Volume 20 Issue 12 | August. 3 - 9, 2007

Downtown Express photo by John Wendle

Elsie and Edith Pierre organized their bags before boarding a bus for Philadelphia on Forsyth St. in Chinatown on Tuesday.

Corraling Chinatown’s cowboy buses

By Sruthi Pinnamaneni

Holding fluorescent-colored signs calling for a halt to a proposed relocation of bus zones in their neighborhood, hundreds of Chinatown and Lower East Side residents poured into the M.S. 131 auditorium on the evening of Tues., July 24. Some had waited almost an hour for the start of the Community Board 3 meeting. 

After several hours of discussion, C.B. 3 voted against a contentious proposal to relegate hundreds of interstate buses to a two-block stretch where Pike St. meets the F.D.R. Drive, in the heart of a cluster of housing developments. The protesters got what they hoped for in the board vote, but many say the buses remain a problem. 

The proposal was a response to a thriving curbside bus business in multiple locations of Chinatown’s commercial hub that some officials say has become virtually impossible to regulate. There may be as many as 600 interstate buses going in and out of the neighborhood in a single day, Sergeant Frank Failla of the Fifth Precinct estimated.

But when city officials recommended moving the buses to one central location to improve their regulation, residents of the nearby Rutgers Houses and Knickerbocker Village were outraged, saying they refuse to put up with what they call a “mini bus depot” on their doorsteps. The neighbors said the proposal would worsen pollution, garbage and traffic violations by relocating the buses to a more residential area. 

“We are not the Port Authority. We are housing projects with families,” said Janice McLaurin at the meeting. “So don’t treat us as though we are expendable.” McLaurin, a Rutgers Houses resident and a mother of two asthmatic children, is worried her family’s health could deteriorate if more buses are moved near her home. 

In this debate, residents found themselves on the same side as the bus companies. 

“It doesn’t make sense for anybody if you move the buses from a commercial area to a residential area,” said David Wang, co-owner of Eastern Travel & Tours. The proposed location is far from busy subway stops and the bustle of Canal St. Many Chinatown business owners and their families came to protest the relocation, saying the move would hurt their livelihoods. 

The proposed street for the bus relocation is adjacent to Coleman Square Playground — a popular haunt for skateboarders. It is also across from Pathmark, the closest supermarket for many people in the area. Local residents also complained that parking spots would be lost, bike lanes blocked and that anyone looking to stroll to the waterfront would first have to wade through buses and passengers. 

In fact, many residents in the Pike St. area said they thought there were already too many interstate buses motoring through their side streets — and that was before city officials proposed moving them all there.

“There are 1,600 families at Knickerbocker and hundreds of children in the schools and daycare centers around the corner,” said Vivian Lazi, a 36-year resident of Knickerbocker Village, who spoke at the meeting. “How can we handle more buses?” 

Nearly every day last fall, while sitting in the park across from her building, Lazi carefully wrote down the company name and license plate number of the 10 or so buses that passed by her building within the span of a few hours. After three months, she had collected the details of hundreds of buses, and showed her log to C.B. 3. 

The log reflected a flourishing Chinatown bus business. Things have gotten busier since 1998, when the New York-based company Fung Wah launched the first Chinatown bus, a $25 curbside shuttle between New York and Boston. The interstate buses have since multiplied. There are now between 10 and 20 private companies running hundreds of buses to and from states as far away as Illinois and Kentucky.

They are all curbside operations, dropping off or picking up passengers on different streets in Chinatown — where restaurants and vendors have mushroomed to cater to the hungry, curious travelers.

But the booming bus business has also created problems. Because Chinatown bus operations use multiple drop-off points, police officers from the Fifth Precinct find it more difficult to maintain a steady flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Without a central location where all the buses convene, it is harder to control trash, traffic violations and the occasional fights that break out between rival bus drivers, said Sergeant Failla. 

Also, there is no set place for police to move standing buses if they are blocking traffic. So, instead, bus drivers drive around the residential side streets near Pike St., south of the commercial areas, causing residents like Lazi to worry about pollution, noise and the safety of children playing nearby. 

Even before Lazi began her bus log, residents in other parts of Chinatown had raised concerns with C.B. 3. The board, in turn, reached out to the Community Assistance Unit, or C.A.U., of the Mayor’s Office in June.

“Very little is known about the interstate buses — how many there are, what their schedules are, and who runs them,” said Colleen Chattergoon, a representative from the Department of Transportation’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner’s Office, during a phone interview. “And it’s hard to plan anything without knowing these facts.” 

The C.A.U. brought together police from both the Fifth and Seventh Precincts and different city, state and federal agencies to figure out who was responsible for what. The multi-agency meeting led to the idea of a 30-day pilot program in which all the interstate buses would be restricted to two blocks on Pike St. between South St. and Monroe St., with no more than seven buses picking up or dropping off passengers at any one time.

Based on the findings of the trial run, the city would then recommend a permanent plan.

“The trial is not a perfect solution,” said Jarrod Bernstein, deputy commissioner of operations at C.A.U. “If there was such a thing, the city would have done it a long time ago.” 

Before voting on July 24, C.B. 3 members asked city officials about whether the pilot program would increase air pollution and cause more buses to end up roaming the side streets without sufficient space on Pike St. Unable to give definite answers, Bernstein instead stressed that all these questions are arguments in favor of a one-month trial.

“After the buses are in one place, the agencies can study air quality and traffic flow to give you answers,” he said. 

But in the end, the board disagreed with him: Out of 30 C.B. 3 members present, 23 voted against the proposal. 

Despite the vote, David Crane, head of the community board’s Bus/Van Subcommittee, said he is optimistic a solution will be found.

“We have momentum now,” he said. Using comments and ideas from residents and business owners, he thinks the subcommittee will find enough information to support relocating the buses to either Pike St. or some other area. 

Wang, a member of the Chinatown Bus Association, said the bus companies have also been searching for rental spaces, such as the ground floor and basement of a commercial building at Forsyth and Division Sts., to use as a central site for ticketing and passenger waiting.

Some residents said they didn’t want to fight the bus companies, which they say are a boon for many local residents looking for cheap, convenient travel.

“I support the idea of a Chinatown bus terminal,” said Lazi. “I know I’m going to hear the buses zoom, zoom, zoom all day, but I’m fine with that. I just want the city to find a good commercial area to house them and keep them off our side streets.”

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