City Council weighing a reform of sightseeing bus industry

City Council member  Margaret Chin introduced legislation that would limit the number of sightseeing buses.
City Council member Margaret Chin introduced legislation that would limit the number of sightseeing buses. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Paul J. Richards

Lawmakers are exploring the idea of capping the number of sightseeing buses in New York City as part of larger regulation overhauls to the industry.

Citing concerns of street safety and congestion, City Council members discussed three pieces of legislation at a Council hearing Monday that aim to limit the number of double-decker tour buses on city streets; establish tighter guidelines for licensing drivers; and require companies to provide more detailed information about routes, bus schedules and crashes to the city.

“Recently, there have been growing concerns regarding traffic congestion as it relates to safety — particularly in light of a number of disturbing high-profile accidents involving tour buses,” said Councilman Rafael Espinal. “New York City is the greatest city in the world, where we love our visitors, but our city consists first and foremost of our communities.”

Currently, there are eight companies in New York City operating 237 licensed sightseeing buses, which are defined as any vehicle for hire that can carry eight or more passengers — including double-decker tour buses — from a fixed point in the city to a “place of interest or amusement,” according to the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs.

Those buses were tasked with carrying some of the 58 million tourists that visited the city in 2015. The city’s Department of Transportation said that the buses too often block crosswalks and traffic lanes on some of the densest streets.

“DOT recognizes the need to better regulate the sightseeing bus industry,” said Margaret Forgione, chief operations officer at the Transportation Department. “While 237 buses is not a large number relative to our total road users, sightseeing buses are large vehicles with significant curb use impacts.”

Forgione supported one of the bills that would give the department more oversight over bus stop placement.

Another piece of legislation discussed would cap the number of official city tour buses to 225 through a limit on license plate distribution. Forgione was hesitant to support the bill in fear of discouraging competition. Tour bus companies and the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which oversees licensing within the industry, offered strong opposition to a cap for the same reason.

Despite the four crashes that tallied 30 traffic injuries over the past three summers, the DCA said that the industry is relatively safe. In the past 12 years overall, some 39 injuries and one fatality were attributed directly to sightseeing buses, according to the DCA.

“Permanently limiting the number of plates could have the consequence of granting a particular company or handful of companies an unfair advantage over new entrants into the market,” said Mary Cooley, assistant commissioner for legislative affairs at the DCA.