City DOT Still Mum on Long-Delayed Fifth Avenue Busway
The long-awaited Fifth Avenue busway that the former administration punted to Mayor Adams is still dead in the water, even as bus speeds sink back to pre-pandemic levels and as busways in other boroughs are proving successful.
Last year, then-Mayor de Blasio and his Department of Transportation indefinitely put on hold plans to redesign Fifth Avenue — a street improvement project announced by de Blasio in 2020 that was delayed and watered-down — out of deference to luxury retailers along the commercial corridor, promising that work would finally begin “after the holidays.”
But Christmas and Hanukkah came and went, as did other holidays such as Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day and the Opening Day of baseball. Yet weeks into spring — the traditional start of the DOT painting and striping season — the agency is still mum on its plans for the avenue, which advocates said is a massive disservice to struggling straphangers.
“All the data point to the fact that Fifth Avenue should be a busway and would be one of the most important busways in the City,” said Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance. “New York can’t afford to let luxury boutiques dictate transportation policy. Policymakers can’t afford to take any street off the table for political reasons.”
Behind the scenes, city officials are still in talks with business leaders and real estate bigwigs — it was Steven Roth, one of the city’s most prolific and powerful real estate developers who got the mayor to press pause, the Times reported back in October. Meanwhile, the area’s business-boosting group, the Fifth Avenue Association, is still spending thousands of dollars for “relationship building” lobbying Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi, according to city records.
Rodriguez updated reporters on the status of that “relationship building” last week when asked for an update on the busway plan.
“We will follow up the discussion going on also internally, but also with some of the stakeholders from the Fifth Avenue [Association],” said Rodriguez. “I believe that a lot of big things will happen on Fifth Avenue, including bus and bike lanes, but right now, we’re trying to figure out working with the business improvement district and other stakeholders.”
Even the area’s local council member claims he’s not been able to get answers.
“My office has been actively asking the Department of Transportation for an update for months, most recently last week, but have yet to receive a new timeline or details,” said Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers, who sits on the BID’s board of directors. “With the new administration in place, it’s time to bring everyone back to the table — we shouldn’t miss a big opportunity to transform Fifth Avenue.”
The project has been doomed from the start. It was first pitched by the de Blasio administration as a full-fledged car-free busway, between 57th and 34th streets, modeled after the one on 14th Street, to make commutes faster for more than 110,000 bus riders, many of whom are essential workers.
But the city then capitulated to such Mom and Pop retailers as Hermes and Tiffany, and scaled back the design, by breaking it up into two sections, stopping it at 45th Street, and reducing its hours. Private vehicles would be required to turn off Fifth Avenue at 55th and 45th streets, and the DOT would also implement right-turn restrictions at 51st, 49th, and 47th streets. Drivers could still drop off their passengers directly in front of a store under the DOT’s plan. The stalled project now includes a new curbside protected bike lane and other pedestrian improvements, but no additional dedicated bus lane.
Local business interests had also tried to put the kibosh on the entire project, instead putting forward a long-term vision for the avenue, which included a robust “greening” of the roadway. But that would still be years away.
“There’s no urgent need to proceed with these changes at this moment,” Jerome Barth, then-president of the Fifth Avenue Association said at the time. “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.
And pressure to kill the busway also came directly from owners of the luxury retailers on the thoroughfare. During a community board meeting last June, the president of Wempe Jewelers, Ruediger Albers, said he was worried about the city’s ability to recover economically if people looking to drop thousands on a new diamond on Fifth Avenue were marginally inconvenienced.
“I find side streets really clogged, I just don’t see how if we force through traffic for people that take clients to shopping sprees on the avenue, to make them turn, there’s even no way to turn, which will further clog the avenue. I don’t think this will be successful,” said Albers during the virtual meeting.
Meanwhile, buses along Fifth Avenue are still inching along. The M1, for example, hit its peak speed of 8.9 miles per hour in April 2020, when fewer cars were on the road. But as of February, it was back down to just 6.1 mph, far below the citywide average of 8.1 mph at that time, according to MTA data.
Yet elsewhere in the city, the four other busways that were announced back in 2020 along with Fifth Avenue have already proven successful, including the latest ones to be installed on Archer and Jamaica Avenues in Queens, which city and state officials unveiled in October, 2021, despite opposition from local pols.
On Archer Avenue, between 150th and 160th Streets, eastbound buses during the morning rush hour increased 19.8 percent from November, 2019, to November, 2021, and 24.7 percent on westbound buses; and during the evening rush hour, eastbound buses increased 44.9 percent and westbound buses jumped 22.2 percent, according to data from the MTA.
And on Jamaica Avenue between Sutphin Boulevard and 168th Street, eastbound bus speeds during the morning rush in November, 2021 increased by 15 percent compared to the same time period in 2019, and westbound buses by 26.3 percent; and during the evening rush hour, eastbound buses shot up by 30.7 percent and westbound buses by 21.8 percent during the same time period, according to the MTA.