NEW YORK — On any given day, hundreds of passengers toting bags and suitcases crowd sidewalks near Penn Station waiting to board buses destined for cities along the East Coast.
That has been the status quo for years as the cheap buses — fares can go for a few bucks —have grown in popularity among budget-conscious travelers. With the congested sidewalks, though, have come complaints from property owners about makeshift outdoor bus stops and safety and pollution concerns about idling buses.
Now the city is taking on a new role aimed at taming the intercity bus industry: curbside regulator.
Last year, the state gave the city the right to impose a new permitting system on intercity buses with the goal of increasing oversight and cutting down on overcrowded sidewalks and streets. Under plans currently being evaluated, the owner or operator of an intercity bus would have to obtain a special permit from the city’s Department of Transportation to obtain an assigned on-street bus pick-up and drop-off location.
“These rules are an important step toward closing the door on the chaos that has reigned at the curbside and will help us better manage our streets,” the city’s Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said recently in an emailed statement.
At a June 10 hearing on the new rules, around a dozen or so residents and local business groups mostly from the west side of Manhattan weighed in. Chief among their concerns were that bus companies using curbs and sidewalks around Penn Station would be allowed to keep their current spots for up to three years.
As written, the so-called grandfathering provision allows operators to keep their existing stops, as long as they apply for a permit within 30 days of when the law goes into effect and the DOT approves their request.
Ernest Modarelli, a resident of Hell's Kitchen and a member of the Hell's Kitchen Coalition for Public Safety, said it was “imperative” that intercity bus curbside operations “should not be grandfathered in for a period of three years.”
"Intercity bus stops should not be permitted on streets with residential buildings, schools, or any street which experiences periods of high pedestrian traffic,” he said. “The overwhelming amount of intercity bus parking, idling and operating on the streets of our community is a clear indication that what we really need is a new bus terminal.”
The Port Authority Bus Terminal, which opened in 1950 on West 42nd Street north of where many of the intercity buses park in Midtown Manhattan, is notoriously overcrowded. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has sent out a request for proposals seeking a vendor to create a long-term planning study that would take into account the need for more space at the terminal and neighborhood needs.
Evan Cooper, a representative of the owner of property on 155-159 at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue where Greyhound's Bolt Bus does its brisk business on the curbside, said the grandfathering clause was a bad idea.
He said the tenants complain on a daily basis about fumes, charging that buses don't follow idling laws.
"We ask you to reconsider the grandfathering of this law and the re-location to a more suitable spot possibly further west of our location," he said.
Later, Greyhound spokeswoman Carolyn Daly said the company understood the concerns about congestion and that discussions were underway about the 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue bus stop.
"Our whole mission is to strike a balance between our riders’ needs and the community's needs," Daly said, noting the company had worked closely with the community board in Chinatown when it had a bus stop there.
Chinatown Partnership, the local development corporation, has testified at Community Board 3 meetings that businesses in the area benefit from the foot traffic generated by the curbside buses.
What started as an inexpensive, under-the-radar transit service for Chinatown residents to get to jobs in area casinos as well as other Chinatowns along the East Coast became all the buzz among budget-conscious city travelers in recent years. They were drawn to Chinatown by fares as cheap as $10 to Boston or Washington, D.C.
They were so cheap that the national bus carriers couldn't ignore the sector any longer. When the bus lines started drawing passenger traffic from more conventional companies, the conventional bus carriers developed their own brands meant to compete directly with Chinatown bus carriers.
For example, Coach USA, the Canadian bus giant, directly invested in Eastern Travel's Chinatown bus. The same company had also introduced MegaBus, which did its curbside trade further uptown near Penn Station. Outside New York, DC Trails unveiled The Washington Deluxe line as well as the Vamoose bus.
And, in 2008, Port Authority bus anchors Greyhound and Peter Pan formed the joint venture Bolt Bus, which turned a few Hell’s Kitchen streets into outdoor bus terminals.
The industry attracted unwanted attention and calls for greater regulation after a series of high-profile accidents, including a 2011 crash of a bus operated by World Wide Travel of Greater New York that killed 15 people. In that incident, a bus carrying 32 passengers to New York’s Chinatown from The Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut struck a guardrail, overturned and collided with a vertical highway signpost. Investigators concluded that the driver was severely fatigued and had lost control. They also found that his license had been suspended 18 times before the accident.
Despite questionable safety practices, the bus lines have continued to grow.
An annual study on intercity bus lines from the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University found that service by conventional discount operators surged over 30 percent nationwide between 2011 and 2012. That study — which did not include the smaller Chinatown bus operators in its statistics — said the conventional discount sector accounts for more than 1,000 daily operations in cities across the country.
To operate an intercity carrier all you need is a driver, a fully equipped bus, gas and a functioning computer system or online access, according to the principal author of the study,
"We estimate it costs around $4 a mile to operate the buses. If you think about a bus from New York to D.C., that may cost $800 total. But that bus needs to be full. In other words, they'd need 40 people at $20 each to break even," Joseph Schwieterman, director at the Chaddick Institute and who is also professor at the School of Public Service at DePaul University in Chicago, said in a recent interview.
Schwieterman said he supports common sense regulations of the booming sector — up to a point. "I'm not sure government agencies are disciplined enough to limit themselves to the core issues," he said.
Besides the DOT’s new curbside rules, the City Council has also been looking for ways to increase oversight of intercity buses. It recently passed Intro 591-A, which calls on the DOT to create links on its website to safety ratings of buses maintained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The Council has also held hearings over legislation that would require buses to display their designated location, the operator’s name, address and telephone number. All would be permanently affixed in characters at least five inches high on both sides of the vehicle, with the display being in a color contrasting with that of the vehicle and placed approximately midway vertically on doors or side panels.
City lawmakers have defended their push for greater regulations.
"With the new rules, I think we can start to hold these bus companies more accountable," Councilman James Vacca, the chair of the transportation committee, said.
– Gotham Gazette intern Daniel Stein-Sayles contributed to this report.