Council mulls cap on sightseeing buses

The City Council is considering legislation that would limit the number of sightseeing buses permitted on city streets at 225 — there are currently 197 buses licensed by the city. Photo: Michael Garofalo
Tour coaches could be subject of additional city oversight, including GPS tracking
By Michael Garofalo

While London’s two-tiered buses are an iconic part of its transit system, in Manhattan the double-decker bus has long held a different association in the public consciousness. To New Yorkers, “double-decker” is synonymous with the ubiquitous sightseeing coaches that ferry tourists to points of interest throughout the borough, and which are a source of aggravation to many residents who live near well-traveled routes and complain of resulting congestion, pollution and noise.

The City Council is considering a package of bills that would bring the industry under additional scrutiny and place a limit on the total number of tour buses permitted on city streets.

“We need to strike a balance to accommodate our city’s vital tourism industry while still addressing the concerns that our residents experience,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, whose downtown council district is a hub of sightseeing bus activity and the city’s booming tourist economy, which welcomed a record 62.8 million visitors last year.

Legislation sponsored by Chin and Borough President Gale Brewer would cap the number of sightseeing buses at 225. This cap would leave room for more buses than are currently permitted to operate on city streets: there are currently 197 licensed sightseeing buses operated by eight companies (a ninth operator’s license renewal with the city is pending).

The number of licensed sightseeing buses in New York has fluctuated in recent decades, ranging from 144 in 1995, to 60 in 2004, to 237 in 2016. Since 2005, there have been 15 collisions involving sightseeing buses, one of which resulted in a fatality.

Chin and others cited the impending L train shut down (scheduled to begin in April 2019 and last 15 months) as an impetus for action, noting that the MTA and DOT’s plan to supplement transit service during the subway closure with dozens additional MTA buses in Lower Manhattan will put additional pressure on already congested streets.

“[T]hey’re clogging up our streets and causing a lot of congestion problems,” Chin said at an April 24 hearing on the bills, adding, “You have more than one bus coming by, and oftentimes it’s not full.”

Another bill, introduced by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, would require companies seeking to obtain or renew a sightseeing bus license to first obtain authorization for all bus stops from the city’s Department of Transportation, and would allow the city to suspend or revoke the licenses of companies that commit violations. The bill also authorizes the Transportation Department to request buses’ GPS location data to monitor compliance and target enforcement.

As of April 2018, there are 163 DOT-approved sightseeing bus stops in Manhattan. DOT does not currently regulate the routes sightseeing buses are permitted to take between stops (though they are subject to general rules governing commercial traffic).

A 2016 DOT study found that most stops host between four and nine buses each hour, and that buses often run more frequently than authorized. Seventeen percent of buses stayed at stops for longer than ten minutes.

“They often don’t follow the places where they’re supposed to park on the small streets of Lower Manhattan, in Times Square and elsewhere, and people are quite upset,” said Brewer, who first proposed the bus cap bill with Chin in 2015. “They park in places where regular buses are supposed to park and they park in places where there’s no place to park.”