UPDATED: 14th Street Landowners Sue City over Car-Free ‘Busway’

An appeal has slowed down the M14 Busway yet again. Photo: Google Maps
An appeal has slowed down the M14 Busway yet again. Photo: Google Maps

Irony alert: A coalition of Manhattan landowners is using state environmental law to fight a city plan to improve public transit on 14th Street and cycling on 12th and 13th streets.

The 14th Street Coalition — which comprises property-owner groups in Tony Chelsea, the West Village and the Flatiron District — says that the Department of Transportation’s proposed “busway” violates state environmental law because the agency didn’t conduct a serious assessment of the impact that banning cars from 14th Street would have on neighboring residential streets.

“Closing 14th Street to vehicular traffic would not only cause horrific traffic jams on 12th Street, 13th Street, 15th Street, 16th Street, 17th Street, 18th Street (a street with an MTA bus depot at the corner of Sixth Avenue), 19th Street, and 20th Street, it would also cause traffic on north-south avenues including Eighth, Seventh, Sixth, Fifth, Fourth, and Third Avenue, and Broadway, and Park Avenue,” the suit, filed by lawyer Arthur Schwartz. “The traffic will bring with it air pollution and noise pollution.”

The original busway plan was drawn up more than a year and a half ago after the MTA announced it would completely shut down the L train between Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn for 18 months of repairs. That plan was scrubbed earlier this year in favor of a nights-and-weekend repair schedule that retains limited L-train service — but the DOT pushed ahead with its busway plan, which now will allow through trucks and car pick-ups and drop-offs between Third and Ninth avenues.

The city said the plan will improve bus travel times for tens of thousands of long-suffering transit riders on a congested corridor. And it will argue in court that the DOT did conduct a substantive review.

But that’s not good enough for the 14th Street group.

“DOT has come up with a new ‘rationale’ for the Corridor Plan, since the original rationale was no longer viable,” the suit alleges. “That rationale (making bus service faster) amounts to no more than PR material. The result, Petitioners contend, will be increased vehicular traffic on all east and westbound streets between 12th Street and 20th Street, bringing with it air pollution, noise, and vibrations endangering the 19th century buildings which line these blocks, challenging the character of the Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Flatiron communities, and likely causing delay in the crosstown transit of emergency vehicles.”

The reference to “PR material” is ironic, given that the lawsuit at times reads like its own press release.

“The government [is] thumbing its nose at the views of residents and the character of three neighborhoods in order to speed up busses by one or two miles per hour and promote use of bicycles,” Schwartz’s papers read.

But a legal expert at Transportation Alternatives’ said Schwartz is misreading the State Environmental Quality Review Act, referred to in court papers as SEQRA.

“Under SEQRA, the city and NYC DOT are required to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors,” said Marco Conner, the group’s co-deputy director. “The social and economic benefits are clear — in a city where eight of 10 commute by transit, and with the slowest bus travel times of a major U.S. city, all will benefit from faster and more reliable bus service on a major bus route.”

Conner added that Schwartz is not only wrong on the law, but wrong in predicting disaster from the busway.

“The broader environmental benefits from facilitating efficient mass transit over promoting harmful single-occupancy car travel is also established beyond question,” he said. “Understandable fears of so-called spill-over traffic into nearby streets have repeatedly been proven wrong. This lawsuit is in effect attempting to delay environmental, social and economic progress in NYC, especially along 14th Street.”

And TransAlt and other groups have also repeatedly questioned one of the other premises of Schwartz’s suit, namely that the city doesn’t listen to community complaints. Indeed, street safety activists often have the opposite complaint — that the city bends far too backwards to placate communities with lengthy public processes when the DOT is only required by law to show that it has a rational reason for pursuing streetscape changes. This part of the debate is reminiscent of an ongoing lawsuit by several business owners on Morris Park Avenue in the Bronx, where the city hopes to redesign the roadway to improve safety.

That lawsuit led to a judge ordering the city to delay its plans as the larger issues of the case are considered. Schwartz’s papers also seek a temporary restraining order against the busway, which is set to begin on July 1.

Supporters of the busway fired back that Schwartz, who identifies himself as a progressive, is using a regressive legal approach on behalf of wealthy property owners to fight transit for the working class and the poor.

