4 cellphones showing different web app screens. The first features a van and a headline reading "Find a safe dollar van ride."

DollarVan.nyc transit app

An award-winning app focused on improving access to New York’s informal transit network

In an effort to sharpen my design skills, I decided to join the NYC BigApps competition. NYC BigApps is a civic innovation challenge in New York City for designers, developers, academics, entrepreneurs, and New Yorkers at large to apply their know-how to improve the Big Apple. Contestants were challenged to leverage technology and data to solve urban transportation problems.

A crowded room with groups of people clustered around several tables speaking with each other.
Project Type
Web app for the 2017 BigApps Competition
1x UX/UI Designer (me)
1x Developer
1x Project Manager
1x Data Engineer
1x Business Analyst
My role
User testing
5 months
(January-May 2017)


How might we raise public awareness and improve access to affordable transit options for residents of New York's outer boroughs? 

NYC BigApps held several listening sessions with New York’s youth, seniors and immigrants, and uncovered pain points around: 

  • mobility constraints
  • language barriers
  • cost of transportation and 
  • lack of access to timely information

A solution exists, but not everyone knows

My team chose to focus on Dollar vans, an informal network of shuttle buses operating in neighborhoods underserved by mass transit providing rides for as little as $2. Even though tens of thousands of New Yorkers ride Dollar vans, many others are unaware of them entirely, and there is noncentralized site—online or otherwise—to find information about the service. Our team’s solution sought to raise public awareness of this transit option, provide route information for new riders, and improve access to the vans with technology.

Several people queued up outside of a Dollar van on a busy Brooklyn street. The van has its door open for passengers to enter and exit.

Project Goals

  1. Increase public awareness of Dollar vans
  2. Improve access to Dollar vans for the ~900,000 New Yorkers living in the outer boroughs
  3. Help licensed operators distinguish themselves from illegal operators
  4. Educate users about the dangers of riding with illegal operators


User Interviews

Empathizing with the people of NYC

First, we interviewed 10 Dollar van riders about their habits and concerns when riding in vans, and learned about various factors related to the user’s issues. For example, if van-tracking would be useful for riders and if wait-time was an important factor in their decision to take a Dollar van. To my surprise though, riders kept commenting about safety as a key factor and this prompted us to redirect our research efforts. After 10 more interviews focused on safety, I learned many riders had encounters with unsafe van drivers.

Insight 1

Wait-time mattered for riders on routes served by fewer vans
Wait-time mattered in Queens, where there are fewer vans operating across several routes, but not in Brooklyn, where there are many vans operating at once along a fewer routes.

“Not knowing when the vans are going to show up gives me some anxiety about getting to where I need to go.”

—Queens Dollar van rider

Insight 2

Riders prefer familiar drivers because they worry about safety when riding with unfamilar ones
Riders felt most Dollar vans were safe, but because of negative experiences with aggressive or distracted drivers they prefer riding with drivers they recognize and trust.

“I don't like taking vans with drivers I don't know or have never seen before.”

—Brooklyn Dollar van rider

Insight 3

Riders look at van condition to ascertain safety
Riders look for visible signs that a van may be safe or unsafe before boarding: broken lights, scratches and dents, license plates, and official certification decals. In other words, riders are looking for reassurance, because there is a degree of uncertainty and a lack of information on driver safety.

“It seems suspicious to me if [a van] has dings on it or out of state plates.”

—Brooklyn Dollar van rider


A persona profile for "David Dedicated"A persona profile for "Elizabeth Errands"

Journey Map

Journey map for Elizabeth Errands showing how she plans a trip to Target and decides to use the DollarVan.nyc app to make sure she can find a safe Dollar van driver.

Competitive Analysis

Before designing the wireframes, I examined a variety of transit apps to see common user flows in apps that solved a similar problem. I found that:

  • Bus-tracking and ride-hailing apps showed the real-time physical locations of the vehicles using moving pictorial representations on maps. 
  • Commute planning apps focused on providing arrival times in an easy-to-access interface. 
  • Bus-tracking apps had users drill down to the map view by selecting a route and direction first.
3 phone screenshots showing different transit apps. All have maps on them and show trip routes. 2 show vehicle-tracking icons.
Bringing the solution to life

A transit app for dollar vans 

My team chose to create an app that provides more efficient access to licensed Dollar vans. The app aimed to ease concern about van arrival times and provide information that would confirm drivers have a safe driving record. I decided a web-based app was the best way to deliver the app since it would make it accessible across all platforms and devices, require less development work than native apps, and users wouldn’t need to install it on their device.

Getting the word out

During the initial research, I learned there was no publicly-listed information on using Dollar vans; instead, riders learned about Dollar vans exclusively through word-of-mouth. So I spent time collecting and formalizing van information for users, including costs, routes, and how to identify licensed vans.

Mockup of phone screen showing information on "How to Ride Dollar Vans" on the DollarVan.nyc app.


Real-time van tracking

Riders in Queens told us wait-time was a big determiner in whether they chose to ride a van or take another mode of transit. I introduced a van tracking feature so users could see how long they might have to wait for a pickup and could easily determine if a Dollar van was going to be the ideal option for their commute.

Mockup of phone screen showing animated walk-through of how to use the Van Tracker on the DollarVan.nyc app.

Checking a Driver’s Rating

After discovering that riders had concerns about safety, I introduced safety ratings and reviews. Now users could see their driver's safety profile and feel safer in their van.

Rate a Driver

In addition to being able to see driver reviews, riders can also leave reviews for others to see. When combined with the previous feature, users would quickly be able to ascertain safety in a much more reliable way than the look of the van.

Mockup of phone screen showing animated walk-through of how to leave a driver review on the DollarVan.nyc app.
Group of three men and two women smiling and posing for photo. The woman in the middle is holding an award with an apple on top.

Judge's Choice Award

From 150 submissions, DollarVan.nyc was chosen as 1 of the 9 finalists. After presenting our prototype and pitch, we won the Judge’s Choice Award. Our winnings included an opportunity to pilot the app on LinkNYC kiosks along Dollar van routes, and an invite into the Civic Xcel incubator program to further develop our app and refine our business plan.


Personal Impact

The BigApps NYC competition gave me the opportunity to test my UX design skills and workshop an original idea through human-centered design. Above all, I learned the importance of user research as part of that process because it elucidates users' problems, inspires ideas, guides decisions, tests assumptions, and helps in goal tracking. The opportunity also allowed me to meet new people in tech, engage with new communities, create a socially impactful product and develop a business plan, making me a much more confident researcher and designer as a result. 

Key Learnings
This project had its humbling moments as well. While my team was able to connect with city officials and get buy-in from ~20 drivers, it was much more difficult to reach the Commuter Van Association, which limited our ability to get driver buy-in on a larger scale. I learned that when undertaking such an ambitious project, bringing community stakeholders to the table is essential to the success of the product. In the future, I would work on assessing stakeholders that have the power to help a project to completion. 

I also learned that diversity is a real strength when collaborating. My teammates all came from various backgrounds and experiences, offering diverse skill sets. The initial idea for this project came from the lived experience of our developer. And our bilingual teammates were key to providing users with Spanish and Chinese versions of the app.

DollarVan.nyc adapts the models of modern services, such as Uber and Airbnb, to develop services for underserved city populations.

Miguel Gamiño
New York City Chief Technology Officer
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