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DOT Now Says Delayed Flushing Busway Will Start Next Month

The car-free busway on 14th Street is still the gold standard (mostly because there’s only one other like it). File photo: Dave Colon

The car-free busway for Main Street in Flushing — which the Department of Transportation suspended indefinitely after a racially inflammatory outburst by a Queens council member in July — is now slated to start later this month or early next.

In other words, more than three months behind schedule.

How Streetsblog covered the busway debacle.
How Streetsblog covered the busway debacle.
How Streetsblog covered the busway debacle.

"Late September, early October, implementation begins," said DOT's Queens Deputy Borough Commissioner Albert Silvestri during Thursday night's virtual town hall on the busway — which itself had been rescheduled from August. 

Mayor de Blasio announced in June that the city would install five busways in commercial districts to help make commutes easier and faster for riders, many of whom are essential workers. But the DOT soon postponed what the mayor said was an urgent implementation for 150,000 transit riders daily after a group of opponents showed up at a DOT presser claiming that restricting private vehicle traffic on Main Street between between Northern Boulevard and Sanford Avenue would hurt local businesses.

The group was led by Council Member Peter Koo, who appropriated the “Black Lives Matter” movement to champion supposedly endangered business owners over transit users, who are, in fact, mostly Black.

“BLM — that means what? Business Lives Matter!” Koo chanted during a DOT press conference back in July. “BLM! Business Lives Matter!”

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg called Koo's comments “offensive,” but added that she stalled the busway because he and some other opponents had some “good ideas” about how to move forward with the project.

Council Member Peter Koo during the DOT press conference last Thursday. Photo provided by a source
Here's Council Member Peter Koo during the DOT press conference when he chanted "Business Lives Matter" to oppose a transit improvement aimed at helping long-suffering bus riders. File photo.
Council Member Peter Koo during the DOT press conference in July. Photo provided by a source

“We had several hundred pretty passionate protesters show up and they were clearly a lot of local businesses from the area. I think we have very good arguments to make about what an important project it is, but we’re also going to listen to those voices,” Trottenberg told Streetsblog during an unrelated press conference. “There were a lot of different people in that crowd and some of them said things which we found offensive. But a lot of them were genuine small business owners and they had some good ideas for us actually, around neighboring streets and tweaks we could make for loading, and looking at placards."

DOT did make some minor changes to the .3-mile stretch as a result of the pushback, including promising not to remove any parking, and making 39th Avenue between Main and Prince streets one-way westbound. Private cars were always allowed on the busway, but still will be required to make the first available right turn off of it, just like on the now-permanent successful 14th Street busway in Manhattan.

There is no question that Flushing needs more car-free routes for buses.

In May 2019, the Q44 SBS inched north on Main Street at no more than just 3.6 miles per hour on weekday mornings, and 2.1 miles-per-hour on Saturdays, according to DOT. And between February, 2019 and February, 2020 — one month before the city's COVID-19 shutdown — the average speed on the entire length of the Q44 SBS never topped 9.1 miles-per-hour. But by May — during the city’s lockdown — bus speeds shot up to 11.7 miles-per-hour, offering a glimpse of what fewer cars on the road means for beleaguered bus riders.

Those bus speeds quickly returned to pre-pandemic crawls by June, as more cars flooded Queens streets, statistics show.

And the busway would help businesses, too, according to data from DOT. According to a 2015 study of shoppers on Main Street, only 17 percent of people arrived by cars, while 27 percent arrived by bus. And even fewer people, just 4 percent, actually parked on the usually congested corridor in front of a storefront.

How people get to Main Street in Flushing to shop. Source: NYCDOT
How people get to Main Street in Flushing to shop. Source: NYCDOT
How people get to Main Street in Flushing to shop. Source: NYCDOT

After DOT hit pause on the busway because of the small group of opponents, Streetsblog reached out to all 25 members of the Main Street busway's Community Advisory Board, or CAB — which DOT created for each of the five busways to offer feedback, and are made up of local stakeholders, electeds, business improvement districts, and other local business and organizations — and found that only a small percentage are actively opposed.

Only four members reached by Streetsblog are opposed: Council Member Peter Koo, the Flushing BID, Gu Xiang Printing, and the New World Mall. Each claims the busway will hurt local businesses' bottom lines by preventing shoppers from being able to park nearby.

Supporters include the Straphangers Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, Riders Alliance, Flushing Chamber of Commerce, Flushing Assembly Member Ron Kim and Flushing State Senators John Liu. Senator Toby Ann Stavisky neither fully opposed nor supported the busway, telling Streetsblog that Queens “need(s) a borough-wide bus redesign plan” but that DOT should listen to locals’ concerns. 

(A handful of members of the CAB did not respond to requests for comment or said they have no opinion on the busway, including the local community board, Korean Community Services, Chinese Planning Council, MetroPlus Health, the Asian American Federation, and the Flushing Library.)

It's unclear how seriously involved the advisory board members are: One board member, the Flushing real-estate company F&T Group, said it had no idea it was even named to the board — let alone had any information about the busway.

“As far as we aware, we are not on the CAB Board. Also, none of our team members were approached by the city about the plan," an F&T rep told Streetsblog last month.

A DOT spokesman said that the real-estate group was invited to be on the board at the behest of the Flushing BID, which opposes the busway. The DOT said it made the same allowance for the Flushing Chamber of Commerce, which supports the busway.

Koo should take a ride on the bus to see for himself how desperately it is needed, and how much his constituents would benefit from faster bus speeds, Assembly Member Kim told Streetsblog.

“We’re trying to invite him to take a bus ride with us, for him to experience what it’s like for working families and immigrants everyday that go in and out of our downtown community," said Kim. "And hopefully open up his eyes as to why it’s important to do everything we can to help our public transit users and convert people out of driving cars.”

Koo's office did not respond to a request for comment. Many Flushing insiders believe he does not even live in the district.

Of the five promised busways, only the one on Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn has begun. Another busway is set to start on 181st Street in Washington Heights this November.

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