Volume 20, Number 39 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 9 - 15, 2011
Chinatown buses could require permits
BY Aline Reynolds
On the morning of the second day of the Chinese New Year, community activists and politicians weren’t celebrating at a restaurant or a park. Instead, they were huddled outside in the cold, announcing a new state law intended to streamline the intercity bus pick-up and drop-off system in Chinatown and around the city.
The bill, if passed, would implement a citywide permit system for private buses that now chaotically pick up and unload passengers onto city streets. The new requirement would mean safer conditions for pedestrians and result in fewer fines for bus drivers, according to its proponents.
“Right now, the streets of Chinatown are like the Wild West,” said NY State Senator Daniel Squadron at a press conference held last Friday at Canal and Allen Streets in Chinatown.
Buses today, Squadron noted, can stop anywhere, double-park, and aimlessly circle around city blocks to avoid the cops; while sidewalks overflow with anxious passengers who often don’t know where they’re being picked up.
“The fact is,” Squadron said, “we love having low-cost buses. We love the fact that we have an industry that’s growing and that’s centered in the Chinatown community. But it has to grow and thrive in a way that works for the community.”
“[Permits] would allow the legitimate bus companies to have a process they can depend on and that riders can depend on,” said NYC Councilmember Margaret Chin, who also spoke at the press event.
“Both from a customer point of view and the provider point of view, you want a certain reliability,” echoed Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership. Bus drivers, he said, would prefer to have a dependable way of dropping off passengers than risk paying fines.
At a Chinese New Year’s celebration in Sara D. Roosevelt Park last Thursday, a gentleman asked Chen if he knew where a bus coming into the city would drop off his relative.
“I didn’t know, and [the gentleman’s relative] didn’t have a cell phone,” Chen said.
The new regulations would also tighten the reins on bus companies that break traffic laws, according to NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Apart from issuing permits to the companies and designating spaces for pick-up and drop-offs, the law, he said, would “hold the bus operators accountable for their actions, including fines for violating these regulations.”
The permit would cost the bus companies a maximum of $275 annually. The elected officials purposely kept the fee low, they said, so companies wouldn’t have to adjust ticket prices in order to afford permits.
The politicians didn’t specify a timeline of the bill, but said they would like it passed “as quickly as possible.” Chin said she’s confident that the City Council will approve the law, since Speaker Christine Quinn is very supportive of it.
Oversight of intercity long distance buses has been a priority for Community Board 3 for several years, according to David Crane, chair of the board’s transportation committee. Recently, more and more Chinatown residents have expressed concerns to the board about congestion, pollution and safety surrounding the frenzied bus system.
“The bus companies need regulations that provide ways for them to comply with the law, to operate safely, and coexist on our congested streets,” said Crane.
Eastern Coach, a bus company that shuttles passengers between New York, Washington and Philadelphia, accrues about $30,000 in parking fines each year from idling or parking illegally. “Now, we have no [legal] space on the street,” said President David Wang.
The company’s bus drivers frantically scramble to avoid the traffic police, according to Wang, causing a precarious situation for pedestrians.
“When the drivers see the cops, they get so scared, they try to pull out,” Wang said, sometimes even during passenger pick-ups.
Cops tend to issue parking tickets arbitrarily, according to Jimmy Cheng, president of the United Fujianese American Association, a nationwide nonprofit based on East Broadway that has garnered community support for the bus law in the past few years.
Wilson Yau, who owns a discount store in Chinatown, agreed that today’s unregulated system is not working, neither for passengers nor the bus companies. “If the government controls the spot[s], gives the license, and separates the buses,” he said, “they’re much easier to control.”
Passengers now, he added, have a hard time deciphering the street signs that indicate which bus stops at a given stop.
Approximately 20 intercity bus companies currently operate in Chinatown, according to Chin’s office. They would all require permits if the law is passed.