“The suit is misguided,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. “The thing has been studied to death. The city’s incredibly cautious lawyers have signed off on it. The state environmental review law was not intended to be used to block transit. There are tens of thousands of transit riders who would be affected if this lawsuit succeeds — and those people don’t have the resources to sue.”

Pearlstein agreed that the city never did complete a formal environmental impact statement for the busway, but added that it’s unclear under state law if one is necessary. And he drew a larger point.

“Given this unprecedented year of climate change legislation, it is incumbent on us all to do what we can to shrink our carbon footprint — and offensive environmental litigation like this get in the way of making the changes we need to make,” he said. “It’s ironic in a progressive community to use this as weapon to get your way over transit riders. The city will fight this suit, but at the end of the day, it’s not the city’s Corporation Counsel who is left waiting 20 minutes for a bus because Arthur Schwartz won’t allow a busway through his neighborhood.”

UPDATE: After initial publication of this story, Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci issued this statement:

The claims have no merit. DOT stands by this pilot project which will improve pedestrian safety along a Vision Zero Priority Corridor with seven priority intersections and will improve bus speeds by as much as 30 percent for the 27,000 daily riders. DOT followed all applicable procedures and should be allowed to complete this initiative. … DOT complied with all the required reviews for this pilot project.”

  • JarekFA

    If they’re worried about too much traffic going on to 12th and 13th street then an easy solution would be to make them non-through streets with bollards such that bikes could proceeds but cars would have to turn at 6th/7th ave or Broadway/3rd ave.

  • mikecherepko

    The wild antisocial things you’ll do when you’re confident you’re so old you’ll be dead before the worst of climate change comes. Shame on everyone involved.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Environmental progressivism,” prior generation-style. This is what “environmentalism” has been in the past.

    But perhaps no longer in the City Council, which is why they are going to the NY courts, the last bastion of old fashioned patronage in the state.

  • “The traffic will bring with it air pollution and noise pollution.”

    “…bringing with it air pollution, noise, and vibrations endangering the 19th century buildings which line these blocks.”

    So what Arthur Schwartz is saying is that cars are bad.

    *EDIT:

    The “character of the neighborhood” argument, in a neighborhood that existed before cars were even a speck of Henry Ford’s imagination, is quite rich. Someone should ask these people when they think their homes were built.

  • Automobile traffic is not an “environmental impact”.

    If it arrives in crushing amounts, then the city can simply shut down more streets to thru-traffic. Or it can do what it does over on the East Side, and let it remain permanently like it does near all the East River crossings.

    Most similar situations result in the traffic not even materializing. People avoid areas where they know they would have to drive among severe limitations or congestion.

    The city should be suing Schwartz for a frivolous lawsuit + expenses incurred.

  • CJ

    Arthur Schwartz is a scourge on this city and a phony progressive who is costing taxpayers of this city money for its lawyers to fight bogus lawsuits that argue for the benefit of rich car and property owners over poor bus riders. He should be tarred and feathered and shipped to a farm upstate, where he’ll have no neighbors whose interests he can actively fight against.

  • NIMBY logic means that traffic only has an environmental impact when it’s perceived to be caused by bikes or buses. If it’s caused by other cars, that’s as uncontrollable as the weather.

  • TFW you accidentally make the case for banning all cars from Manhattan in your lawsuit objecting to a bus lane.

  • Andrew

    18th Street (a street with an MTA bus depot at the corner of Sixth Avenue)

    There is no MTA bus depot at the corner of 18th Street and Sixth Avenue. (The southernmost bus depot in Manhattan is north of the Javits Center.)

    That rationale (making bus service faster) amounts to no more than PR material.

    Nobody who has ever ridden a bus in New York could possibly say that.

  • redbike

    Clarifying: implementing “No Left Turns” on 14th St resulted in re-routing the M7 (downtown on 7th / uptown on 6th) to cross between the two avenues on 16th rather than 14th St. 6th Av between 16th St and 17th St is now indeed a “terminal”: https://new.mta.info/sites/default/files/pdf/manbus_2.pdf

  • Joe R.

    Maybe the city should start trying to get reimbursed for court costs when lawsuits like this get thrown out (which this ultimately will be). When it costs these people lots of money to try to stop a project on tenuous grounds (and that’s putting it mildly), maybe they’ll just stop.

