Mapping Brooklyn’s Informal Transit System Using Open Data
I. Informal Transit: An Overview
Ananya Roy defines urban informality as” a state of exception from the formal order of urbanization.” Urban informality arises when there are gaps within the formal system where the State fails to fulfill the needs of certain populations. This will often translate into the provision of basic services that are inaccessible to marginalized populations within urban peripheries. One of these basic services is transit.
Informal transit most often arises as a result of gaps within formal transit systems. These could be the result of rapid urbanization and a context of mass rural-urban migration, as Behal, et al, Cervero and Golub, and Foster argue, or they could also be due to poor service provision and unreliability of bus services, as is the case for sections of New York City lacking access to the subway as argued by Goldwyn. According to Smith, gentrification has also played a role in pushing people out of urban centers with good transit access into the periphery. Traditional formal transit often fails to keep up, leaving informal operators to fill in the gaps.
In terms of the New York City Dollar Vans specifically, the literature is more limited and only a handful of peer-reviewed publications on the topic exist. Sources seem to agree that these services are commonly associated with West Indian immigrant communities and mostly serve the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. However, both Mussili and Salon, as well as Smith, also note that dollar van systems exist among East Asian communities and neighborhoods as well, connecting Manhattan’s Chinatown to the outer boroughs. The literature also agrees that their origin within the New York City context dates to the neglect the city’s public services suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, with the 1980 transit strike cited by many as a turning point for the service. They are also, according to Goldwyn, and Musilli and Salon, specifically a mode of transit that arises in areas that are not within walking distance of the subway, even if buses are accessible, given the unreliability of bus services in many neighborhoods. Goldwyn also claims that the vans operate as a feeder service to the subway. At the same time, Best discusses the vans specifically as a mode of transit used by Black residents of Brooklyn and Queens to reach Manhattan by subway.
Another reason why informal public transit arises is because of segregation and discriminatory practices in urban design, as Foster points out. An example of this is how contemporary African cities such as Nairobi and Kinshasa were mostly built by colonists and were designed to keep the Black native population isolated from the White settlers through a lack of transit infrastructure. This issue has not been resolved in the postcolonial period. This is true as well within the context of jitney systems and dollar vans in New York, which often arose in response to segregation and racial discrimination, according to both Goldwyn and Best. They also argue that the New York City informal transit system is a response to racial inequality within the provision of public bus services. Best makes a similar argument, citing racially-based neglect of certain neighborhoods by the city, as well as urban blight and gentrification as contributing factors to informal transit in New York City.
Debates have largely focused on the benefits versus the drawbacks of such services existing in parallel to traditional formal transit. On the one hand, these services allow under-serviced low-income communities to have better, more reliable transit access. They often also offer a service that is more affordable than the formal system. In addition, the informal systems also offer a stable source of income for the poorest sectors, including migrants and the unemployed, who, in most cases, work as drivers. At the same time, these services have multiple drawbacks such as their contribution to traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, traffic accidents, and overcrowding.
A myriad of reasons why users might opt into these systems exists. One reason might be that in some instances, users might feel safer riding these services, as Behal, et al conclude from their study of the Grameen Siwa system in India, and Goldwyn concludes about the Brooklyn Dollar Vans. However, not all scholars would agree that these systems are safer. For instance, Foster argues that informal services might be less safe, citing the likelihood of road accidents and sexual harassment, and noting that these services can often be fairly unsafe for women. Another reason for why they are popular might be that these services can get passengers to their destinations more quickly and flexibly. This specific point is a general consensus within the literature. Another oft-cited reason for using the service is cost, which is referenced across the literature as a key factor.
There is also a diversity of regulatory approaches to the issue. The relationship between these actors and the State will often vary, as does the relationship between operators themselves. Foster cites that in Kenyan cities, measures have been placed to regulate the system by adding safety requirements. However, police corruption has made this more difficult to implement. Similar efforts have taken place in Kolkata, according to Chattopadhyay. In other cases, informal transit can be made safer through improvements to the built environment, including creating dedicated lanes and sidewalk improvement, as was the case in Tanzania, according to Foster. The literature also mentions that an alternative to regulation has been the preservation of the status quo due to the fact that there are actors who benefit from it. This is the case in Bangkok, according to Cervero and Golub. A third alternative might be cracking down on these systems, as happened in the United States in the early twentieth century, according to Goldwyn. In New York City, regulatory approaches to the dollar vans have oscillated, with policies including tacit acceptance, attempts at regulation, failed cooperation, and even outright criminalization, occurring at different moments in time.
