NYC’s New Curbside Bus Rules Are No Long-Term Fix

Under new regulations passed by Albany last month, curbside bus companies must now go before community boards before receiving a permit from DOT. Greyhound and Peter Pan, jointly launching service to Philadelphia from Chinatown, are among the first to navigate the new process. The bus companies are facing stiff opposition from neighbors before a community board committee vote next week.

New York's streets have become the heart of an interstate transit network. Image: Nicholas J. Klein and Andrew Zitcer via ##http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/why-we-love-chinatown-buses/2012/01/30/gIQA0kvocQ_blog.html##The Washington Post##

The expansion of intercity transit wouldn’t come down to community-level fights if capacity limitations at the city’s transportation hubs were addressed. In the meantime, buses will continue to be kicked to the curbs.

Growing demand for commuter and intercity transit has pushed NYC’s existing terminals and tunnels to their limits. The problem is especially problematic for travelers who cross the Hudson River.

Penn Station is connected to the rest of the country by just two tracks, and in the wake of Chris Christie’s cancellation of the ARC tunnel, any expansion will be a very long time coming.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal, where commuter buses have shouldered the demand that the rail system cannot, is operating beyond its capacity, with riders facing mounting delays that show no sign of dissipating.

Now that the Port Authority has filled up, New Jersey Transit is considering using Midtown streets as loading zones for its commuter buses. Chinatown-based intercity bus operators have long offered curbside service; competitors owned by major carriers have joined them in recent years.

A new state law allows the city to regulate curbside pickups, giving the practice some added legitimacy. Instead of expanding capacity at existing hubs, New York has converted its streets into its latest bus terminal.

The newest gate may arrive on Essex Street near Canal Street, next to Seward Park. Moving in after competitors were shut down by U.S. DOT, Greyhound and Peter Pan are proposing 14 arrivals and 14 departures daily. Before beginning service, the bus companies must go before Community Board 3’s Transportation Committee, which is navigating the permit process for the first time and is expected to take up a resolution next Tuesday. The vote is advisory, not binding.

The carriers are requesting a six-month permit, instead of the longer three-year option, so that immediate concerns can be addressed when it comes up for renewal. The bus companies are facing opposition from residents who don’t want a curbside pick-up zone next to their neighborhood park. CB 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer said it’s not yet clear if the community board can attach conditions to its vote on the permit, such as provisions for trash collection or waiting areas, but that she would look to DOT for guidance.

Meanwhile, other cities are moving to shift curbside pickups to terminals. Boston, for example, banned curbside pickup and required intercity bus operators to use available capacity at South Station’s bus terminal. Philadelphia constructed a new pick-up/drop-off terminal and waiting area for buses. Washington, D.C., is consolidating its intercity bus service at Union Station after passing curbside bus regulations as an immediate first step.

In its 2009 Chinatown Bus Study, NYC DOT cited D.C.’s curbside regulations as a model for the legislation that was passed in Albany this year. However, the report acknowledged the limits of curbside regulations. “Curb space is extremely limited,” it said, “and there are not enough spaces for each company to obtain a permit.”

While DOT cited a permanent bus terminal in the Chinatown area as a long-term goal, the report threw cold water on the idea of expanding terminal capacity — in Chinatown or elsewhere — saying, “At present it is not possible for NYC to construct new facilities.”

The report also provided a history of the Port Authority and George Washington Bridge bus terminals, which were built to consolidate the proliferation of private terminals and curbside pick-ups that were “blocking traffic and contributing to the general congestion.” The new terminals were a solution.

Today, there are a number of low-cost improvements that could help meet the demand for commuter and intercity transit, such as expanding the bus lanes across the Hudson River. But ultimately, more capacity is needed for both rail and buses. While the ARC Tunnel has been revived as the Gateway Project, relief is years away. New development on the West Side has provided funding for the 7 train extension, but nothing for the Port Authority or Penn Station.

Until New York deals with its maxed-out rail and bus terminals, the number of bus operators making their case to community boards as they seek curbside permits will continue to grow.

  • Anonymous

    I’m always amazed that NYC has only one major bus terminal. Mexico City has four, one each in the North, South, East, and West of the city. Each focuses on destinations going in their respective direction, to avoid having to cross the city, but there is some redundancy to make some connections easier, and you can also take public transportation between them.

    Sure, buses are probably more popular in Mexico City than in NYC, but even without taking demand into account, there are arguably some advantages to having multiple terminals.

    We need more bus terminal capacity in NYC. This is one situation in which I can sympathize with the “NIMBY neighbors” because semi-permanent curbside pickup *is* disruptive to the neighborhood.

  • RPIAndrew

    It’s terrible living in a neighborhood that has curbside bus stops. They take up the whole sidewalk! Another large bus terminal is sorely needed but companies like MegaBus wouldn’t pay for it anyway. They save money by using curbs!

  • Ari

    “Curb space is extremely limited,” [DOT’s report] said, “and there are not enough spaces for each company to obtain a permit.”

    Excuse me?  Curb space is not limited.  There are thousands of curbside spaces.

    I have to disagree with the sentiment of this article and the commentators so far.  We need MORE curbside pickup locations.  We need pickup locations in Downtown Brooklyn, LIC, Flushing, etc.  The ancillary problems (sanitation, etc.) could be solved with a reasonable fee for the curbside pickup permit.  That fee would certainly be less than fees that carriers pay at the bus stations.  If necessary, build bus bulbs with bus shelters to relieve pedestrian congestion.  That would certainly be more affordable than new terminals.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Someone had a good idea on another chat board.  In the short run the Flushing Extension is going to be open in an area with very little development.  The nearby curbs could be turned into a de facto bus terminal.

