On the LES, “Chinatown Bus” Battles Are Just Beginning

A “Chinatown” bus on Allen Street.

It’s been a week since the city’s Department of Transportation decided to rescind a “YO! Bus” permit for Essex Street, in front of Seward Park, following strong community opposition.  As previously reported, the DOT is working on alternative locations, which will be presented to Community Board 3.  Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager, tells us the city will not appear at this month’s transportation committee meeting with a new plan but will likely be on the November agenda.

Meanwhile, the community board will take up the broader issues surrounding bus permits next week.  As a result of a new state law setting up a permit system for interstate buses, the DOT is drawing up guidelines and procedures applicants will be required to follow.  A week from Wednesday (Oct. 10, 6:30 p.m., 59 East 4th Street),  CB3 will meet to decide what recommendations to forward to the Transportation Department about the criteria that should be used in evaluating permit applications.

In this month’s print magazine, we took an in-depth look at the “Chinatown bus,” issue. 

Pike Street between East Broadway and Division streets. Photo by Albert Chan.

Here’s an edited/updated version of that story:

In the spring of 2009, Albert Chan decided the time had come to take his block back.  Armed with  video and still cameras, he began documenting the chaotic scene unfolding day and night on the street outside 1 Pike St., between East Broadway and Division, his family’s home for 30 years. Two bus companies had taken over the curb, creating a makeshift depot for their booming business shuttling passengers from New York to Boston, Washington, D.C. and other destinations.

Crowds swarmed on the sidewalk, sometimes after 3 o’clock in the morning.  Exhaust from idling buses wafted up to Chan’s apartment. Ticket agents camped out on the front steps. Passengers even loitered in his lobby and left trash everywhere. After lobbying local elected officials and Community Board 3, Chan and his neighbors finally got the city to crack down. The buses did not disappear, but at least it was no longer a free-for-all on Pike Street

Flash forward to this fall — more than three years later.  A large, riled up crowd came out in force to a community meeting, telling CB3 members in no uncertain terms, that they wouldn’t stand for another “Chinatown bus” operation near their homes on another Lower East Side/Chinatown street corner.  In the two weeks leading up to the community board’s September transportation committee meeting, the group had launched a petition drive and media campaign to scuttle Greyhound/Peter Pan’s application for a bus stop adjacent to Seward Park, on Essex Street. A week later the city, in spite of the protests, went ahead and approved the permit anyway.  It then rescinded the permit after receiving a letter from local elected officials protesting the decision.

In some ways, it seems like not much has changed in the past three years. The Chinatown bus industry, while transforming, is still a phenomenon. Residents continue to push back against the curbside operations. And the city is still struggling to balance the demands of commerce vs. community.  But there is a key difference.  In the aftermath of deadly accidents and persistent complaints from constituents, local elected officials pushed through state legislation regulating the interstate buses. The end result? The “Wild West” atmosphere in which bus operators pulled up wherever they pleased is being replaced with a permit system, requiring buses to stop in assigned spaces. While the law has not yet gone into effect, some saw the Greyhound application as an initial test of the new framework. If the community meeting, in which board members urged the city to steer clear of Seward Park, is any indication the transition seems likely to be a bumpy one.

The scene in front of Albert Chan’s apartment, 2009.

Discount bus lines started to make their presence known in Chinatown in 1997, primarily serving immigrants working in Chinese restaurants up and down the East Coast.  After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when air travel became more difficult and more expensive, the industry began a period of rapid expansion to meet high demand.  A 2009 survey conducted by the city recorded around 250 daily arrivals and departures in Chinatown. More than 20 bus companies were operating curbside, on Allen St., Chrystie St., Canal and East Broadway.

