Intercity buses — also known as “Chinatown buses” because of their location, or “hell on wheels,” as I’ve taken to calling them after a recent nine-hour overnight trip on one — are facing increased scrutiny. They may be a cheap (if uncomfortable) way to visit your long-distance boyfriend, but they also cause headaches for downtown residents. Despite increasing agitation, the Fifth Precinct revealed last night that it hasn’t been enforcing a new permitting system aimed at stamping down on problem operators.
Last night’s Community Board 3 town hall heard plenty of complaints from Lower East Siders who say they are fed up with illegal bus companies operating curbside drop-offs in Chinatown at all hours, spewing fumes, and increasing congestion and pedestrian risks.
Helen Pappert, a resident of Chinatown for 58 years, told of having to wave down an MTA bus in the middle of the street with her cane because an intercity bus was double parked. A business owner complained about lines of passengers regularly blocking his store and deterring customers. Michelle Barone thought the buses idling loudly outside her apartment every day were bad enough — but with the recent cold snap, passengers followed a resident into her building’s lobby to warm up while they waited, making a ruckus.
“You don’t know what it’s like to live with it!” said Pappert, who said she was often bothered by fumes at her favorite outdoor spot and had resorted to whacking idling buses with her cane to wake up the driver and get him to move. “The pollution is unbearable…I think something should be done.”
The city has tried to do something – it just hasn’t been very successful. Until 2012 intercity buses didn’t have any regulations. The state law, spearheaded by Senator Daniel Squadron, one of the panelists, provided a solution (at least on paper) to the the rampant proliferation of buses: a permit system. But the wily bus industry has been notoriously hard to bring into line – only 20 of approximately 100 buses operating in Chinatown have a permit, according to CB 3’s transportation committee.
Illegal bus operators should be easy to catch — they advertise online and draw crowds of people every day. But they also are businesses on wheels. This allows them to constantly play cat and mouse with the authorities, arriving earlier or later than their online schedules announce and quickly dropping people off at curb stops.
But the panel, which included representatives from the NYPD and the Department of Transportation, highlighted a chronic lack of enforcement. The permit law, which slams companies with $500 fines for driving an intercity bus without a permit and up to $2,500 for a repeat offense, is hardly ever used.
Captain Erik Worobey said that the Fifth Precinct, which includes a busy illegal stop at 2 Pike street, recorded 951 bus-related violations in 2015 – but most of them were the $115-penalty variety and concerned violations like double parking, no standing, bus layovers or bus stops.
“So is the Fifth using the permit law?” Senator Squadron finally asked, after some back and forth.
“No,” Worobey responded after a long pause.
When asked why not, he said he believed his precinct needed more training. “To be honest with you, I don’t know all the rules and regulations for this particular permit law,” he said. “I don’t have the knowledge to properly enforce it and be able to win it in a court of law.”
Inspector Scott Hanover, from NYPD’s Traffic Operation Division, said that the $500 permit violation has been issued in other precincts, but officers are often more focused on issuing a summons for the most obvious infraction, like a no standing violation, before the driver can escape. “If you see a violation, you’re going to issue a violation right away, before the guy pulls away,” he said.
The panel discussed various solutions, including retraining officers in the affected precincts, sharing information between departments, and launching an education campaign with the help of the Chinatown Partnership, to highlight legal businesses and warn about safety risks of traveling on unregulated buses.
Gale Brewer, Manhattan borough president, made an appearance and said that NYPD would have 147 new traffic agents in the coming year, helping with enforcement. She urged that buses be distributed throughout the city. “The uptown community boards would love to see more buses, they have asked for intercity bus stops,” she said.
Kerri Culhane, associate director at the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, has suggested one possible bus station: the former trolley terminal that’s currently being eyed for the Lowline, but this was not discussed at the meeting. Kevin Oligner, deputy director for the city’s transportation division, said it would be a hard sell to find enough property on the Lower East Side for a terminal, and residents emphasized that passengers came from all over the city for the cheap fares, not just the Lower East Side. They suggested Queens as a possible location for a bus terminal.
After the hearing, Amy Robinson, a member of SPaCE Block Association, a community group that has consistently sounded the alarm on this issue, said she felt the meeting had been difficult. “Everyone’s trying, but there has to be more communication,” she said. “We are oversaturated in our neighborhood.”
Trever Holland, a member of the CB3 transportation committee and president of Two Bridges Tower Residents Association, said that even if permits were better enforced, it may not solve the problem. Bus operators aren’t only put off from “going legal” because of permit fees. Getting a permit requires more investments to comply with the rules, like a legal bus stop and a storefront with a bathroom.
“Buses have come before the transportation committee and they say the reason they’ve been operating without a permit is: it’s just as cheap to operate without a permit and just pay your tickets,” he said. “They just figure it as a cost of doing business.”
Holland said he thought that towing and impounding buses without a permit, something that has been discussed in the past but seemingly never implemented, might help put unregulated companies out of business. “Until they step up enforcement or create a way to really regulate the permit law, this will continue to explode in the LES,” he said.