Saturday, October 2, 2010

Van operators know how to sell

Yesterday afternoon I was walking down Sutphin Boulevard when I heard a man shout "Six!" Other men nearby were saying the same thing, chanting "Six! Six! Six!" I didn't ask, and I could be completely wrong, but I'm guessing they were referring to the Q6 bus route. They seemed to be loading people into gypsy cabs (a share taxi route?), and nearby was a sign nearby saying "Authorized Commuter Van Pickup."

First, a clarification: A week ago I wrote, "The operators are mostly Jamaicans and Haitians who have their experience running the dollar vans in Flatbush and Jamaica." Jarrett pointed out that many non-New Yorkers might be unaware that the Jamaica I'm referring to is a neighborhood in Queens that is a major transit transfer point, with two subway termini, a massive Long Island Railroad station, a station on the AirTrain to Kennedy Airport, and two bus terminals. It is also a popular shopping district, and the home of York College, a large hospital and several courthouses. Confusingly, many of the people who live in this Jamaica, work in Jamaica, or "change at Jamaica" are immigrants from the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Apparently the names come from different words, pronounced in very different ways, in two distantly-related aboriginal languages, one Algonquian and the other Arawakan.

When I was in college, one of my classmates was a Jewish woman from Queens who had just gotten a new hairstyle, braided in African-style cornrows. She mentioned that when she told people she had gotten her hair done "in Jamaica," she had to clarify that she had not just come back from a Caribbean vacation.

In any case, Jamaica, Queens is also a major terminus for "dollar vans." People transfer primarily from the subways to the vans, but also from commuter trains, buses and other van lines. As on Flatbush Avenue, most of the people involved in running these vans are immigrants from Jamaica or Haiti. The usual explanation is that they were familiar with the concept, because jitneys are common in those countries.

On the streets between Jamaica and Archer Avenues you can see this business in action. In addition to the guys yelling "Six!" you can find several loading areas for vans. Some just have the "Commuter Van Pickup" sign installed by the City, but others have more elaborate signs. Some just have drivers, and others have people selling the van service, but all of them have at least one van waiting.

Information for the newbie is scarce: most of the vans have no markings at all indicating what route they travel on. If they have markings, they give the MTA bus line that anchors their route, but if you don't know where the Q5 goes, that number doesn't help you much. Some of the drivers are quite fluent in Jamaican patois, but less so in New York English. Still, they are quite good at letting people know that they are available to take you somewhere.

Contrast that to the Q74 and B39 situations, where you have the DOT sign, but no other signs and no vans. They left it to the Taxi and Limousine Commission to provide someone on the sidewalk to get people into the vans, but there were no vans to get into. Somewhere in the middle is the Q79 experience reported by our tipster, where after fifteen minutes' wait the van company owner came out to tell him that a van would be along soon.

Clearly, this is not about not knowing how to sell. It's about wanting to sell. If the van operators thought there was any money in the Q74 service, they would be out there waiting at the stop, and they would have five guys standing on the sidewalk chanting "Van to Queens College!" at everyone who walks past. They clearly don't. This pilot project is floundering, and the only way to save it is with some kind of anchor program. Will anyone step up to create one? Ricketts? Yassky? Sadik-Khan? Goldsmith? Bloomberg? Walder? Bueller?


Alon Levy said...

How come the Q5 and Q6 have successful vans whereas the Q74 doesn't?

George K said...

First of all, it has to do with the vans not being there in the first place, and the frequency of the service being lower than that of the surrounding routes.
It also has a lot to do with the ridership figures. The Q5 gets about 14,000 riders per weekday and the Q6 gets 11,000, whereas the Q74 gets only about 2,000 riders per weekday. There is much more demand that can be shared between buses and dollar vans, as some people might wait for a bus and take a dollar van because it showed up first.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, George has it pretty much right, Alon. I strongly recommend you read Klein, Moore and Reja (PDF), and the longer versions floating around on the web. First of all, the Q5 and Q6 routes have anchors - their eponymous MTA buses. Second, as shown by the ridership figures George quotes, they'd probably count as thick markets.