Commuter Vans Defy Rules for Transit-Needy Brooklyn

Home Brooklyn Life Commuter Vans Defy Rules for Transit-Needy Brooklyn
One of the vehicles in the Brooklyn Van Lines service that has gained popularity in the last year due to MTA bus cancellations. (Photo: Cristabelle Tumola / The Brooklyn Ink)

Weekday mornings Osmond Thorne takes commuters and children to school, but he is not driving a bus or subway train. He is behind the wheel of a 15-person commuter van.

The vans are a cheap and convenient way to get around Brooklyn, but they also skirt city regulations by regularly straying outside of their licensed routes to get more passengers.

A round of MTA bus cancellations last year led more passengers to depend on commuter vans such as Thorne’s Brooklyn Van Lines service. After the bus cancellations, many Brooklyn residents endured longer travel time to work and were stuck taking several subway lines to visit the Prospect Park area.

“By not having the service they are cut off not just to the rest of Brooklyn, but to the rest of the city and that’s very unfortunate,” says Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association, an independent urban research and advocacy group for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan region.

Whenever the MTA has to cut costs, it’s the riders who suffer the most, particularly those who lose service in areas where there are few transportation options, Zupan says.

One solution was the Group Ride Vehicle program. In September 2010 the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission gave private commuter van companies a special license to pick up passengers along five cancelled bus routes in Brooklyn and Queens. Thorne’s Brooklyn Van Lines was licensed to stop along the old B71 route, which served parts of Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights.

The program led to an increase in people using Thorne’s vans as an alternative to public transportation.

Dave Abraham, chair of Transportation Alternatives’ Brooklyn Committee, says before the Group Van Ride program many former MTA customers may have not trusted less official-looking van services.

Sarah Collins uses Brooklyn Van Lines to take her children to and from school. Collins lives in Red Hook and has been riding with Thorne since the beginning of last school year. During the ride to school, she chats with other parents among the sounds of their noisy children. “For day to day commuting it has been perfect,” she says.

Ty Jones also uses Brooklyn Van Lines to take her child from her home in Crown Heights to her babysitter in Park Slope. From there Jones can easily hop on the subway to her job in Manhattan.

This May, however, the TLC cancelled the last remaining van line because of “sporadic service they had been providing along the B71 route,” according to TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg.

The action didn’t diminish Brooklyn Van Lines’ business, however. The company still had its standard TLC license and continued picking up passengers along that route, despite rules, that according to Fromberg of the TLC, do not permit the vans to pick up passengers in much of the area of the former B71 route.

Brooklyn Van Lines still charges the $2 pickup and drop off fee that it did with the TLC program, with passengers negotiating what to pay if they want to go outside of the old B71 route.

Jones feels lucky that she was able to find a cheap mode of transportation when the B71 line was cancelled: “Without this service I would have to pay $10 each way for a cab.”

Andrea Vaughn, who has been taking commuter vans since December, also feels fortunate for their existence. When the B71 was cancelled her commute went from 20 minutes to up to an hour. She had to take two buses to her job at the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch. Now it takes her only 15 minutes and she also has “some good conversation” along with her commute.

Vaughn has been telling people in her area about the commuter vans on the neighborhood blog she writes for, The Word on Columbia Street. “Word of mouth has been very strong,” she says.

Another commuter van rider who is also helping spread the word is Marta Heilborn. She takes a Brooklyn Van Lines van to her job in the Grand Army Plaza area. She recalled how she recently met a woman on the street who was complaining about having to take three subway lines to work. Heilborn told her about the van service she uses.

Word of mouth has helped Brooklyn Van Lines’ business grow. Thorne attributes some of this increase to the beginning of the school year. The parents who have been using his service since the last school year have been telling others about it.

As a result, Thorne hopes to soon add more vans to serve the old B71 bus passengers. In the meantime, with the cold weather quickly approaching, he is sure that more people will call him for a ride.


More Stories on The Brooklyn Ink:

Job Hunting Hard for Long-Time Hospital Worker

Bensonhurst Native Optimistic Despite Unemployment

Meet Lance: Unemployed in Bensonhurst

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.