On the Road to Economic Liberty

October 1, 2002

October 2002

On the Road to Economic Liberty

By Hector Ricketts

Imagine securing the capital to start a new business, passing all government licensing and inspection requirements, hiring trained employees, and finding enthusiastic customers–and then being ticketed and harassed by police simply for operating the enterprise you’ve built.

That’s the daunting situation commuter van entrepreneurs face in New York City. For more than 15 years, I have fought the arbitrary regulations that shut vans out of the city’s transportation network and steal the dignity of van entrepreneurs like myself. We have had victories and losses, including the recent disappointing and shameful refusal by New York’s highest court to consider our lawsuit, but I am convinced that we remain on a path toward vindicating our right to economic liberty.

For one thing, our riders display remarkable tenacity. I am in this business because I’ve seen the police chase vans from corner to corner–and watched the riders follow. Despite rules, backed by union interests, that bar vans from picking up and discharging passengers along city bus routes (nearly every street in the city), commuters will go to incredible lengths for our safe, inexpensive rides.

And the city is taking note. Born during the transit strike of 1980, the van industry has rescued commuters stranded by strikes and natural disasters for more than 20 years, without incident. The mayor regularly calls on the vans during transportation crises, including after September 11, when vans provided more than 3,000 free trips for police, firefighters and families of the victims.

In the past decade and a half, the commuter van industry has demonstrated its value as part of New York’s transportation mix. Our progress is a tribute to the hard work of our drivers, the loyalty of our riders and especially the people of the Institute for Justice.

The turning point came in 1997, when Chip Mellor told a gathering of 30 van operators that he would take on our battle–for free–just because we were right. Within two years, the Institute for Justice legal team had wrestled control of van licensing from the New York City Council, which, dominated by union interests, had kept van licenses wrapped up in red tape. The victory normalized the licensing process and opened the door for some 30 new van companies in a mere three years. Thousands have now been put to work, and tens of thousands are taken to work by vans. On the public relations front, the Institute for Justice communications team has made every person of conscience in New York focus on our plight–and admit that the vans are right.

Of course, our opponents continue to use every trick available to block our way. Union presidents are welcomed as special guests to the floor of the City Council to strong-arm votes; vans that dare deliver service the public demands are often caught in the web spun by the bus union working together with the police force and are tagged with a dozen tickets or more in a matter of minutes–all for doing nothing more than trying to earn an honest living in an otherwise legal profession. I have often delighted in watching Chip tower–intellectually, morally and in sheer height–over government attorneys and union representatives.

We are preparing a new challenge to make the City Council authorize vans appropriately and allow us onto the bus routes. And we continue to urge Mayor Bloomberg–who has expressed support for our plight–to bring the full weight of his office to the issue. We have a proven track record, and the atmosphere is right. I am optimistic that the vans will soon take our rightful place complementing the city’s transportation network.

In the meantime, I wish to thank Chip, the staff of the Institute for Justice and all of the generous individuals who make their work possible for being fellow travelers along the road to economic liberty. I will not rest until our journey is complete.

Hector Ricketts is the president of Queens Van Plan and continues to work with the Institute for Justice to open up New York City’s ground transportation monopoly.

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