Volume 80, Number 37 | February 10 - 16, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Aline Reynolds

Presenting a unified front last Friday on proposed bus regulations were, from left, Julie Menin, Community Board 1 chairperson, Councilmember Margaret Chin, state Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

In Year of Rabbit, dragon buses could face new law

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 proposed new state law intended to streamline the intercity bus pickup and drop-off system in Chinatown and around the city.

The bill, if passed, would implement a citywide permit system for private buses in Chinatown — known informally as dragon buses — that currently chaotically pick up and unload passengers on city streets. The new requirement would mean safer conditions for pedestrians and result in fewer fines for bus drivers, according to proponents.

“Right now, the streets of Chinatown are like the Wild West,” said state Senator Daniel Squadron at a press conference last Friday at Canal and Allen Sts. in Chinatown.

Buses today, Squadron noted, can stop anywhere, double-park and continuously circle around blocks to avoid tickets, 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 City 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 celebration in Sara D. Roosevelt Park last Thursday, a man asked Chen if he knew where a bus coming into the city would drop off his relative.

“I didn’t know, and he didn’t have a cell phone,” Chen said of the confused man.

The new regulations would also tighten the reins on bus companies that break traffic laws, according to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Apart from issuing permits to the companies and designating spaces for pickups and drop-offs, the law, Silver 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 for the bill, but said they would like it passed “as quickly as possible.” Chin said she’s confident the City Council will approve the bill, since Council 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, chairperson 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 space on the street,” said David Wang, Eastern Coach’s president, of the lack of designated, legal pickup and drop-off spots.

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,” sometimes even during passenger pickups, Wang said.

Police tend to issue parking tickets arbitrarily, according to Jimmy Cheng, president of the United Fujianese American Association, a nationwide nonprofit organization 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, either for passengers or the bus companies.

“If the government controls the spots, gives the license and separates the buses, they’re much easier to control,” he said.

Passengers now, he added, have a hard time deciphering the street signs that indicate which buses stop at a given stop.

About 20 intercity bus companies currently operate in Chinatown, according to Councilmember Chin’s office. They would all require permits if the law is passed.

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