Local police precincts would, on occasion, conduct “enforcement actions,” ticketing drivers for parking buses during layovers or for idling too long.  Police and bus drivers played a frustrating game of “cat and mouse,” in which officers chased them away from one spot only to find buses popping up somewhere else.  Police and DOT officials agreed there was only so much they could do, since federal interstate commerce laws protected the bus companies’ right to operate.  Other cities, Boston among them, forced the interstate operators into bus terminals, but since the Port Authority (the world’s busiest bus station) was already seriously overtaxed, this was not an option in New York.

Three years ago, a report prepared by the city’s Planning Department concluded, “A Chinatown bus terminal is essential to the economic growth of Chinatown and safety for patrons, pedestrians and residents.”  But Luis Sanchez, the DOT’s Lower Manhattan commissioner, told CB3 at a meeting in December of 2009 that an exhaustive search for a downtown location had been unsuccessful.  He even suggested, perhaps jokingly, that the city had considered putting the buses on a barge and sending them to New Jersey.  The DOT had studied using Pier 42 at Montgomery Street. as a bus layover lot.  But community groups, which waged a long battle to reclaim the pier for a new park, were opposed, and officials dropped the idea.

During that meeting, Sanchez outlined a temporary solution: a mandatory permit system for interstate bus operators that would allow the city to designate passenger loading areas and to ensure companies adhered to safety standards.  A couple of months later, State Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced state legislation that, if approved, would authorize the DOT to put a permit system in place. The proposal languished in Albany for more than a year, blocked by Senate Republicans and Mayor Bloomberg, who objected to provisions giving the City Council a role in the process.

Bronx Bush Crash, March 2011.

Then in March of 2011, tragedy struck in the Bronx, when a bus run by World Wide Tours crashed on its way back from a casino trip, killing 15 Chinatown residents.  Federal investigators found the driver, an ex-con with a spotty driving record, was speeding and fatigued. The horrific accident and several other deadly crashes created new urgency in Albany.

Meanwhile, government regulators began an industry-wide investigation, curbing numerous buses during spot inspections and, ultimately, shutting down 26 bus companies in Chinatown serving up to 2,000 daily customers. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood on a Chinatown street corner May 31 of this year and proclaimed, “shutting down (these operators) will save lives.”

News conference in Speaker Silver’s office, April 2012.

A few weeks earlier, lawmakers in Albany announced they had worked out their differences, agreeing upon compromise legislation all parties could accept. At a news conference in Speaker Silver’s Lower Manhattan office, the city’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadek-Khan, endorsed the permit system. “Neighborhood streets should not be turned into de-facto bus depots” by inter-city bus operators,” she said. Giant blow-ups of those photos, taken by Pike St. resident Albert Chan, were prominently displayed during the press event. By this summer, both houses had passed the bus bill and Governor Cuomo signed it into law.

All of these events set the stage for the boisterous community board meeting concerning Greyhound’s Seward Park application last month.  The city is just beginning to set up procedures for the permit system and public hearings will be held once it comes up with a plan. But the Greyhound/Peter Pan proposal and another application for a stop across from Sara D. Roosevelt Park, on Chrystie St., offered early opportunities to see how the new process, which requires community board consultations, might play out.

Christian DiPalermo, a consultant hired by Greyhound, said the company was partnering with Peter Pan for a new venture called “YO! Bus,” with a ticket office on East Broadway and its first bus stop on Essex St. and Canal.  A pamphlet handed out at the meeting called YO! “a specialty targeted intercity bus service to directly serve the residents, students and workers of Chinatown by offering safe, reliable and affordable non-stop service between New York and Philadelphia.”  The two companies had already found success with another joint operation intended to compete with the discount bus industry. But the service, BoltBus, picked up passengers from the streets around Penn Station and a few other areas, rather than operating in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Now Greyhound, the country’s largest interstate bus operator, was seizing a golden opportunity created by the federal crackdown in Chinatown.