    That option will get whittled away as the area develops, but it would provide breathing room in the short run.

    New York and New Jersey could also help by building bus terminals outside the city on the Thruway and Turnpike.  Bus companies could then be encouraged to run “hub and spoke” systems like airlines, with buses coming in from different origins in the city, passengers changing, and buses going on to different destinations.  The possiblity of missed connections due to traffic is an argument against.

  • Joe R.

    There is plenty of curb space for these buses if we had the political will to just ban curbside parking in Manhattan. As a bonus, that would result in a considerable decrease in car traffic, with the buses arriving at their destinations more quickly. It seems like a win-win scenario for everyone except the 1% who get around by car.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t care about the loss of parking. In fact, there is no true loss of parking if you measure it in *people* served per foot of parking space per hour.

    As a pedestrian, I do care about congestion on the sidewalk; it’s like the people waiting outside a Broadway show, except that everyone brought a suitcase. 😉 As a breather, I care about idling. The idling can easily be avoided in theory, but the sidewalk congestion probably needs a much wider sidewalk or the use of a less trafficked location.

  • kevd

    NJ Transit Commuter Buses probably should have more on street stops.
    Instead of just unloading everyone at the PA Bus Terminal, some should probably have a couple of stops as they make their way cross town, since some of the people on those buses want to get to the East Side. They should be allowed able to use the 34 St. Bus Lanes, or similar lanes on 42nd St….. some day, at least.

  • Anonymous

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus , you clearly ignore the demographics of private car traffic in Manhattan, don’t you?

  • Joe R.

    @andrelot:disqus Yes, I’m perfectly aware of who gets around by private car in Manhattan. That’s all the more reason to make it more difficult-to make these people realize once and for all that their money doesn’t give them a license to make life miserable for the other 99% just so they can have their convenience. In other countries the wealthy often get around by walking, biking, or public transit just like the masses do. As a result, they empathize with the masses more, and are more likely to support policies which benefit the majority. I could make a good argument for the isolation imposed by the automobile contributing to the me-first attitude I see in US politics these days.

  • Driver

    Joe, nearly all the curbside parking in Midtown is restricted to delivery vehicles during the day (7 am to 7 pm).

  • Mark Walker

    To anyone who thinks using residential streets as bus terminals is a good idea, try this: Find an idling bus, put your mouth on the tailpipe, and take a few deep breaths. Then tell me if you still think it’s a good idea. NYC needs a new bus terminal, and given the joint resources of the Port Authority, the state, and the city, it shouldn’t be an impossible lift.

  • Vermonter

    “Penn Station is connected to the rest of the country by just two tracks.”

    Nope. You forgot about the Empire Connection.

  • kevd

    Vermonter – And the 4 tracks under the east river….
    The overall point is still valid, however.

  • LN

    There IS another bus terminal, connected to a major route to/from NJ and accessible to the subway. The George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal – why doesn’t every northbound inner city bus leave from there? Its woefully under-used.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Why doesn’t every northbound inner city”  I assume you mean intercity.  And I agree.

    Commuters to New Jersey are the primary movers of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They want to walk to their bus rather than pay a separate subway fare, if possible.  But those taking the bus between cities are taking a subway to the terminal anyway.

    The problem is the bus companies themselves. They are not wealthy and powerful operations.  They are shoestring operations with little marketing.  Everyone knows to take a bus to the PABT.  It would take a great deal of marketing to convince them to go elsewhere.

    I assume the GWB Terminal has lower feels.  But not lower than free curbside pick-up.

  • Anonymous

    I used the GWB station once, and I remember it being pretty small. Its focus is semi-local buses to NJ. But real bus stations are needed to support intercity buses that go to New England, DC, upstate NY, etc.; those are the kinds of trips that are now, to a large extent, served by curbside pickup.

  • transport eng

    Use crosstown Bus Lanes on 34th, 42nd and 50th St and as AM drop off points and PM pickup points.  Frequent buses will also decrease lane violation as high bus density and visible passengers ire will discourage lane violation.

  • Curbside parking on Manhattan-wide streets is a good thing, even for pedestrians. It should be metered more often to prevent shortages and block-circling, but it should exist, because it buffers pedestrians from moving cars in a way nothing else does. Pedestrians can cross between two parked cars so the barrier is porous to them, but cars can’t, and so pedestrians remain safe. In Queens, the livable streets advocates are calling for fewer restrictions on curbside parking on QB – it protects pedestrians and reduces the number of moving lanes (and thus traffic speed), while helping local traffic to local merchants.

    Independently of that, they should rent spots to curbside buses. The optimum price of a parking spot is one that keeps the block about 90% full; a private bus operator that wants to use a part of the block for pickups should be allowed to pay the appropriate fee for renting the spots the buses take up. That’s not hard. What’s hard is getting community board kvetchers to not milk any private operator or developer. So thank Albany for making the easy impossible.

  • Anonymous

    Three things to help with this:

    1. Route more buses bound for points north into the GWB Terminal. I would much rather get off there and catch the subway than ride a bus all the way down the Avenues to 42 St.

    2. Route more Bergen County commuter buses into the GWB Terminal.

    Of course, the GWB terminal is small. So what’s really needed to expand capacity is:

    3. Build the 7 train to Secaucus, NJ and then build a new large-scale bus terminal there, mostly for NJ commuter buses. Switching to the 7 train in Secaucus will beat wading through the Lincoln Tunnel any day.

    Why does no one do any of these things? I don’t know. Why are departure gates at Port Authority a deep secret? I don’t know either. I sense that no one cares.

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