Sulaiman Haqq is a man with a van, and a plan.
Haqq, co-owner of Brooklyn Van Lines, hopes to be the new face of “public” transportation, thanks to a city-led pilot program that will replace service on eliminated bus lines with private vans — bringing the so-called “dollar vans” to neighborhoods such as Brownstone Brooklyn previously untapped by the group livery industry.
The controversial proposal has been blasted by the transit workers union, who say its illegal, and by van critics, who charge that the vans have a proven record of reckless driving and bad behavior.
But instead of controversy, Haqq only sees only a glorious opportunity to venture into new territory.
“I am very optimistic,” said Haqq, who is eagerly awaiting the city’s decision on his application to the program.
Under a plan recently approved by the city, livery vans will be allowed to operate along routes that include the B71, which once rumbled through Carroll Gardens and Park Slope on its way to Crown Heights. The line was among 32 citywide eliminated by the addled Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Traditionally, the vans operated in Caribbean-American enclaves, such as Flatbush, East Flatbush and Flatlands. That’s because the business has its roots in the Caribbean islands, where instead of being called dollar vans, they are called minibuses, said Haqq, originally from Barbados. “It’s the same thing.”
The vans typically travel, sometimes recklessly, along wider thoroughfares, such as Flatbush and Nostrand avenues — but Haqq doesn’t expect problems on narrower streets. “We’re smaller than the buses,” he noted.
Still, Haqq expects a long road ahead in Brownstone Brooklyn — but he’s planning on taking things slowly, to start. His plan calls for no more than six vans to rumble along any one route, with service every 15 minutes.
The vans will seat up to 20 people, and cost $2 a ride. The city will not subsidize the operation.
“This is a new thing here, and we don’t want to put them off. We will be very conservative,” he said. “If we need to add more, we’ll add more.”
He said he expects to make money in time, with the help of a free marketing campaign by the city, alerting jilted bus riders that alternatives are available.
Craig Hammerman, the district manager at Community Board 6, which encompasses much of Brownstone Brooklyn, called the plan a “rational” one, but said the industry doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation. “Dollar vans don’t have the greatest history of being good operators — does that mean that to get service we have to tolerate excessive horn-honking?”
Haqq said dollar vans receive a justifiable bad rap because about 90 percent of the industry operates illegally, driving recklessly and flouting city-mandated pick-up areas.
“We need to clean that up. That’s destroying the image and giving people a negative impression.”
The city said the vans would be clearly marked with decals, indicating their participation in the pilot-program, which only allows vans to pick up passengers at yet-to-be-determined stops along the route. The vans will not stop at all the former bus stops, but drop-offs can be negotiated between the driver and the passenger.
The other two borough routes included in the plan are Williamsburg’s former B39 line, which voyaged into Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge, and the B23, which once connected Kensington to Borough Park.
Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said companies have not yet been selected to participate in the citywide program, which could begin on Aug. 15.
Winston Williams, owner of Blackstreet Van Lines, didn’t submit an application because he doesn’t think the city will be able to sway public opinion to support dollar vans. Moreover, he said, commuters have already found ways of coping with the terminated routes.
“Those people are devoted bus riders and they’ve already found an alternate means of transportation,” he said. “This won’t be profitable for the van operators.”
And the vans may face competition from former city bus drivers, if the Transport Workers Union has its way.
The union recently filed a lawsuit to ban the vans from operating on the routes, arguing that it is illegal for the city to offer this service without a change in the law.
But if you can’t beat them, join them.
“The union is setting up a franchise to run vehicles, and it will be employing out-of-work bus drivers,” said union attorney Arthur Schwartz.
©2010 Community News Group
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