Tour Bus Company Told to Move Along
One of the multiple operators of the ubiquitous tourism coaches that are a mobile fixture on Lower Manhattan streets is being compelled to move an existing stop to a less congested location on Church Street. The operator, Taxi Tours, is more recognizable by its brand name, Big Bus Tours, and the giant red bus fleet that plies local roads.
“The route is not changing,” explained Dr. Betty Kay, the chair of the Transportation Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1) at the panel’s October 24 meeting, “but this bus stop is permanently relocating from Church and Fulton Streets to Church, between Vesey and Barclay.”
“Big Bus did not want to move,” she continued. “There are already existing MTA buses stopping” at the new location, as there were at the previous stop. But, “MTA said, ‘we’re changing our schedule. You can’t use this stop anymore.’ ”
In a resolution enacted at the October 24 meeting, CB1 noted that “tourism provides significant income for the small businesses, tourist sites, and City government,” and concluded by approving use by Big Bus of the new stop on Church Street, provided the Board has an opportunity to reevaluate the decision in three months.
In 2018, the City Council considered (but did not enact) legislation to limit the number of tour buses on local streets. The year before, State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal had released a report titled Thrown Under the Bus, showing how tour bus companies are subject to far less oversight than other buses. The Senator rereleased his report this past July after a tour bus crash in Manhattan, and promised to propose legislation to strictly regulate tour buses.
Until 2015, a single company had a de facto monopoly on tour bus operations in Manhattan. The firm, Twin America, was largely unknown to Manhattan residents because it was a partnership formed by two erstwhile competitors, City Sights and Gray Line New York. The fleets of the two partner firms continued to operate as what appeared to consumers to be separate brands, but were actually a single entity, charging a single price. The joint venture had a 99 percent market share of the two million tourists who purchased tour bus tickets in Manhattan each year in the mid-2010s, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated, grossing more than $100 million per year. In 2015, federal and State anti-trust litigators compelled the tour bus cartel to pay a $7.5-million fine and surrender 50 of the stops it used, including eight in Lower Manhattan.
Last year, Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City (a business advocacy group) called for an outright ban on tour bus operations in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but this proposal never gained traction among policymakers.
In dramatic contrast with almost every other type of license issued by the City’s Consumer and Worker Protection, there is no statutory limit on the number of permits that can be issued to sightseeing bus companies. And the fee charged by the City for these lucrative franchises is surprisingly meager: a maximum of $100 per bus for a two-year permit. This appears to mean that the first two passengers who board a Gray Line double decker bus on January 1 (each paying $80) have more than satisfied the company’s obligations to the public treasury for the year.