NY City Council Contemplates Regulating Sightseeing Bus Industry

Passengers queue up on the sidewalk to board a sightseeing bus at Times Square

On a weekday evening, at least 40 people queue up on the sidewalk at 47th street and 7th avenue near Times Square. “We’re waiting to board the night loop sightseeing bus,” says Linda, a tourist from Washington state, pointing excitedly at the big, red double-decker bus parked near the curb. The waiting tourists occupy more than half of the sidewalk.

According to Christine Berthet, a member of Community Board 4, which includes Times Square, tour bus ticket vendors and tourists crowd the sidewalks. “We cannot walk anymore,” Berthet said at a public meeting.

According to Times Square Alliance, daily visitors in August 2016 increased 46 percent compared to 2014. At the same time, the number of sightseeing buses increased 22 percent. Moreover, the average idling time for sightseeing buses near Times Square could go up to 46 minutes, a study by Philip Habib and Associates, an engineering and planning firm, found.

To address congestion complaints, three New York City Council members are pushing for tougher legislation to regulate the sightseeing bus industry in the city.

On Sept. 26, the City Council heard three bills — Intros 529, 713 and 950 — that will increase licensing requirements for sightseeing bus drivers, require tour companies to submit operating plans to government authorities beforehand, and limit the number of sightseeing buses on the streets.

The majority of the stakeholders oppose Intro 950, which proposes limiting the number of sightseeing buses to 225. Currently, there are 237 buses. Tourism companies fear that this would endanger hundreds of jobs and stifle entrepreneurship.

“Many of these employees have been working the same job for decades,” said Mariela Estrella, Director of Brooklyn Tourism and Business Relationships. “Where are they going to go?”

“Capping the number of buses won’t solve any problems,” said James Muessig, a licensed NYC tour guide with Gray Line, the biggest sightseeing bus company in NYC. “It will choke innovation.”

Muessig is also the Financial Secretary and Treasurer for Transit Workers Union Local 225, which represents sightseeing bus employees. “Tour guides at the union overwhelmingly oppose this bill,” he said.

Elected officials cited safety as another reason for the legislation. Sightseeing buses have been involved in at least four high-profile accidents since 2014 causing around 30 injuries. However, this accounts for only 1.5% of all injuries caused by bus-related accidents since 2014.

“I don’t think these buses are dangerous,” said Felton Caviness Jr., 54, who observes sightseeing buses at Times Square everyday while selling souvenirs. “This is NYC, accidents happen all the time. If they want to take out sightseeing buses for that, they should take out taxis too.”

Erika Tannor, spokesperson for Council Member Espinal, who introduced one of the bills, said that the legislation would be a step towards Vision Zero, the City’s plan to achieve zero traffic fatalities by 2024.

“Sightseeing buses do create problems when 2–3 buses come at the same time,” said Hossain Akm, a traffic policeman who is stationed at Times Square. “But they’re definitely not the only problem.”

For now, the bills have been laid over by the Council, meaning that they will be heard again at an unspecified later time.