    Hopefully we’ll see less of this within 5 to 10 years as these people finally either drop dead or move to Florida. Sure, these people don’t care about climate change or the negative effects of car use because they’ll be dead long before the worst of it hits. I guess they forgot about the world they’re creating which their children or grandchildren will have to live in.

  • Joe R.

    Which really should have been done before I was born. Manhattan was never designed for private autos. They were shoehorned in at great cost to everyone else. Incidentally, banning cars in Manhattan would help enormously with traffic in the outer boroughs. How much of the traffic there is vehicles driving into Manhattan? If they could no longer do so, this traffic would just disappear.

  • AMH

    If people don’t want traffic on their streets, maybe they should be lobbying DOT for traffic calming on their streets as well.

  • Austin Busch

    How valid would an EIS have been if it was drafted before accounting for congestion pricing?

  • StevieWelles

    There’s only one way to reduce traffic. Stop driving.

  • StevieWelles

    For the millionth time: street designs do not create traffic, cars do. Don’t want traffic? Don’t drive.

  • Larry Littlefield

    They would be suing to have the EIS redone if one was done.

    Remember when Kohheim & Ketchum were arguing on Streetsblog for an EIS for Citibike? It would still be in litigation.

  • AMH

    Ah, that must be what they meant. The terminus of a bus route and a bus depot are two VERY different things however.

  • AMH

    He’ll complain that all the smelly animals and manure spreaders are hurting his property value.

  • redbike

    Understood / agreed, hence characterizing my comment as “clarifying”. I guess what this means in the real world is that from time to time, a few M7 buses may hang out on the east side of 6th Av between 16th and 17th Streets.

  • Joe R.

    I could imagine exactly that. He’ll say I can’t even open my window because of the smell of shit. Reminds me of people who move near railroad tracks, then complain about the sound of train horns.

  • redbike

    I’d be cautious about the whole banning all cars from Manhattan thing.

    http://wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=5010

    pictures Manhattan streets at the end of the 19th century transitioning from horse-drawn to motor vehicles. Before motor vehicles, Manhattan certainly wasn’t free of private vehicles.

    The good news about congestion pricing: it puts a price on private use of public space.

  • Joe R.

    The difference is those private vehicles went 20 mph tops, most of the time under 10 mph. If we restrict Manhattan just to low-speed electric vehicles which can’t go over 25 mph, that’s a reasonable compromise.

  • thomas040

    Where there isn’t a two way protected bike way all across 14th Street instead of parking is beyond me.

  • Imagine streets in which the only motorised vehicles were golf carts and mopeds.

  • Andrew

    But somebody who’s never ridden a bus wouldn’t know that. (And he didn’t even get the right location!)

  • The M7 is being returned to 14 th street as part of the pilot . So this is a non issue

  • What a waste of time !

  • PDiddy

    “Closing 14th Street to vehicular traffic would not only cause horrific traffic jams on 12th Street, 13th Street, 15th Street, 16th Street, 17th Street, 18th Street (a street with an MTA bus depot at the corner of Sixth Avenue), 19th Street, and 20th Street, it would also cause traffic on north-south avenues including Eighth, Seventh, Sixth, Fifth, Fourth, and Third Avenue, and Broadway, and Park Avenue,” the suit, filed by lawyer Arthur Schwartz. “The traffic will bring with it air pollution and noise pollution.”

    OK Mr. Schwartz. Does that mean that a viable solution in your eyes is also forbidding cars on those streets that you also mention? I’m all for it! Let’s make the first NYC superblock Madrid style.

  • jojo

    The city should do away with city buses all together in Manhattan and take the money saved and put into the NYC subway system. Traffic congestion is being cause by bus lanes and bus traffic. I drive into the city four times a week and will continue driving into the city and pay the congestion pricing “toll” when it starts. Congestion pricing will not do anything to relive traffic issue in the city. The only thing it will do is raise money for the MTA and that is all NY State officials care about. Now they can blow the taxpayers money on other projects rather than give it to the MTA. Let the people that can afford to pay for congestion pricing give their hard earned money to the MTA and give MTA employees that drive into the city and exception.

  • Zach Katz

    Traffic congestion is being cause by bus lanes and bus traffic

    Yup, buses are the ones causing congestion. Definitely not the hundreds of thousands of cars.

  • AMH

    Remember the people who moved in next to that chicken slaughterhouse in Greenpoint and then complained about that?

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