After a two-year grace period, the city is finally moving to enforce legislation that aims to regulate the thriving (and some would say infuriating) Chinatown bus industry, in the hopes of mitigating the “wild west” atmosphere that the throng of ludicrously cheap long-haul carriers have introduced to the affected downtown zones.
For several years, unregulated discount buses have turned sections of the Lower East Side and Chinatown into a veritable gridlock of cumbersome vehicles. The intercity bus regulations—which Gov. Cuomo passed into law in 2012, and which city officials have begun enforcing in the last couple days—aim to change all that. But inefficiencies in the process and continued chaos have left some disgruntled residents saying the move is too little, too late.
The discounted bus services began as an affordable and convenient means of mass transportation, mostly catering to residents of Chinatown. Soon, word spread, and people from across the city began booking cheap tickets from small bus companies that ply the east coast. As demand exploded, so did supply—resulting in an unwieldy, unregulated industry concentrated in a small section of lower Manhattan.
“There was no regulation,” says Margaret Chin, City Council member and Chinatown local. “Buses stopped wherever they stopped. They were congesting sidewalks. It was out of control.”
A federal crackdown in 2012 that shut down 26 bus operators did little to halt the growth. Shortly afterwards legislation to regulate the industry was drafted, which is only now being put into practice.
The new legislation requires intercity bus companies to apply for a permit, and to pay an annual fee for administrative expenses based on the number of pick-ups and drop-offs they conduct in a typical week. Buses that do not hold permits, or that cause unwarranted congestion, face a fine of up to $500 for a first offense and up to $2,500 for subsequent offenses.
Chin is optimistic that the enforcement of the legislation will improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. “I think it will help,” she says. “In terms of enforcement, we can start with ticketing but the city agencies also have the authority to tow the bus, and it will become very expensive for those companies who do not comply.”
Chin says the permits will ensure the city knows who owns the companies, how many trips they make per day, and how many passengers they carry. “There are quite a few companies that came to the City Council to testify, to meet with us, to do the right thing,” she says. “And they’re the ones that came in to get a permit, when the legislation was passed.”
Although she admits there are still companies flouting the new laws, she is confident that ramped-up enforcement will eventually ensure greater order and an efficient, regulated industry.
Others are not so certain. In June, frustrated residents established Save LES Streets, a website that “aims to present research, analysis, and critique, to push the powers-that-be to finally tame the absolute disgusting chaos in our small neighborhood.” The website bears the sub-heading “LES is not a bus depot!” Its daily blog posts on different elements of the budget bus industry are written in a consistently outraged tone, under headlines like, “The Chinatown Bus industry: A game of musical chairs – on speed!”
A collaborative effort, Save LES Streets is the brain-child of two locals: I spoke with one of them, an eight-year resident of East Broadway who would prefer not to be named.
“No one knows who these companies are, where exactly they stop, how many are there, what their names are,” says the bus blogger. “We have an idea, but no one has ever tried to make a complete exhaustive list. And I thought, Let me try.” She has been working on a map to track the centers of bus activity.
Having begun by simply scanning online ticketing sites, Save LES Streets has so far counted 95 separate bus companies operating out of the area. Only 22 operators currently have permits. “We are truly an outdoor bus terminal, with non-stop buses from 7 a.m. until often to midnight,” says the blogger behind the site. “So what you have is buses careening one after another through the neighborhood. They double park, they block bus lanes. The crowded sidewalks are a major problem.”
And, she adds, “It has only been getting worse—and worse and worse and worse. Despite the permit system, that has not helped.”
The bus blogger claims that on this issue, the community’s needs have consistently been disregarded in favor of the bus companies, resulting in a sort of permit free-for-all that has done little to improve congestion. CB3, she says, typically approved permits despite concerns voiced by the community. Even when they didn’t, she alleges, the Department of Transportation (DOT) had pre-approved permits, thus rendering the Community Board sub-committee meetings superfluous.
CB3 spokeswoman and District Manager Susan Stetzer denies that last accusation. “This is totally not true,” she wrote in an email. “People are mixed up because stops are vetted before coming to us—many never reach us. DOT must make sure a stop is viable before asking the CB to weigh in on the location.” A DOT spokesperson also denied that they would circumvent the review process.
Regardless, Save LES Streets believes too many permits have been given—and that even buses with permits are doing many more trips than they allege.
Rather than enforcement of regulations—which will require a huge effort on the part of the NYPD—the bus blogger suggests redistribution as an answer to the mess: placing some bus stops in other parts of Manhattan and across other boroughs, thus spreading the burden. Neither Chin nor CB3 were willing to take a position of this proposal. Although asked specifically to comment on the idea of redistribution, a spokesperson for DOT did not take up the issue. “DOT monitors street conditions citywide in addition to Chinatown,” the spokesperson said, adding that residents’ concerns were always taken into account
“We have come a long way,” says Chin. “When we talk about before the legislation was passed, it was crazy. So it has gotten better.” And she encourages the involvement of the community in ensuring that enforcement is being carried out as efficiently as possible.
“The residents have to organize and let the city know where illegal bus are stopping and dropping off people,” she says. “We really need the community to work together with us and with the city agencies.”
The Council Member will thus be pleased to note that Save LES Streets incorporates a “violations” page, which allows members of the community to report bus infractions along with photographic evidence.