Fifth Avenue Busway Delay: DOT Puts Luxury Retailers’ Revenue Over Riders’ Interests

Favoring the needs of Rolex and Armani over those of 110,000 straphangers.

Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps
Fifth Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

Struggling straphangers must wait until fall or even winter for the Fifth Avenue busway, which Mayor de Blasio promised would be installed by summer, according to Department of Transportation reps, who said they are listening to the needs of luxury retailers who want shoppers to be able to drive directly to their storefronts along one of the world’s most expensive streets.

“One of the real concerns we’ve heard so far about a busway with private vehicle restrictions is its impact on retail, in particular during Covid recovery. And that is something that is being looked at very carefully,” Ed Pincar, DOT’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner, told Community Board 5’s Transportation Committee during a virtual town hall on Monday night.  

In June, Hizzoner announced with urgency that the city would install five busways in commercial districts in order to make commutes easier and faster for essential workers and the buses’ predominately low-income, minority riders — which on Fifth Avenue alone is about 110,000 people a day.

“There will be five new busways in New York City. They will be launching on an urgent basis. I want to see this happen as quickly as possible because we need the help now given the crisis we’re in. We have to make it easier for people to get around,” de Blasio said then.

Now, in late August, none of the busways has materialized (although the one on Jay Street in Brooklyn is set to start at the end of the month). The first was slated to start two months ago on Main Street in Flushing, but it’s now delayed indefinitely because of pushback from local elected officials and business owners, who say that eliminating private vehicles on the corridor will hurt their bottom lines.

Similarly, on Fifth Avenue, the city pushed back what was its original start date of this July to sometime “later this fall,” Pincar said.  

The plan was to convert the usually clogged corridor of Fifth Avenue from 57th to 34th streets — where the city has painted a Black Lives Matter mural in front of Trump Tower — into a car-free busway by restricting traffic to bicycles, buses, and emergency vehicles while forcing private vehicles to turn off at 57th Street. Parking is already restricted along this stretch of Fifth Avenue. The project would mimic the successful 14th Street busway, which started as a pilot last year but now has become permanent.

DOT's plan for Fifth Avenue between 57th and 34th Streets. Source: DOT
DOT’s plan for Fifth Avenue between 57th and 34th Streets. Source: DOT

A month shy of the end of summer, DOT says it’s not even sure what its plans are anymore, and is listening to business owners along the corridor — retail shops that include some local mom-and-pop stalwarts like Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Harry Winston, Valentino, Coach, and Rolex — who don’t want to lose private vehicular traffic before coming up with a final design.

“We heard really good questions from local stakeholders who feel that restricting private vehicle traffic at this time could really jeopardize the recovery from Covid, and impacts on the overall grid,” said Pincar. “All options are certainly on the table, we’re analyzing what those restrictions could be.”

Someone makes light of the city's argument for why it's listening to the wealthy businesses along Fifth Avenue instead of just moving forward to install the busway.
Someone makes light of the city’s argument for why it’s listening to the wealthy businesses along Fifth Avenue instead of just moving forward to install the busway during the town hall. Source: Zoom

But a busway along Fifth Avenue, which serves from 60 to 160 buses an hour daily, and 40 different bus routes originating from every borough, would do way more for the thousands of riders — who are mostly people of color with an average income of $28,455 a year — than for the retailers selling thousand-dollar watches and suits. And since there’s already no parking along this stretch of the corridor, it’s unclear what detriment restricting private vehicle traffic would bring to the businesses.

Average bus speeds on the commercial corridor between 70th and 34th Street improved dramatically from the drop in traffic during the pandemic shutdown. Last spring, between 7 am and 9 am, buses inched along at just 9 miles-per-hour, and at 7.9 mph between 4 pm and 7 pm. This spring, average bus speeds jumped to 11.8 mph during the morning rush hour and 11.7 mph during the evening — increases of 32 and 48 percent, respectively, according to DOT data.

Bus speeds on Fifth Avenue last fall through this summer. Source: DOT
Bus speeds on Fifth Avenue last fall through this summer. Source: DOT

As more people start going back to work, traffic on the road will only rise, and bus speeds will in turn start to fall, making it crucial to start the project as soon as possible, said one safe-streets advocate and Streetsblog contributor during the town hall.

“DOT is expected to come back in the coming months with final designs. Isn’t this busway supposed to start this summer? Shouldn’t we implement something before the traffic comes back?” questioned Samir Lavingia.

The DOT acknowledged that it must make changes to the street grid before “congestion fully returns,” but doesn’t actually have any immediate plans to do so.

Pincar said DOT is expected to present again in early September to the so-called Community Advisory Board, or CAB — which is made up of local stakeholders, elected officials, business-improvement districts, and other local business, and organizations — and to Community Board 5 again on Sept. 21, meaning it’s unlikely any physical work to improve the avenue will begin before then.

“We don’t have final decisions to share but yes stay tuned. Our hope is to reconvene the CAB in two-to-three weeks and ideally return to the committee on Sept. 21 to give an update,” Pincar said.

As part of the busway project, the city plans to enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety by installing a protected, curbside bike lane along the same 23 blocks, adding more sidewalk space along the east curb, and creating pickup and drop-off space. The start date on that work is also to be determined.

Besides making the lives of bus riders easier, a total street redesign would also do wonders for the thousands of tourists and revelers who flock to the Rockefeller Center area on Fifth Avenue during the holiday season, according to DOT. 

“We know that we need to improve how buses operate along Fifth Avenue, but have also heard loud and clear that we need to improve how it functions for cyclists and pedestrians, particularly at the holiday season,” said Pincar. 

Last year, for the first time and after much controversy, the city created more room for pedestrians by taking a lane away from cars and buses on each side of Fifth Avenue from 48th to 52nd streets. Despite delays in announcing the first-ever plan that the mayor initially called “premature,” the local business-boosting group, the Fifth Avenue Association, was on board with the idea. 

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that parking is already restricted along the stretch of Fifth Avenue the city has planned for a busway.