NYC Has a Tour Bus Problem
New York City's relationship with tourists has always been complicated: They are crucial to our economy, pumping tens of billions of dollars into the city every year, but they clot entire neighborhoods for seasons at a time; their pilgrimage validates our certainty that we live at the center of the universe, but Jesus Christ do they insist on ambling down the sidewalk four abreast at speeds that wouldn't save them if they were being pursued by a carnivorous plant. We need them, but we've made a sport of resenting them.
Recently, New Yorkers who spend time on the streets and sidewalks of midtown and Lower Manhattan have bemoaned one tourism-related nuisance in particular: double-decker hop-on-hop-off sightseeing buses. The number of these buses tripled between 2003 and 2013, driven by estimated industry revenues in excess of $100 million a year; according to the Department of Transportation, there are currently 237 of them licensed to stop at more than a hundred approved locations around town. On blocks already crowded with city bus stops, kiosks, news boxes, and pedestrians, the crowds of tourists swarming to board an idling hulk clad in an armored shell of advertisements can feel like a bit too much for some locals.
"There is no monitoring, enforcement, or accountability," says JoAnne Chernow, a resident of Battery Park City. Since the opening of the 9-11 Memorial, Chernow says, double-decker tour buses have been idling in the surrounding streets, blocking city bus lanes and choking traffic. Many European cities with streets as narrow as Lower Manhattan's ban tour buses outright, Chernow says — why can't New York do the same? "Most tourists can walk if they have to."
The nonstop bedlam is as much the doing of rapacious mobs of Scandinavians on holiday as of the tourism industry itself, which has taken advantage of weak regulation. When the Department of Transportation recently audited a few of the approved locations in Lower Manhattan and midtown, it found an enormous amount of bus traffic: On Park Row near City Hall, for example, the number of double-decker stops peaked at seventeen per hour. In some instances, the DOT found that tour bus companies are double-running — sending two buses for every one regulators have approved to stop. A fifth of the buses tracked on Park Row blocked a roadway lane, and nearly a quarter blocked a crosswalk. Around the city, the DOT found that nearly a fifth of the buses idled at the curb for more than ten minutes waiting to pick up passengers at locations where they are only permitted to quickly drop off and pick up.
Quality-of-life issues of this sort generally draw City Council members' attention like flies to sugar, and this is no exception. "Having one bus coming down Broadway every so often isn't a problem," says Councilmember Margaret Chin, whose district includes much of Lower Manhattan. "It is an issue when four, five, or six near-empty buses clog up the street, spilling noxious fumes through residents' windows."
Chin and other councilmembers held a hearing on the subject recently and have drafted a raft of bills targeting the double-deckers. One would impose new safety standards for tour bus drivers — including provisions that they can't have had their licenses suspended or revoked more than once in the past five years, and can't have been convicted of any alcohol- or drug-related traffic offense in the past three — and require companies to report any crashes involving their drivers. But the real enthusiasm on the council is for another bill, introduced at the request of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, that would stop the proliferation of double-deckers cold, putting a hard cap on the number of license plates issued to tour buses at 225 total.
Brewer's proposal may scratch a vengeful itch for disgruntled residents, but it's a blunt instrument. Leaving aside the issue that regulating license plates would discourage companies from replacing old, dirty, dangerous buses with newer and better ones, introducing a hard numerical cap would likely freeze the industry where it already is, creating the same sort of artificial scarcity that turned taxi medallions into the inflated currency of a cartel economy. (Before Uber and other ridesharing services turned the taxi system upside down, taxi companies treated the government's license to operate as a commodity, amassing hundreds of medallions, sometimes for as much as $1 million a pop, then charging drivers for the privilege to use them.)
It was only a year and a half ago that New York's double-decker bus industry settled a federal suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department and the New York attorney general over monopolistic practices. In 2009, two companies — City Sights, a New York company, and Gray Line, a brand licensed by Coach USA, the Paramus, New Jersey–based bus giant — controlled 99 percent of the market; they then merged their operations in a joint venture, Twin America, which promptly jacked up fares. To settle the suit, the partnership paid out $7.5 million in 2015 and agreed to give up almost fifty of their choicest pickup and drop-off locations to other companies. Today, there are eight companies running double-decker buses in the city, but the industry remains incredibly concentrated: Gray Line runs 93 of the 237 licensed buses. Experience the Ride, a competitor, has only 4.
Twin America, unsurprisingly, is enthusiastic at the prospect of freezing the market. "Twin America supports the limitation of the number of bus licenses," Laura Rothrock, a spokesperson for the company, told the City Council recently. Smaller companies are less gung ho: "Imposing an arbitrary cap of 225 plates would freeze the current market conditions and perpetuate the conditions under which the...joint venture harmed the market for so long," Asen Kostadinov, the president of GO NY Tours, said in council testimony.
Representatives of outer boroughs, who see the expansion of tour bus routes beyond Manhattan as a ticket to financial growth, are also opposed to the capping scheme. Even the professional staff at the Department of Transportation and the Department of Consumer Affairs, which are charged with regulating the buses, told the City Council they think capping the number of buses is a clumsy solution to the problem. "Directly having a cap would not, for example, fix the problem on Park Row," Margaret Forgione, DOT's chief operations officer, told skeptical councilmembers. Forgione and other regulators are more enthusiastic about a third bill before the council, which would require that bus companies secure approval for their routes and stop locations from the Department of Transportation before they can get a license to operate from the Department of Consumer Affairs. That, combined with tougher enforcement and stiffer penalties to make sure buses are actually adhering to the rules ("a very key factor for us," Forgione said), is a much more direct way to avoid traffic-snarling tour bus behavior, they say.
But better interagency coordination isn't sexy, and better enforcement of existing regulations in the City Council isn't the kind of thing that lends itself to political grandstanding. For the moment, at least, councilmembers seem committed to capping the number of buses, even if it means unraveling the antitrust victories of two years ago. "We gotta have a certain limit on these buses," Chin says. "We cannot have so many. It's just a lot."
An earlier version of this story misstated Margaret Forgione's title. She is the city DOT's chief operations officer, and no longer the department's Manhattan borough commissioner.
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