This paper seeks to answer the following key questions: Firstly, what needs does the informal transit system in Brooklyn serve? Secondly, which demographics are served by the informal transit system in Brooklyn? And, is there a relationship between transit informality and racial marginalization in Brooklyn? Finally, how does spatial evidence on dollar vans match with the qualitative research found in the literature? Thus, we could summarize our key question as such: Is there a spatial relationship between lack of subway access, the presence of dollar vans, and Black immigrant communities?
The main mode of research will be a GIS based analysis overlaying the dollar van system with key variables. I will construct a series of maps built using open data to visualize the circumstances that lead informal transit to thrive in South-Eastern Brooklyn. In order to do so, I will recreate the routes within the Brooklyn Dollar Van system using QGIS and overlay them with thematic maps showing demographic and transit data in the borough. As no dataset charting these routes exists, these routes will be based on maps created by journalist Aaron Reiss of The New Yorker, who has done one of the most comprehensive visualizations of the system.
Firstly, I will look at the presence of subway deserts and map out subway coverage in the borough. I will do so by creating a buffer of 500 meters walking distance and measuring the area in each NTA. I will then divide the area covered by the subway per NTA with each NTA’s total area to obtain the percentage of subway coverage per neighborhood. Through this, I will determine which areas are underserved by the subway. Following this, I will map subway coverage in relation to race. Two variables will be used: Percentage of White population and percentage of Black population. This will be done to see if transit deserts have a dimension of racial discrimination.
Then, I will overlay the map of the Flatbush Dollar Van system onto a series of transit variables. The first of these will be subway coverage and subway stops to see whether the system corresponds to areas poorly serviced by the subway. The second variable will be public transit usership broken down into subway and bus usership. This will show the extent to which dollar vans are complementary to buses and the subway. The third variable will be commute times. We will observe the extent to which the van lines pass through areas where commutes exceed 45 minutes. The source for this data will be the American Community Survey.
Finally, I will overlay the van routes onto data regarding demographics. Two variables will be looked at. The first is race. I will look at both White and Black populations in comparison with the van system as I did with transit deserts to see to what extent race plays a spatial role in the areas serviced by the system. The second variable is migration. I will look at the percentage of foreign-born population to determine if the vans service areas with heavy immigrant populations. Both these variables will draw from the American Community Survey.
III. Mapping Brooklyn’s Dollar Vans
New York City has its own system of informal transit as was described above. It consists of what are known as Dollar Vans, which are “hybrid bus-taxis.” Goldwyn estimates that these vehicles service around 120,000 passengers per day. These systems exist in areas poorly serviced by traditional public transit within outer boroughs such as Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. According to Reiss, there are four such systems: one within Eastern Queens, one within Southeastern Brooklyn, a small line in the Bronx, and a system connecting Manhattan’s Chinatown with Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In addition, there are also vans connecting New Jersey to New York City.
The Flatbush Dollar Van lines, as based on Reiss 2014, operate internally through Brooklyn and do not connect it to any other borough. While dollar vans are a disjointed set of small informal operators running their own routes, together they make up a cohesive system that connects within itself in a neat fashion. As we can see below in Figure 1, it services and connects communities in the South-Eastern part of Brooklyn, as well as offering access to the commercial area of Downtown Brooklyn. Please note that given the informal nature of the service, there might be other lines that have not been mapped or are only known to local residents.
Southeast Brooklyn is an area with poor transit access, especially when it comes to the subway. According to Best, these parts of the borough are often “regarded as marginal or ‘ungeographic’ spaces.” The southeastern part of the borough seems to have the worst subway access, with five NTAs in the southeastern shore having less than 11% of their respective areas covered by the subway. These are the following: Flatlands, Canarsie, Rugby-Remsen Village, Marine Park, and Starrett City. While all of these areas have ample bus service, there are many areas of the city, including south-east Brooklyn where, as Goldwyn states, “MTA-owned buses come too infrequently, are overcrowded, or are regularly stuck in traffic.”
