder or sidewalk, until we could get back on the city streets to find another way to get to work.”
Frustrated van drivers feel they are being denied their right to make a living. On October 14, 1991, a policeman issuing tickets in the Kings Plaza section of Brooklyn got into a fight with a van driver. The driver was arrested and his vehicle impounded. Other drivers responded by attacking several city buses, smashing their headlights and windows. In an attempt to free the arrested driver, they parked their vans in front of the police precinct, blocking traffic.
The crackdown on private vans continues. Earl Simmons sums up a lot of New Yorkers’ feelings: “If people elect to use these vans, I see nothing illegal about this. That is freedom of choice, that is the American way.” 
1. New York Newsday. August 21, 1991.