In New York City, fleets of vehicles ferry passengers around the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, shirking regulation and oversight from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). It’s a narrative we’ve heard again and again in countless cities. But this “disruptive” transportation service isn’t Uber or Lyft or any of the other so-called ridesharing startups. It has no venture funding. It doesn’t even have an app or a website. And its growth has been organic in the strictest sense of the word, spreading by word-of-mouth alone. I’m talking about New York City’s dollar vans which, for less than the cost of a subway trip or bus ride, will transport customers between neighborhoods underserved by public transit.
The New Yorker published a big piece last week charting the rise of dollar vans. By flying under-the-radar, the vans have continued to thrive without too much interference from the TLC. Unlike Uber and Lyft, which run aggressive marketing campaigns and promotions to attract as many customers as possible, dollar vans motor around the city almost entirely incognito. Unless you know where to look and what to look for, you’ll probably totally miss them. The New Yorker’s Aaron Reiss writes that the vans have “frequent departures and dependable schedules, but they lack service maps, posted timetables, and official stations or stops. There is no Web site or kiosk to help you navigate them. Instead, riders come to know these networks through conversations with friends and neighbors, or from happening upon the vans in the street.”
While the fight between dollar vans and city officials is far more muted and less public than Travis Kalanick’s Randian crusade against government “interference,” the vans have their fair share of run-ins with the law. Reiss mentions one citation leveled against a driver that read, “Driver cannot read or speak the English language sufficiently to respond to official inquiries.” Never mind that plenty of yellow cab, livery cab, and, yes, Uber drivers don’t know much English either. Furthermore, the vans cater to immigrant communities and so it makes far more sense for a Chinatown van driver to speak Chinese than English.
That the vans are so embedded in the community is another reason many local police officers, with notable exceptions of course, adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward the vans, according to a driver named Skates whose home-base is Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. And this is another key distinction between the brand of disruption peddled by Uber and the dollar vans’ shadow transit network: Although both services focus on convenience, Uber is targeted at riders who have plenty of options for transportation, not to mention plenty of disposable income to blow whenever Uber decides to jack up prices during high-traffic hours, inclement weather, or holidays. Dollar vans, on the other hand, provide cheap rides to communities the public transit system has underserved. Uber wants nothing more than to destroy the taxi industry. Dollar vans just want to serve a market that’s been ignored by existing public and private transportation systems.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that, like Uber and Lyft, an unregulated transportation network poses serious safety issues. It’s not unreasonable to expect drivers of uninsured or under-insured vans to face consequences, and certainly the lack of a screening process for unlicensed vehicles is a massive concern.
Nevertheless, dollar vans embrace a model for disruption we don’t always talk about in Silicon Valley. There’s no billion dollar exit to chase. There are no plans for world domination, or even expansion, beyond neighborhoods in New York where a cheap, efficient ride from point A to point B is hard to find. While Uber in many ways represents Jill Lepore’s definition of disruption, which posits it’s little more than a theory of why old institutions fail, dollar vans aren’t about destruction. They’re about building something where there was nothing before — not even a system or rules in place for it to exist. And while their actions come with all the same regulatory and safety problems as Uber, I’d argue dollar vans are far more in the original spirit of Silicon Valley innovation.