So far, however, YO! Bus is not receiving a very warm welcome.  Many residents say they support the new permit system and acknowledge the value of the discount bus business in Chinatown. But at the meeting, numerous speakers denounced the chosen location, which is directly in front of a playground. Rima Strauss, a resident of The Forward Building, just across the way from the planned stop, said she cherishes her days in Seward Park taking part in Chinese dance and worries that the “gentle character of the neighborhood is threatened” by Greyhound’s proposal.  Approving the location, she said, would be a vote against “families, kids, the elderly and the Chinese community.”

In response to the opposition, Greyhound reduced its daily arrivals and departures from 28 to 16, and promised to put stringent crowd control measures in place alongside Seward Park. But locals were clearly dissatisfied. DiPalermo was jeered after refusing to delay the application and declining to conduct air quality tests on Essex St. “We will let the process unfold,” he insisted. Members of the community board were heckled as well, when they hinted it might be prudent to put certain restrictions on the Greyhound permit, rather than rejecting it outright.  David Crane, the chairman of the panel,  said the community board enjoyed only limited influence with the city. It was possible, he warned, that the DOT would approve the application without any restrictions if CB3 adopted an uncompromising position.

One speaker, Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership (a small business advocacy group), argued in favor of the application, saying the discount bus industry is the “lifeblood of Chinatown.”  Shop owners and restaurant operators, he explained, had been hit hard by the federal shutdown, deprived of a steady flow of out-of-state customers. “Do not cut our lifeline,” he pleaded. But others have argued that Greyhound’s entry into the market could finish off the small, Chinese-run bus companies still doing business in the neighborhood. In recent years, Greyhound and the American Bus Association went on a lobbying offensive in Washington, D.C., pressing for greater scrutiny of the Chinatown bus industry.  The springtime crackdown did not target a single member of the trade association. The way some of the little guys see it, Greyhound set out to crush entrepreneurship when it failed to compete against more nimble upstarts.

In the long-run, the city must grapple with a difficult reality: no one wants a new bus stop anywhere near their own home. Yet in the months ahead, the DOT will be receiving a large number of permit applications from bus companies seeking a foothold in Chinatown and the LES. There will likely be a dozen or more stops scattered throughout this neighborhood alone.

Under withering questioning from residents, Greyhound acknowledged it had proposed two other locations on the Lower East Side, one of them at 3 Pike St., where Albert Chan and other beleaguered residents beat back the discount bus onslaught three years ago. Evidently the DOT has no enthusiasm for a new Pike St. bus stop — the block is a future BikeShare location.  But the buses are obviously going somewhere, which means we can all look forward to a lot more bus battles in the months and years to come.

  • Rima Finzi-Strauss

    What a truly excellent history of the ‘Chinatown Bus’ saga! A must reading for anyone concerned about this topic!

    Meanwhile, I may be alone in thinking this but:

    Where was it ever written that the LES should be a natural dumping grounds for curb-side intercity buses? Why are there only 2 places in all of Manhattan (34th Street and here) under consideration for bus stops? To me this assumption is simply outrageous. Most of the bus customers don’t even live here – so the buses are not serving the local community.

    We are simply a bus depot! Unacceptable!!

  • Downtown resident

    Interesting article.
    Why cannot a bus terminal be designed in a suitable part of the SPURA site if LES has to play host to all the intercity buses?

  • LES Vegan

    Now they can use the soon to be old Pathmark location.

  • Concerned

    That would be great, but if it is true that Gary Barnett is in contract to buy the large parcel at Cherry Street, who knows. He has a history of building extremely luxurious buildings. Maybe he wouldn’t want ‘YO’ Bus outside his door….

  • Concerned

    Most Chinatown bus companies currently have storefront offices that can hold many of their passengers. Despite this, there are often huge crowds on the streets.

    Now imagine just how much worse this situation will be under the new NYS Bus Legislation: Curbside buses are not required by law to have storefront shelters for their customers. Therefore, the bus crowds waiting on the streets in our neighborhoods will be very large indeed. How will the LES cope with this?