Watered Down Fifth Avenue ‘Busway’ Inches Forward 

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

Call it busway lite.

A watered-down version of a long-delayed plan to speed up buses on Fifth Avenue finally got the thumbs up from a Manhattan community board committee on Monday night — more than a year after Mayor de Blasio announced the original plans for a full car-free busway along one of the world’s most-expensive streets. And the vote included support for a broader proposal for “greening” the ritzy roadway, albeit one that is years away.

Just weeks after declining to vote on any new designs for the congested corridor until the Department of Transportation addressed false perceptions about dangerous cyclists, the Community Board 5 Transportation and Environment Committee ultimately voted unanimously to support a scaled-back plan [PDF] that calls for restricting private vehicle usage on the street between 57th and 45th streets, along with a protected bike lane and wider sidewalks.

“Any recovery in New York has to center on improving our mass transit system for all users, in particular bus riders, and that’s why we’re moving ahead with our proposal,” DOT’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner Ed Pincar said during the virtual committee meeting.

The original design would have emulated what the city did on 14th Street, where the thoroughfare is restricted to buses, bikes, and emergency vehicles along a stretch of roadway that serves about 110,000 bus riders a day. And it would have extended continuously from 57th Street to 34th Street all day and night, seven days a week. But now, the scaled-back version breaks up the stretch into two sections, stopping at 45th Street, and won’t be 24/7. Private vehicles will be required to turn off Fifth Avenue at 55th and 45th Streets, and DOT will also implement right-turn restrictions at 51st, 49th, and 47th streets — consistent with the holiday season restrictions to address the rush of crowds.

New restrictions for Fifth Avenue. Source: NYC DOT
New restrictions for Fifth Avenue. Source: NYC DOT

The head of the Fifth Avenue Association, a business-boosting group, tried a last-ditch effort to sway board members against the DOT plan, arguing that the city plan would delay pandemic recovery — and that the business improvement district plan is better anyway.

“There’s no urgent need to proceed with these changes at this moment,” said Jerome Barth, president of the Fifth Avenue Association. “This is not the right time. We’re still in the throes of a pandemic. It’s great we want to upgrade bus speeds a little, but maybe this is not the right way to think about the problem.”

Barth presented the Fifth Avenue Association’s own vision for the strip, which features a green corridor from the New York Public Library at 42nd Street to Central Park. It would turn the current five-lane roadway into a tree-lined walkway with a bike lane, and much wider sidewalks, while retaining Fifth Avenue’s double dedicated bus lanes. The catch, Barth said, was that DOT would have to pause its changes to the avenue now, and work towards his group’s long-term vision.

The Fifth Avenue Association's long-term vision for the corridor. Photo: Fifth Avenue BID
The Fifth Avenue Association’s long-term vision for the corridor. Photo: Fifth Avenue BID

But about a dozen people spoke in favor of the DOT plan, reiterating that it will not only save lives and speed up people’s commutes, but will also reduce the number of pollution-emitting vehicles on the road right now.

“It’s absolutely crucial we make the busway 24/7,” said Paul Krikler. “Business is important, but I’ll tell you what else is important: people’s lives. We can’t just stall this; this is the deadliest year in Vision Zero. We’re not gonna wait around for the perfect plan.”

Another local business-booster endorsed Barth’s proposal, claiming that the city needs wealthy tourists to fly in from all over the world so that they can park right in front of mom-and-pop retailers like Hermes and Tiffany and spend wads of cash. Conceivably, drivers can still drop off their passengers right in front of a store under DOT’s plan.

“Foreigners traveling from wealthier cities around the world come, pull up to a store, shop, and those buyers spend $250,000 in a single run,” said Robert Siegel, who said he owns a realty business on Fifth Avenue. 

Deference to wealthy retailers has been a sticking point in the city’s plans for a Fifth Avenue busway from the start. Last year, DOT capitulated to stores like Armani and Dolce and Gabbana, who opposed the busway because they wanted shoppers to be able to drive directly to their storefronts.

Advocates and civic members lauded the pedestrian-and-bike friendly corridor dreamt up by the Fifth Avenue Association, but said they want them now.

“This compromise is excellent, the time is absolutely now and not a moment too soon,” said Janet Liff. “The world is burning up, NYC is choking on car traffic. To prepare for reopening we actually have to prioritize sustainable and efficient transportation. I don’t think it’s either-or, I think the long-term [plan] would pair very nicely.

The committee voted in favor of DOT’s watered-down busway plan on the condition that it look into extending the restrictions farther south to the original 34th Street and make it 24/7, and that it study implementing a more robust capital plan on Fifth Avenue like the one Barth proposed.

“Obviously the DOT proposal, while scaled back from what they originally proposed…this is a good first step. The busway restrictions are not incompatible with a large-scale capital plan,” said committee chair EJ Kalafarski.

DOT says it plans to start implementation on the busway restrictions by the end of September; and is moving ahead with its installation of a curbside protected bike lane and other pedestrian improvements this month.