Faster buses on 5th Avenue? Not if business leaders get what they want.
On the second Friday in October, Mayor Bill de Blasio met at City Hall with Steven Roth, one of New York’s most powerful real estate developers.
On the program: the promoter’s concerns about Mr. de Blasio’s plan to transform Fifth Avenue, New York’s most famous commercial corridor, into an artery favoring buses over cars.
Days after the meeting, Mr de Blasio’s transport commissioner asked staff to reconsider the plan the mayor had announced more than a year earlier, according to two people. knowing the decision who were not allowed to speak publicly.
Around the same time, a October 7 slideshow bearing the name of Mr Roth’s real estate company, Vornado Realty Trust, began circulating at Town Hall.
“Express buses traveling at faster speeds create anxiety for pedestrians and cyclists and make the avenue more dangerous,” the presentation warned. “Fifth Avenue tourists are particularly at risk.”
The Fifth Avenue project was due to be completed before Mr de Blasio left, but the city announced last week that work would be suspended until after the December recess. This effectively transfers responsibility to the next mayor, who succeeds Mr de Blasio in January.
The city’s transportation commissioner, Hank Gutman, told reporters the city did not want to risk “interfering with the holiday season.”
Self-described “largest street retail owner and manager in Manhattan” Vornado Realty Trust controls 2.7 million square feet of retail space in Manhattan, including storefronts of stores along Fifth Avenue occupied by Harry Winston, Salvatore Ferragamo and The North Face.
Mr. de Blasio’s decision to reconsider the bus lane on Fifth Avenue came shortly after the Department of Transportation say it planned to go ahead with the redesign of the street.
The mayor’s change of mind comes as he actively prepares a bid for governor of New York State. The developer, Vornado Realty Trust chief executive Steven Roth, is one of New York’s most prolific donors, though city records indicate he did not donate to the mayor’s campaigns. M. de Blasio.
A spokesperson for Mr Roth declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the mayor, Danielle Filson, said: âThis administration installed a record number of cycle lanes, dedicated bus lanes and reserved bus lanes last year – amid a budget crisis and of an installation season shortened by the pandemic. We will be breaking those records this year, and this busway will be part of that legacy.
Mr de Blasio’s ambivalence over the Fifth Avenue plan comes in the deadliest year for traffic accidents in his eight years in office and as some of his other transport seem to have been abandoned. The Department of Transportation has reconsidered its plan to put a protected bike lane on a main artery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, according to one of two people familiar with the mayor’s rulings.
Although Mr. de Blasio does not supervise the buses, which are operated by the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he does control the city streets.
In June 2020, it announced it would transform more than 20 miles of streets into buses, installing 3.5 miles of bus lanes along five main arteries and an additional 16.5 miles of dedicated bus lanes. Bus lanes severely restrict local automobile traffic in order to increase the speed and reliability of buses.
More than 40 different bus lines serving the five boroughs serve Fifth Avenue, and congestion can delay service throughout the city. Before the pandemic, 75,000 bus users made daily trips on the avenue.
An MTA spokesperson offered a thinly veiled criticism of the city’s decision regarding the Fifth Avenue bus lane.
“We hope that giving in to business groups in this situation does not signal a weakening of the city’s commitment to bus priority and the faster movement of bus riders,” said Tim Minton, director of communications for authority.
Mr. Gutman is expected to testify Tuesday on street safety before New York City Council.
Mr de Blasio has faced increasing pressure from transit advocates to install more buses after the success of Manhattan’s 14th Street bus lane, which virtually banned cars in 2019 from take a large cross road that was once congested with 21,000 vehicles per day. Since then, the busway has increased the speed and ridership of buses.
Besides Fifth Avenue, Mr. de Blasio announced four other busways: one in upper Manhattan, two in Queens and one in Brooklyn. Three have been completed and a fourth, in Queens, opens this week.
The Fifth Avenue busway, proposed for a 1.1 mile stretch, would have been the longest of the five.
His fate will likely depend on Eric Adams, the Democratic candidate and president of the Brooklyn borough, who is the clear favorite to win the election. Mr Adams said he would add 150 miles of new lanes and dedicated bus lanes in four years.
But a spokesperson for Mr. Adams declined to comment on his intentions for the Fifth Avenue busway.
The plan Mr. de Blasio is delaying is a more user-friendly version of his original proposal.
The city had wanted to ban most vehicles, except buses, bicycles and emergency vehicles, from driving continuously along Fifth Avenue between 34th and 57th Street.
If other drivers wanted to access the avenue, they should have done so from a side street, provided they left the avenue at the next opportunity.
This summer, following pressure from traders, the city provided a new plan that allowed more car access and cut off the bus lane by 11 blocks. Rather than forcing all personal vehicles out of the bus lane on the nearest side street, the proposal allowed cars to travel longer distances on Fifth Avenue before they had to turn off.
Fifth Avenue currently has two reserved lanes for buses, no bicycle lanes and three lanes reserved for cars.
In Vornado’s slideshow, obtained by The New York Times, the company says the city should continue to allow continuous traffic on Fifth Avenue, but reduce the number of lanes from three to one.
He calls for some buses to be diverted from Fifth Avenue. Buses, he says, have transformed the avenue “from a street for people to an expressway.”
The presentation cites concerns that the city’s plan would put retail stores and hotels at risk that have yet to recover from the pandemic.
âLeave the current bus lane as is – two lanes reserved for buses only,â the slideshow reads. “Do not implement the proposed new turn restrictions which will create confusion and congestion.”
The presentation’s arguments echo those of the Fifth Avenue Association, a real estate-backed organization that campaigned against the original plan and whose president is a Vornado executive who oversees retail leasing for the company.
Mr Gutman said expanding the city’s dedicated bus lane network was a priority and that the agency completed more than 16 miles of dedicated bus lanes in 2020, which city officials say , was a record for a single year. This year, they pledged to install or improve an additional 28 miles of dedicated bus lanes and lanes.
Danny Pearlstein, spokesperson for Riders Alliance, a group advocating for transit riders, said he was frustrated with the Fifth Avenue busway being blocked and said business leaders were considering the avenue primarily as a “retail playground” rather than a vital transportation corridor.
âFor a mayor who values ââfairness, saving time for bus riders should be high on their agenda,â said Pearlstein.
Bus ridership rebounded to between 1.4 million and 1.5 million daily riders, roughly 65% ââof pre-pandemic levels, according to MTA
“With traffic jams plaguing the city,” said Mr. Pearlstein, “there is little more important to our recovery than fast, frequent and reliable bus service.”