By Stefanos Chen
After 17 years of pacing the streets of Sunset Park, you might think that Wai Yeung Wong would bring a chair to work–except he never does. He doesn’t dare. Not with everyone, it seems, horning in on his business.
Wong co-owns the J&HE Transportation Inc., a private shuttle service that transports Sunset Park’s growing Chinese population to and from Chinatown. He joined the company two years ago, but has been involved with the commuter shuttle, or “dollar van” business, as it’s often called, for nearly 25 years. After a quarter century, Wong, now 58, might have cornered the market. But in the transient world of cash transactions, street-side pickups, and blurry licensing laws, where getting ahead often means breaking the rules, nothing is a sure thing.
So it was that he was standing on the corner of 59th St. and 8th Ave, as he does most days, directing commuters into one of his company’s white Ford vans. But less than 10 blocks away, dozens of Wong’s potential customers were boarding improperly licensed vans–as his competition watched from worn-in folding chairs. “It’s not fair for us,” he said with a groan.
The commuter van business grew out of the need to transport Brooklyn’s growing Chinese population to and from the more established Chinatown of lower Manhattan, where many Brooklyn Chinese found work in restaurants, textile factories and retail stores during the 1980s. The combination of one-stop travel and the lure of riding with fellow Chinese convinced many commuters to ride the vans instead of taking public transportation. By 1985, vehicles of all shapes and sizes were being used to cash in on the booming industry, according to Wong.
“In the beginning, there was just one van,” he said between long drags on a cigarette. “Then my friend bought a yellow school bus, the kind for students, and started using that too.”
But as business grew, its tenuous legal status created several problems for the companies. Police were impounding vans and owners were facing large sums in moving violation tickets for causing traffic congestion. So in 1988, Wong applied for one of the first commuter van licenses issued in Sunset Park from the Department of Transportation. Once licensed, Wong’s company became subject to annual taxes, insurance costs and frequent safety inspections, but it earned him a sense of legitimacy among the legion of unmarked vans.
By the early 1990s, Wong’s prudence had paid off, and he became a partner in “Wah On,” a popular shuttle company with a fleet of 16 vans. For close to a decade, he worked 7 days a week, with vans running from 6 am to 11pm. With the money he saved, he managed to buy a home for his family, become a U.S. citizen and put his four children through school. But in the years to follow, not all of his competitors would be as keen on playing by the rules.
“There’s been illegal competition for about 10 years,” he said. “I always complain to police. They agree with me, but they don’t take action.”
The problem for Wong is that the laws regulating the van business are often complicated and difficult to enforce, allowing anyone with knowledge of the business to take advantage of the system. One major source of consternation, for law enforcement and drivers alike, has been the issue of licensing. For instance, all vans that carry 16 or more people are required by New York law to carry a bus-grade commercial driver’s license, according to the Unofficial DMV Guide, a website designed to simplify its namesake’s instructions. However, several van drivers are only issued Taxi and Limousine Commission licenses meant for vehicles with half of that capacity. Drivers who only obtain these licenses are therefore under-insured, and are putting their passengers at risk, said Community Affairs Officer Janet Zhang of the 72nd precinct.
“The reason we stop vans is because they didn’t buy enough insurance,” she said. “In China, maybe they allow it, but here we have regulations and law. We do it for your safety.”
In some cases, vans aren’t licensed at all. While she estimates that there are approximately 60 licensed vans in Sunset Park, there are several more that are not on file with the department. Out of the three or four legitimate van companies that compete in Sunset Park, close to 40 of the licensed vehicles belonged to Wong’s company.
But all of these issues tend to circle one major, underlying problem. At a community affairs meeting on Tuesday, it was revealed that Sunset Service, one of the other major van companies in Sunset Park, was attempting to move from its 53rd Street pickup location to 57th Street–just two blocks away from Wong’s pickup area. But unlike public bus companies, neither J&HE nor Sunset Service was ever granted a permanent pickup site.
This is not to say, however, that there isn’t still plenty of demand for the commuter van business as a whole. Even though the so-called “dollar vans” now cost $2.50 a ride, many residents continue to rely on the service. Since so many commuters travel straight to Chinatown, the vans remain the fastest way to travel. “The MTA is never on time, not punctual,” said Wendy Lai, an assistant at the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association, an organization that provides social services to Sunset Park’s Chinese community. “It takes a half hour with the van but one hour by subway. It’s just more convenient.”
Wong is currently waiting for the Department of Transportation to either approve or reject his application for city-approved commuter van pickup stations. Until then, the companies will have to make due with what they have.
“No, I’m never angry, I just feel that it’s not fair,” he said. “Because if you’re angry, you can’t do nothing about it.”