Open-air buses headset law is set to go into effect next year


By Albert Amateau

Open-air sightseeing buses in the city will have to begin using headphone systems instead of loudspeakers beginning next year.

The City Council last Thursday passed the legislation, which Mayor Bloomberg is expected to sign, that will require operators of unenclosed tourist buses to phase in headphone systems over the next five years.

It was welcome legislation for residents of the Village, where sightseeing buses traverse the neighborhood one after the other in summer with loudspeakers blaring.

“We’re very pleased and we’re grateful to Councilmembers Gale Brewer and Margaret Chin, who sponsored the legislation, and to Speaker Christine Quinn for her support,” said Barbara Backer, an organizer of Our Streets Our Lives. Backer said the loudspeaker systems on unenclosed buses create constant and pervasive noise on Bleecker St. where she lives. As well as the Village, her group advocates for Tribeca, Chinatown, Chelsea and Clinton, plus Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Bridge.

The new law calls for open-air bus operators to phase in headphone systems, with at least 10 percent of their fleets equipped by July 1, 2011, at least 40 percent by July 2012, 60 percent by July 2013 and 80 percent by July 2014. By July 2015, every open-air sightseeing bus in an operator’s fleet must be equipped with a sound system audible through headphones but not otherwise.

In compliance with the schedule, the Department of Consumer Affairs will verify that the required number of buses have headphone systems.

After the new law becomes effective next month, no new licenses will be issued for open-air sightseeing buses unless they have headphone systems. The legislation calls for fines of between $200 and $750 per day for each bus not in compliance. D.C.A. may also suspend the licenses of buses not in compliance.

Our Streets Our Lives, organized originally as Buses off Bleecker (BOB) two years ago, supported a 2008 version of the bill introduced by then-Councilmember Alan Gerson, which called for a headphone phase-in over a 12-year period.

But that was too long for Our Streets members like David Gruber, a member of the Carmine St. Block Association and Community Board 2.

“Twelve years to phase in a system that could be low-tech and inexpensive was ridiculous,” he said last week.

Tour operators, however, opposed the new legislation, saying it would cost between $3 million and $5 million to install the headphone system in a fleet of buses.

Ellen Peterson-Lewis, a West Village resident for 50 years and a member of Our Streets, said she spent a few hours about three weeks ago taking sightseeing hop-on-hop-off rides on City Sights buses in the Village.

“The loudspeakers were worse than subway loudspeakers and the seats were cracked and dirty,” Peterson-Lewis said. She said a tour guide told her that he had complained to the company about the loudspeakers but nothing had been changed.

“We support the tour guides,” said Peterson-Lewis. “They’re proud of their knowledge of the city and they want the sightseeing clients to hear them.”

Negotiations involving Quinn and Consumer Affairs resulted in the new version that the Council passed last week.

“I think Quinn did a pretty good job,” Gruber said last week.

There are about 250 sightseeing buses citywide operated by 12 companies, according to D.C.A., which licenses the buses.