“The stereotype that all New York City drivers are violent is not true,” said Brian Heise, a senior in Fordham College at Rose Hill.
As one of 81 student drivers who pilot Ram Vans through the narrow streets and congested expressways of Manhattan and the Bronx, he speaks from experience. But that was not always the case.
Heise grew up in small-town Missouri, where traffic was rare and stoplights were few. “I had to transition from highways with only two lanes to highways with four lanes just in my direction and another five lanes of oncoming traffic,” he said. “My first few shifts were hectic, to say the least.”
Ram Vans are unique. Fordham is the only school in the country that uses student drivers for the bulk of its transportation needs, said Marc Canton (FCRH ’01, GBA ’08), director of inter-campus transportation.
“Very few schools have student drivers, and those that do, use them mostly as supplemental drivers for shuttle trips around campus. I have yet to find a system similar to ours,” Canton said.
Ram Van drivers maintain an excellent safety record thanks to a rigorous driver-certification procedure coupled with road smarts that come with experience behind the wheel.
“In the van, you think you have intimidation power because you are bigger than everyone else, but taxis and 18-wheelers don’t care,” said Elizabeth Burans, a junior in Fordham College at Rose Hill. “It’s sort of every man for himself, where you have to hold your ground but avoid aggression at the same time.”
Over the past year, Canton’s office has made several upgrades to the Ram Van fleet, making it among the safest and most advanced in the nation.
• Last November, the University introduced its first wheelchair-accessible Ram Van. The vehicle is equipped with a chair lift and can hold as many as three wheelchair users or 12 non-wheelchair passengers. All drivers have been trained to operate the van’s lift and fastening devices.
• As vehicles in the Ram Van fleet are gradually replaced, each new van will include several additional safety features, such as a reinforced roof, stronger and more user-friendly lap and shoulder harnesses, and reinforced seat bracketing. These upgrades augment the existing safety features found on all vans, including stability control, an extended wheelbase and side-impact air bags.
• The most noticeable change is that all new models are painted white. GMC no longer produces maroon vans, and the cost of a custom paint job for each vehicle would be inefficient and expensive. White was chosen over other available colors because it is easily visible to other drivers, Canton said.
• Although there is no mass-produced 15-passenger vehicle that meets the University’s mandate for green technology, Fordham has special-ordered several vans that can run on biodiesel fuel. Not only will this reduce the University’s carbon footprint, it will increase fuel efficiency.
“We plan to analyze the vehicle’s fuel efficiency, maintenance costs and other characteristics and compare it with its gas-engine cousin,” Canton said. He added that the next Ram Van innovation might include vehicles powered by natural gas or solar power.
Popular opinion attributes the rise of a largely student-run transportation service, which began in 1981, to George J. McMahon, S.J., vice president for administration at Fordham from 1975 to 1987. He fostered the idea of bridging the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses with a direct shuttle to create a more cohesive community.
“At that time, Fordham’s student population drew predominantly from the middle class, and many were commuters,” Canton said. These students needed to work during the school year to make ends meet. “Using students to drive gave them an opportunity to earn some extra money.”
The student drivers earn every penny, considering the road and traffic conditions they grapple with daily and the responsibility they shoulder for the safety of their passengers.
T.J. Farrell, a student in the Graduate School of Education, noted that drivers gain a lot of patience. “You just have to go with the flow because you never know [what might happen]. It’s New York City,” he said.
Farrell, who considers himself a night owl by nature, has been driving night shifts and handling the late hours.
He recalled signing up for a late shift under the assumption that there would be no traffic at 11 p.m.
“Well, I sat in the worst traffic I have ever sat in,” Farrell said. “Sometimes you get worse traffic late on a Thursday night than you do at 5 p.m. on a weekday.”
As an EMS ambulance driver during his undergraduate days at Fordham, Farrell picked up useful skills in navigating larger vehicles through New York.
“An EMS ambulance and a Ram Van are comparable; the only differences are weight and height,” Farrell said. The back of an ambulance is built to hold equipment, whereas a Ram Van is built to carry more passengers. Both vehicles hold the same safety precautions in that the people in the back are your responsibility.”
As it has developed over the decades, the Ram Van has become a vital service to the entire University. “Not only students, but faculty and University administrators depend on us to get them where they need to go,” Farrell said. “That’s a big part of being a Ram Van driver.”