Volume 18, Number 37 | Jan. 27 - Feb. 2, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Passenger boards a commuter van in Chinatown.
Van plan sent back to the drawing board

By Tonya Garcia

They line up on Chinatown’s Division St. loading and unloading passengers. A couple of them linger around the fruit and vegetable stands on Forsyth St., alongside the foot of the Manhattan Bridge.

The commuter vans that connect Asian neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens provide a fast, affordable service for their riders. For $2.50, a van can get from Chinatown to Flushing in about 30 minutes, half the travel time of the subway. On the weekend, when subway service is slowed, van usage is at its peak.

Despite the good points, Chinatown residents have grown frustrated with the quality of life issues that the commuter vans pose to their neighborhood.

The Chinatown Access & Circulation Study released by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in December 2004 assessed the quality of life issues caused by the vans and buses that travel to other cities. While the study acknowledges their value to the neighborhood, it points out that the vans disrupt the flow of traffic. In addition, there are questions of operator licensing, insurance, vehicle maintenance and passenger safety that need to be addressed. The study suggests designated van stops on Bowery and Pell St., Bowery and Confucius Plaza (near Division St.), or Market St. between East Broadway and Division St.

According to Paul Lee, 55, a community activist and Mott St. resident for 35 years, Fifth Precinct community affairs officer Detective David Yat announced in a statement to Chinese-language newspapers that Division St. would be turned into a permanent place for the vans to gather. In response, many people turned out for the January 10 meeting of the Community Board 3 Transportation Committee to voice their objections. Department of Transportation spokesperson Craig Chin said both Division and Market Sts. are under consideration and no decision is final.

Detective Yat declined to comment to Downtown Express.

Lee, who uses the vans like many others in the community, would like to see them dispersed either along Allen St. or on Chrystie St. between Canal and Grand Sts. “We’d be willing to walk the extra couple blocks so that there’s less congestion overall,” he said.

Tammy To, acting chief of staff to Chinatown Councilmember Alan Gerson, said that a task force is being formed to focus on the problem. “They do provide a service to the community,” To said. “We have to see how we can manage it better.”

For To, the ideal resolution is impossible — one location to accommodate all the vans. “But in Manhattan, everything is fully developed and it’s hard to find land,” she said.

Alice Hom, principal of P.S. 124 on Division St., is also concerned about the traffic jams the vans create. But her concern extends to the safety of her students, who range in age from four to eleven. Aside from the vans that sit idling in front of the school, emitting unhealthy fumes, she says drivers aren’t cautious. “Cars are triple parking here at 8 in the morning and we have special education children coming in the building,” she said.

Hom feels even the parents aren’t safe. She says some of the people who wait for the vans in front of her school are “derelicts” that drink, smoke and urinate in the school’s exit gate. A man, confronted by a parent on one occasion, exposed himself and verbally abused her. The parent was too afraid to report the incident until the next day, Hom said.

The principal has gone to the police and said a representative from the mayor’s office came to observe the situation, but nothing more has come of it. She’s even spoken with the drivers directly. “It’s a constant battle with them,” she said.

Residents of the Confucius Plaza Houses, the buildings on the block shared with the commuter vans, comprised much of the group that went to the community board meeting, said Justin Yu, chairperson of the housing complex’s board. With about 3,500 residents, Yu said that the population density of the area, coupled with a busy street leading to the Manhattan Bridge, is dangerous. Another major concern is air pollution, which he feels is heightened by the vans that constantly line the curb with their engines running. “We are the victims of the van stop,” Yu said.

For now, all will stay as it is until a solution that accommodates everyone is reached. “They need a proper place,” said Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3. “They need to follow regulation, and they need a place to comply.”


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