Volume 19 Issue 52 | May 11 -17, 2007

Early reviews mixed on Downtown bus lane plan

By Alyssa Giachino

The newest attempt to ease the flow of traffic along Broadway, by extending the sidewalk out by about 10 feet for bus stops, has been received with mixed reviews from merchants, neighborhood activists, and mass transit advocates.

The plan involves pouring slabs of concrete, measuring about 100-feet long and nine-feet wide, adjacent to the existing sidewalks so that buses don’t have to maneuver over to the curb for passenger loading.

The concrete strips, known as bus bulbs, are already operating along Broadway at Spring and Grand Sts. Two more are in the midst of construction further Downtown at Walker and Franklin Sts. and should be finished in the next two weeks, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. The fifth and final bus bulb will be installed at Houston St. this summer. The project will cost $350,000.

The plan has been embraced by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, whose director Paul Seely White said, “It’s a reclaiming of car space that is being given over to pedestrians and bus riders.”

He said it is consistent with Mayor Bloomberg’s 2030 plan for the city that emphasizes improvements in mass transit, and that the bulbs have been effective in other cities. Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco each have a version of bus bulbs incorporated into their bus systems.

“The reason bus bulbs work is because the bus can maintain a straight trajectory while it’s completing its route,” Seely White said.

Community Board 1 unanimously opposed the idea in March, citing a need for a comprehensive plan from the Department of Transportation detailing how bus bulbs would help traffic. But C.B. 2 supported the plan because it gives priority to mass transit.

Brad Hoylman, who heads C.B. 2’s transportation committee, said he will be seeking community input on whether the program is working. “There may be some wrinkles that need to be ironed out in the implementation,” he said. “We felt that the positive outweighs the negative.”

Carl Rosenstein, owner of the Puffin Room Gallery and a 30-year resident of Soho, said the bus bulbs have only compounded the existing traffic problems by narrowing the roadway and making it difficult for buses to make turns.

“It’s a disaster, it’s just complete stupidity,” he said. “They added to the chaos and mayhem in Soho.”

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance is skeptical about the project, saying, “It benefits no one really, except the engineers at D.O.T.”

“Most annoying is that it was done with no community input,” he said. “How it benefits the free flow of traffic confounds me.”

The four lanes along Broadway are frequently crowded, particularly around Broome St. because of the stream of cars heading toward the Holland Tunnel. The rules for the space left in the west lane in front of the bulb vary from block to block, but usually it is intended as a loading zone.

“We expect that as construction in Lower Manhattan picks up this summer, the congestion on Broadway will get worse,” said Ted Timbers, a D.O.T. spokesperson. However, D.O.T. expects the bulbs will ease congestion once drivers adjust to the new street layout.

Asphalt markings and overhead signs will be installed to distinguish the bus lane, which will be in effect on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and will extend two miles down to Ann St.

“The installation of the bus bulbs are the first step in our plan to prioritize mass transit on lower Broadway, and the dedicated bus lanes will take effect in early July,” Timbers said.

In the meantime, cars and buses jostle for space. Many vehicles, including taxis and cargo trucks, stop along the east-side curb and block a through-traffic lane, which leaves two lanes that are often clogged with tour buses, city buses and cars.

Henry Chan, whose pharmacy at Broadway and Franklin St. has served its neighbors for 12 years, said the bus bulbs were “foolish.” He said trucks bringing deliveries to merchants will have to move to the side streets or double park, which simply redirects the congestion without solving it.

“The traffic’s bad already on Broadway going Downtown,” he said. “The area they eliminated is not really for parking, but for loading and unloading.”

Karen Stamm, vice president of the Family Association of Tribeca East, said the community was not consulted in advance of the plan, a pattern she said is typical for the Department of Transportation.

“I think it’s a very poorly thought out idea,” she said. “It doesn’t take into account what’s really happening here.”

Furthermore, Chan said, much of the lane designated as a loading zone is taken up by commuter cars, although many display placards from city agencies.

“All these parking areas, 80 to 90 percent are occupied by cars with some kind of permit related to the city,” he said. “They are easily duplicated. They should really crack down on these illegal permits.”

There are complaints of abuse of city agency permits, both legal and counterfeit, throughout Manhattan. D.O.T. is working on a study of parking practices downtown, including cars using placards, that is planned for release in the fall.

Seely White, of Transportation Alternative, agreed that the plan is incomplete without police action to enforce parking and loading regulations. “There is a significant enforcement piece needed to make the bulbs function optimally,” he said.

D.O.T. agreed that enforcement is an important component of the plan. “We’ve worked in conjunction with City Hall, the N.Y.P.D., and a number of groups on this plan,” Timbers said.

As part of the design, the bus bulbs are framed by black fencing along the sidewalk, which is convenient for passengers to lean on while they wait, but may discourage pedestrians from entering the stores located behind the fence.

Oscar Lastra, a manager at the Quicksilver store at Broadway and Spring St., said the bulb is helpful in that it opens up more sidewalk space for foot traffic, but said people may bypass his store rather because of the fence.

“If they’d put benches it would have been better,” Lastra said.

Rosenstein, the gallery owner, sees the bus bulbs as another example of D.O.T. trampling on community interests.

“They have contributed to the physical, spiritual, and cultural decline of the neighborhood with their bad policy,” he said.

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