A new short film by Honest Enterprise is a must-see for fans of economic liberty with 15 minutes to spare. No Van’s Land documents the struggles and triumphs of New York City-based Community Transportation Systems Inc., a commuter van company founded and run by Jamaican immigrant Hector B. Ricketts, as it struggles to provide service and grow in the shadow of harassment and strict municipal regulations.
The film by Honest Enterprise, a project of the Charles Koch Institute in Washington, D.C., follows the Ricketts’ story from his immigration to America in 1979 through his time as a business owner. Ricketts first arrived to the U.S. on a vacation with his family when he was struck by the opportunities he saw in America. He soon secured a student visa and brought his family to America in pursuit of a better life in New York City.
The hardworking Ricketts found a job at a local hospital and began taking passengers on his van as a side business to earn extra money. When downsizing at his workplace in 1992 left him without a job, Ricketts opted not to “beat the pavement” searching for jobs or to join the unemployment lines. Instead, he founded Queens Van Plan and later Community Transportation Systems Inc. – both commuter van services offering alternatives to taxicabs and metro buses.
New York’s failing public transit system had created a market just waiting for private enterprise. “Especially in the 80s and in the 90s, the management at [Metropolitan Transit Authority] had not been working to improve the types of bus service . . . they were taking their customers for granted,” remembers Leroy Comrie, NYC Councilman for the 27th district. Queens Van Plan met with economic success as it offered a low-cost and valuable service to workers who lived on the outskirts of the city. MTA bus lines were few, far between, and only ran one bus ever forty five minutes to an hour. Ricketts’ vans were more convenient, faster, cheaper, and kept a personal touch which was lost with the city buses.
As Rickett’s new businesses grew successful, in the corner offices of New York City’s powerful Public Transit Union, the busmen were busy. “The government perceiv[ed] us as competitors to the mass transit transportation systems,” claims Ricketts. In order to protect their vested interests in public transportation, union bosses and local politicians set their political machines in motion.
First, stringent regulations were enforced and perverse new regulations were created, ensuring a market for public buses by raising the cost of business for commuter van services. Because New York City streets are public property, the city government reasoned, the municipal government had unlimited power to restrict what types of transportation were used on those streets. “Removing those obstacles almost became a full-time job,” recalls Ricketts. After the pen came the sword. City police officers began harassing commuter van drivers, targeting them for tickets in an effort to bleed the van companies dry. Police harassment culminated in August 1992, when three police officers brutalized and paralyzed a 26-year-old van driver and Jamaican immigrant named Robert Ealneish.
Economic discrimination against commuter van drivers attracted the attention of the Institute for Justice, which filed a lawsuit against New York City for its practices. In New York’s courtrooms, the Institute for Justice argued that the municipal government was unfairly restricting commuter vans’ right to do business. The New York Supreme Court agreed. Its ruling held that the municipal government was guilty of unconstitutional activities and a failure of separation of powers. Honest Enterprise’s film notes these and other small victories for the commuter van industry, but points out that to this day commuter vans still face a powerful foe in the Public Transit Union and municipal government.
Even in the face of discrimination and harassment, commuter vans have thrived and continue to provide important services to their communities. No Van’s Land contains interviews with home healthcare providers and bus drivers who recall fondly and with pride the commuter vans’ service to the people of New York in times of its most dire need. One of Rickett’s employees describes the situation: “Whenever the subway’s on strike, they call for the commuter vans. Whenever the train is not working, commuter vans. Whenever the buses strike, commuter vans. Whenever the taxis strike, commuter vans.” When 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy paralyze subways and buses, commuter vans continue their quiet work. One seeking testimony of Community Transportation Systems Inc.’s valuable role in servicing New York’s citizens need look no further than the Visiting Nurse Association of Staten Island. In the film, members of VNASI recall how Community Transportation System Inc.’s vans helped nurses get to isolated patients during Hurricane Sandy, serving as the crucial link between patient and provider.
Enterprise made America great. No Van’s Land by Honest Enterprise deftly captures the story of Hector Ricketts and New York’s commuter vans over the course of their fight for the right to provide their services to the people of New York. If you valuable free enterprise, take fifteen minutes out of your day to watch this tale of big government and the American dream.
MaineWire Staff Writer