Before there was Uber, there was Hector Ricketts’ Community Transportation Systems, Inc. Uber has snagged tons of press and unlikely allies as the San Francisco-based high-end car service app clashes with powerful union and bureaucratic forces in every market it enters. The service wins its fans by filling a market gap left by clumsy, tardy, slow, or unfriendly city transportation options, mostly for urban professionals.
Since the 1980s, Ricketts has been filling the same need for the working class of New York City’s outer boroughs. Ricketts, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1979, runs a commuter van service that picks up customers for $1 per ride where city bus lines are often unreliable, cabs prohibitively expensive, and Subway stops nonexistent. Van businesses are a fixture of life in the island homelands of many of his customers, and were a natural fit around the Big Apple, “putting people to work taking people to work,” as Ricketts puts it. But staying in business has never been easy, not because of a lack of demand or dissatisfied customers, but because of a city regulatory structure stacked with the competition— city buses, cabs, and transportation union leaders.
In “No Vans Land,” filmmaker Sean W. Malone explores the decades-long fight Ricketts has waged to keep this low-cost, convenient option running against a string of ever-changing obstacles from special interests and city lawmakers. He has won modest successes— commuter vans can now legally pick up passengers at a whole two stops—but drivers still operate under a constant threat of low-grade police harassment and overhead in the form of tickets, fines, and wasted time. The best part? The commuter vans are totally unsubsidized, and guess who government turns to in a strike or a weather crisis when their own transportation grinds to a halt?
The power to regulate, if not tightly controlled, becomes corrupt rent-seeking. Regulations always end up favoring existing businesses at the expense of innovators. It’s even worse when the relationship between the regulators and the regulated becomes incestuous.