As can be seen in Figure 2, the Dollar Van routes in Brooklyn correspond with this underserved corridor. If we look at the routes in conjunction with transit access, we can see that the routes connect under-serviced subway deserts to neighborhoods with better subway access. As we can see below in Figure 6, most of the lines will begin at a subway desert and end at a subway stop. In this sense, as the literature claims, the vans act as a complementary service to the subway, facilitating access for communities that are under-serviced by the formal system.
This is backed up when we map this with data from the American Community Survey (2014–2018) by census tracts. Figures 3 and 4 show that census tracts serviced by the dollar vans or adjacent to the dollar van lines are by and large more dependent on the subway, but less so on buses. This means that the dollar vans are not as complementary to the bus system because buses are not the primary form of transit for the communities serviced. An explanation for this can be found in Goldwyn’s analysis. Testimonies collected in his research from van drivers have described bus conditions that are overcrowded and often uncomfortable.
Another way in which we can visualize how underserviced these communities are in terms of transit is by looking at whether a commute takes longer than 45 minutes. As we can see in Figure 5, many of these many of the census tracts serviced by the Dollar Van system have large majorities of the population experiencing long commute times as the result of the lack of adequate transit options. Thus, it is clear that the van system is filling a real need in terms of providing transit to areas of Brooklyn not served by the subway, with low commute times, and heavy subway dependency due to lack of access.
Dollar van service in Brooklyn is also heavily tied to race. The underserved corridor of Southeast Brooklyn neighborhoods has a primarily Black population. As Figure 6 shows, the Dollar Van system in Brooklyn serves Black neighborhoods in Southeastern Brooklyn, either in predominantly Black areas or heavily Black areas. Most of the area covered by the system has a Black population of above 44%. Meanwhile, as Figure 7 shows, the system does not cover majority White areas at all, except for Marine Park, where the King’s Plaza Mall is located and several of the lines start and end. This indicates that, as the literature argues, dollar vans exist to address transit inequalities that primarily affect Brooklyn’s Black communities. Thus, it could be stated that the vans, and the transit gaps that produced them may be the result of institutional racism, as argued by much of the literature on this subject.
Another key demographic indicator is the percentage of foreign-born population. As shown by Figure 8, the area where the vans operate includes many neighborhoods where around half of the population are immigrants. This once again reinforces the ethnographic studies contained within the literature that link dollar van systems in New York City with immigrant communities. The link between dollar vans and immigrant communities in this region relates to the fact that this mode of transit was actually imported from the Caribbean and West Africa, where many of the immigrants living in South-East Brooklyn are from. By establishing the Dollar Van system, West Indian communities were able “to make the strange familiar by making available in the United States a mode of travel popular in the Caribbean” according to Best.
Our findings appear to correspond with scholarly literature on the subject of dollar vans and can be synthesized as follows:
- South-East Brooklyn is poorly serviced by the subway system. Many neighborhoods have less than 11% of their total area within walking distance (500 meters) of the subway. These areas are overwhelmingly Black neighborhoods, though the heavily White area of Marine Park can also be considered a transit desert.
- Our spatial analysis reinforces the argument made by the literature of dollar vans as a complementary system to the subway. The vans connect the transit deserts of South-East Brooklyn directly with subway stops in better serviced areas.
- The areas serviced by the system tend to have long commute times as the result of lack of transit service and the unreliability of the bus system. The dollar van lines run along census tracts where the majority of the population faces commutes longer than 45 minutes.
- Bus ridership in areas serviced by the vans appears to be low compared to subway ridership.The census tracts adjacent to the dollar van lines tend to be more subway-dependent and less bus-dependent. This is true for most of Brooklyn as a whole.
- As the literature states, the system operates in predominantly Black neighborhoods such as Canarsie, Flatbush, and Rugby-Remsen Village, as well as neighborhoods with heavy Black populations, such as Crown Heights and Flatlands. The only predominantly White neighborhood serviced by the system is Marine Park.
- The area serviced by the system has a high immigrant population. This backs up the literature in terms of the link between the vans and immigrant communities.
Thus our analysis provides substantial supporting evidence for much of the claims made in scholarly literature about dollar vans. We have seen through this that dollar vans, while a small phenomenon provide vital transit services for underserved areas of Brooklyn inhabited by marginalized communities. We have also found that this system can serve as a complementary service that easily connects among itself and with the subway to allow for better mobility within transit deserts. A next step would be to conduct similar analyses for the various systems that exist across the city and explore how transit inaccessibility, migration, and racial marginalization have shaped their development.
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