Brooklyn’s Van Drivers Hurt By Skyrocketing Gas Prices

March 23, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Dominique Z. Scott
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle

FLATBUSH — Roddy Michel, 41, whipped in and out of traffic with zest, racing to pick up as many passengers as his Ford E-40 van could seat. Zipping down Flatbush Avenue on his daily route between Kings Highway and Downtown, he slowed down near every corner to honk his horn at pedestrians. He needed to make enough cash to fill up his tank, eat and bring home money to his family.

“Gas is so much right now that I am not really making any profits,” said Michel.  “I make almost $150 a day, but after gas and food, I bring home like $50.”

Michel is a driver of the type of van known as a “dollar van” to Brooklynites. The car-pool service exclusive to Flatbush charges passengers a flat rate of $2 per person, but as the passenger rate remains the same, gas prices are skyrocketing.

Gas prices nationwide increased nearly 47 cents per gallon since the start of 2012, according to the Associated Press. The nationwide average price reached a nickel shy of $4 in New York City, according to CNN Money.  Drivers like Michel, who depend on driving vans for income, are spending more on gas, which means fewer profits.

“Right now I need to do a moving job, to make money, so that I can put gas in my tank,” said Michel.

Michel puts Plus gas in his van. Last year he paid around $3.50 per gallon, but this year the BP gas stations along Flatbush Avenue have raised the price to more than $4.10 per gallon.

“Yesterday I made $150, and I brought home like $80 because the gas took like half of it,” Michel said.

Like many of the dollar van drivers, who make minimal profits, Michel is behind on bills.  He is late on his rent and can barely afford to take care of his wife and 3-year-old son. Michel said when gas prices started to rise this year, he began to look for other means of income to support his family.

“On a moving job, I use less gas and make more money,” Michel said. “I will get $200 for it.”

When Michel left his house that afternoon, his gas tank was teetering on empty and he had less than $60 in his pocket. But times weren’t always so hard. In his twenties he moved to the predominantly Caribbean-American neighborhood of Flatbush from Haiti. His job as a chef at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Manhattan brought him steady income.

Michel was laid off in 2007.  He became a dollar van driver because he couldn’t find another job.

“In 2007, gas was less than $3,” said Michel. “I could fill up my tank for less than $100. Now it’s over $130.”

Jason Johnson, 22, said that times were tough on business.  Prices to maintain his dollar van are rising, but the income remains the same.

Johnson puts $10 in his car at a time, hoping to have enough gas to make at least $50 from passengers. If gas prices continue to rise, Johnson said it might be time to raise passenger fares.

 “If gas goes up, then I will charge people $3 or $4,” Johnson said, “But then I don’t know if we will have business because the bus is $2.25.”

Gasoline prices are at a record season high, and as warmer months approach, dollar van drivers could be looking at $5 per gallon.

Desmond West, 54, CEO of Royal Rose Transportation, is one of the longest-working dollar van drivers on Flatbush Avenue.  He has been working as a driver for more than 20 years and opened his own business six years ago. West has seen gas prices go up and down over the years, and he says that right now the business is just not profitable.

“Drivers roughly make about $200 a day,” said West. “A hundred dollars will go for gas, the $100 that is left has to go to insurance and wear and tear.”

West said that although times are hard, increasing gas prices are a nationwide issue. He said his drivers would have to go from working 12 hours to working 16-hour shifts in order to maintain profits.

As for Michel, rising gas prices may force him to retire from the business.

“Its nice to have your own business, but I’m not making any profits,” said Michel. “If they put it up one more dollar then it will be at $5, and there is no way I can afford to make it out there.”

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