Chinatown Bus Business: Is There a Saturation Point?
We have more now on the continuing struggle to control the interstate bus business in Chinatown and on the Lower East Side.
As mentioned this morning, Community Board 3 will be asked to consider four new bus stop locations next month. Earlier this week, the board rejected two proposals for stops at 30 Pike St. and 9 Chatham Square, and turned down a request from Yo! Bus to double the number of arrivals and departures to 28 at an existing stop at 2 Pike St. (at East Broadway). CB3 has forwarded its opinions to the Department of Transportation, which has the sole authority to make the decisions.
This is the way it’s going to be from now on. A new state law, which CB3 leaders lobbied hard for, implemented a permit system for interstate bus carriers and mandated community board “consultation.” But it has become very clear that the city and local community boards haven’t yet figured out how to make the process work smoothly and effectively. It’s equally clear that some local residents are having a difficult time accepting what city, state and federal officials insist is a fact of life: interstate bus carriers cannot legally be banned from the streets of New York or any other municipality.
The frustration was on display at the most recent meeting of CB3’s transportation committee. Residents, many of whom live in the Chatham Towers and Chatham Green complexes, spoke out against a proposed stop for “A&W, Inc. at 9 Chatham Square, in the congested area where Bowery turns into Park Row. In April, the board had given its blessing to another operator, Victoria Tours, at the same location.
“Chinatown is not a bus depot,” said one speaker. Another asserted, “this is unacceptable.” The area is congested, he explained, and the exhaust from idling buses diminishes quality of life. “Kids are in (nearby) Columbus Park, it’s filled with seniors.” A resident of Chatham Towers said interstate buses block public bus stops and blatantly break the law. “People are being put in harm’s way,” she argued, adding, “I don’t know why this community board has no concept (of what’s happening). I don’t think you understand the issues.” The owner of Victoria Tours obviously had a different point of view. In an angry retort to residents, she asked, “Why weren’t you guys here in April (when the board agreed to support her application)?” The woman added that she was obeying the law and paying a lot of money ($13,000/year) for the privilege of using the Chatham Square curbside.
That evening, September 10, the committee voted against the new application, as well as two other proposals, while signing off on applications at 95 Canal St. and 51 Chrystie St. (providing DOT sorts out truck loading issues). The full board adopted the committee’s recommendations this week. There was a last minute offer from Greyhound, which runs Yo! Bus, for 21 arrivals/departures, rather 28, but after some debate board members were unmoved. Greyhound spokesperson Carolyn Daly told The Lo-Down yesterday her company was awaiting word from DOT about the stop. David Crane, chairman of the transportation committee, predicts the agency will approve the full 28 stops and without any restrictions the community board and Yo! might have worked out.
In a recent conversation, Crane expressed his own frustrations. For several years, his committee has been on the receiving end of community outrage regarding the lawless nature of the Chinatown bus industry. Bus companies can’t be banned from the streets; federal interstate commerce statutes take precedence. The state law, which was only approved in the aftermath of several deadly crashes, was an effort to bring some order to the chaos. Now the city has some ability to control where buses stop, the devil is in the details. In public testimony this past summer, CB3 urged the DOT to provide more details about bus stop applications so that local boards can make informed decisions. The community board also wants a more robust role in helping to draft rules for bus operators to follow.
So far, these things have not happened, although the agency has expressed a willingness to sit down with CB3 leaders and local elected officials to talk over the issues that have come up. Crane said he believes the law allows city officials to designate certain areas that have become over-saturated and can’t handle any additional bus stops. Parts of Chinatown and the LES clearly fit into this category, he said, and he’d like to see specific criteria to evaluate how many buses is too many for any neighborhood. Finally, Crane explained, there’s a need to create a bus holding area (perhaps on South Street), so multiple buses aren’t lined up on the most congested city streets.
At this month’s committee meeting, City Council member Margaret Chin showed up to speak out against two of the proposed permits. In a letter passed to members of the community board, she expressed support for inter-city buses, saying the discount carriers are “an important component of our city’s economy.” But Chin said she could not support operators serving gamblers headed for Atlantic City and other casino destinations (both applicants fit this category). Her letter also stated, “the volume of customers coming to pick up and drop off customers is at a critical mass for our community.”
Carolyn Daly, Greyhound’s spokesperson, argues that Yo! Bus has shown a willingness to work with the local community and has offered the neighborhood “reputable, reliable and safe service, in contrast to other operators.” She said that Wellington Chen, head of the Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown BID, supported Greyhound’s expansion plan. Last night, Chen told us it’s not true that he offered support for Yo. While, Chen has been a major advocate for the “mom and pop” Chinatown bus industry, he does not want to see large corporate entities take over the market. Chen also said he would like to see the community designate suitable potential spots for bus stops, so that operators and the Department of Transportation have some viable options. The answer, he argued, shouldn’t be, “they can’t be anywhere.”