When regulations attack: Meet Hector Ricketts, small-biz success story stifled by government

posted at 7:21 pm on July 24, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

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?

Take 20 minutes of a day to learn about this man and his fight. It’s well worth your time. Ricketts is a symbol of the very real damage an overzealous government, prone to cronyism, can do to the little guy. Sometimes government’s victims can be hard to find while the stories of those it subsidizes can be pinpointed and personalized easily. Malone, as part of his work with the Charles Koch Institute, is finding the unintended consequences behind these laws, and they are men and women like Hector. HonestEnterprise.tv will host more of these stories, so stay tuned, and I know from working with Malone in the past that they’ll be entertaining.

Nick Gillespie at Reason, where Reason TV videos do exactly the exemplary journalism he praises in HonestEnterprise, notes why this kind of work is important:

This is a form of the partisan or advocacy journalism recently celebrated by Jack Shafer at Reuters. This is journalism that is serious even though its creators take a side in a given issue. The goal is to persuade, not to dogmatize people into agreement. Though a somewhat doctrinaire libertarian who got his start at the Koch-funded Inquiry magazine back in the day (…worlds are colliding!…), Shafer’s pantheon of partisan journos runs the gamut from Glenn Greenwald to Rachel Carson to Ralph Nader and more. He doesn’t necessarily agree with all the people he name-checks but he respects their impact and their flagrant departure from the phony objectivity of characters such as Aaron Sorkin and David Gregory.

Yes, fewer “Newsroom” anchors and more of this, please.


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Dude probably had a white grandmother.

Bishop on July 24, 2013 at 7:25 PM

A taxi medallion in NYC presently runs around $1 million…for a lease…you do not own it, the city does. And, you have to drive a vehicle from a pre-approved list of vehicles. The approved “official” fares are a nightmare to calculate.

So…when someone comes along to provide a service, cheaply, for those who need it, and who voluntarily accept that service, it simply must be crushed with all deliberate speed…can’t have just anybody driving cabs in NYC, right, Mustafa? Akmed? Jorge? Rotislav? Mbette? Kwame?

coldwarrior on July 24, 2013 at 7:34 PM

Why would anybody live there?

KCB on July 24, 2013 at 7:38 PM

It’s an incredibly difficult for a small business owner without a highly scalable business model to compete with the establishment in either the private or public sector. Without a scalable and high margin model, you’re not going to attract the professional investors who carry the clout and experience to take on public sector regulations or the inertia of the status quo. That’s the difference between a small-time bus operation and newer players such as Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft.

Although it’s still the early days of ridesharing and it’s hard to identify and quantify the risks and unknowns of a highly unregulated market. After all, NYC forced taxis to install partitions once it became clear that it was in the public interest to save several drivers a year from suffering fatal gun shots or knife wounds.

bayam on July 24, 2013 at 7:39 PM

Man, cops are now hired thugs?

SailorMark on July 24, 2013 at 7:52 PM

Dude probably had a white grandmother.

Bishop on July 24, 2013 at 7:25 PM

Dude probably dutifully votes D in every election.

Man, cops are now hired thugs?

SailorMark on July 24, 2013 at 7:52 PM

Welcome to Democratville.

Kafir on July 24, 2013 at 7:56 PM

If 0bama had ever had a person in his family that was not on the government teat but in small business, he would look like Hector Ricketts.

jukin3 on July 24, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Dollar vans!

visions on July 24, 2013 at 8:24 PM

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm………..Vans eh!!!

canopfor on July 24, 2013 at 8:25 PM

It’s an incredibly difficult for a small business owner without a highly scalable business model to compete with the establishment in either the private or public sector.

So his business model failed him. Check.

WitchDoctor on July 24, 2013 at 8:29 PM

…what’s the deal?…are you all waiting for libfreeorgan to weigh in on this or something?

KOOLAID2 on July 24, 2013 at 9:01 PM

Once again we find unions at the heart of the problem. They have become the antithesis of what they started out to be.

paul1149 on July 24, 2013 at 9:13 PM

Never put it past government or unions to support and celebrate inefficiency. Unions suck.

tommer74 on July 24, 2013 at 10:48 PM

I’ll give a hundred dollars to the first person to post anytime in anyway that a union has helped its hos…company stay in business, to be more efficient, or make more money.

We should start pointing out that it is that EVIL profit that is taxed. The more Evil profit the more heavenly tax for local cities, counties, states, and the sweet….SWEET Sugar Daddy!!!!!! Uncle Sam. The more profit the bigger the eagle shits at the beginning of the month. Profit is wealth redistribution….the HOLY wealth distribution from the productive to the lazy.

Yeah…..that’s the ticket.

jukin3 on July 24, 2013 at 11:12 PM

Why is the dude whining? He did not build his business.

bartbeast on July 25, 2013 at 9:22 AM

Big or small, political donor or not, it doesn’t matter to the left. Just look at what happened when Walmart wanted to enter the DC market. Libs saw a chance to implement their jobs killing policies and voila, Walmart said screw you.

Kissmygrits on July 25, 2013 at 11:08 AM

bayam on July 24, 2013 at 7:39 PM

Good drivel sir. Mr. Ricketts is not looking to build a “scalable” business or attract “professional investors”. He is looking to give people in need of a convenient, affordable ride to town a convenient, affordable ride to town–and make an honest profit out of it. It is something liberalism cannot quite understand that most small entrepreneurs simply want to be left alone by big government in order to pursue their dreams.

NOMOBO on July 25, 2013 at 1:17 PM