Idling midtown buses drive retailers mad

Crain's
November 19, 2009

by Erik Engquist

Midtown businesses, which began to notice a proliferation of long-distance buses at several on-street locations in early 2008, say the noisy nuisance is increasing. BoltBus, Vamoose, DC2NY and other operators appear to be gaining market share from Amtrak and the airlines—hardly surprising, since buses offer recession-conscious travelers cheap deals, like $25 trips to Washington, D.C. Many offer free wireless Internet and even snacks and bottled water.

The buses tend to idle noisily and block pedestrians' view of street-level stores and restaurants, said Daniel Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership. Mr. Biederman's organization points to four problem spots within its business improvement district: two on Seventh Avenue and two on Eighth Avenue, all between West 31st and West 34th streets.

Buses are not allowed to keep their engines idling for more than three minutes, but they often do because of a lack of enforcement, the business leader says.

“The noise is overwhelming when you're standing within 10 or 15 feet,” Mr. Biederman said. “It's not that different from being at La Guardia.”

But the buses have permits to load and unload at the curbside locations, and the city Department of Transportation has limited authority over interstate bus operations. “Our stop was assigned by the DOT,” said Florence Bluzenstein, who handles communications for Vamoose, which is run by her husband. She says Vamoose buses are allowed 15 minutes to pick up passengers and depart, but usually need only 10. She added that all Vamoose buses abide by the city's law against idling for more than three minutes.

However, 15 minutes per bus can add up. Vamoose typically runs four buses on weekdays and a dozen on weekend days, and its ridership has been growing by about 20% annually since it began in February 2004. Ms. Bluzenstein says travelers are increasingly turning to buses because “going to the airport is becoming a huge hassle—prices, luggage, security—and because there are so many more reputable bus companies, people have learned to trust buses.”

BoltBus is seeking to address the complaints. "We are in discussions with the city regarding alternative locations for our bus stops and we are hopeful that a decision will be reached shortly," a company spokesman said, in a statement. "We apologize for any potential inconvenience that may have been caused to businesses in the area."

Mr. Biederman's group has yet to propose an alternative. There's no room for more buses at the Port Authority, the city's largest bus depot.

“This is something DOT is concerned with and is looking to address,” said Scott Gastel, a department spokesman. “DOT has limited control over federally licensed interstate operations and can't ban buses from existing no-standing zones or bus stops.”

The issue is reminiscent of the advent of commuter express buses on Madison Avenue and other midtown streets in the 1970s. At the time, the city parried complaints by saying the buses were needed to transport outer-borough residents who lacked subway service.

The complaints don't surprise Ms. Bluzenstein. “People are possessive of their properties—all people are,” she said. “They think the sidewalk around their houses belong to them. But it doesn't work that way.”