Additional reporting by Dimitri Fautsch
Since outdoor dining structures became fixtures on New York streets and sidewalks last June, almost 120 restaurants have been warned about blocking bus lanes and stops, according to the city Department of Transportation.
While outdoor dining has been credited with saving close to 100,000 jobs at businesses that were shuttered during the peak of the COVID crisis, the union for transit workers said that eateries intruding on bus lanes create obstacles for MTA drivers moving a growing number of riders in a rapidly reopening city.
“It slows service,” said JP Patafio, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100. “It’s very much an issue.”
MTA buses now routinely carry close to 1.2 million passengers on weekdays, ridership data shows — about half the pre-pandemic norm.
Union officials say returning ridership, expected to accelerate with this week’s announcement lifting most COVID-related restrictions, points to the need to strike a balance between the needs of businesses and commuters.
“It’s a competition for space and we have to make sure it doesn’t become a competition,” Patafio said. “We have to make sure the buses have their lanes and that the restaurants and cafes can survive.”
The DOT gives written warnings to businesses that block bus lanes and stops, and then revisits sites to see if the obstruction has been removed — but it does not issue fines for violations of the “Open Restaurant” guidelines, an agency spokesperson said.
Still Figuring It Out
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said his organization sent the city’s guidelines to restaurateurs and held seminars to clarify what’s allowed and what isn’t.
“Keep in mind that we are still operating under the temporary emergency open restaurants, outdoor dining program that was created quickly to help restaurants survive during the pandemic,” Rigie told THE CITY. “So while outdoor dining is being made permanent, we anticipate the official program will have updated requirements and a new review and approval process.”
Under the current guidelines, a restaurant that’s already been warned would get a cease-and-desist order, said Alana Morales, a DOT spokesperson, if a follow-up inspection shows the obstruction remains.
The agency last week flagged the owners of a Brooklyn juice bar, Morales said, for installing a wooden shed smack in the middle of a bus-only lane on Nostrand Avenue and for not having reflective materials.
Pachillo Archille, who owns the Healthy Vibe juice bar in Bedford-Stuyesant, insisted the business had been cleared to build the space, showing THE CITY an email from the agency saying it was approved for “roadway seating” and “sidewalk seating.”
“It’s not like I came out of nowhere and did this,” Archille said. “We called the city before we did this, we had questions and they said it’s OK.”
His outdoor dining space, which has yet to open, is in a bus lane used by the B44. Last year, the route was the fifth-busiest in the city, with an average of more than 20,000 riders on weekdays, according to MTA data.
‘Blocked Is Not an Option’
Other routes that have been forced to contend with frequently cramped bus lanes because of outdoor dining spaces, according to TWU Local 100, are Second and Lexington avenues in Manhattan.
An analysis of 311 data showed there have been 34 “street zone blocked” complaints citywide just this month, including one for the juice bar’s bus lane space.
“I’m already $7,000 down on [building] this thing,” Archille told THE CITY. “But if it’s still going to be a problem, we can find a way to put it on a sidewalk.”
Tim Minton, a MTA spokesperson, said the transit agency supports the outdoor dining program, calling it “as essential to the hospitality industry as buses are to New Yorkers.”
But he added that busways and bus lanes are central to improving speeds and cutting travel times.
“We agree with our partners at NYC DOT that allowing them to be blocked is not an option,” Minton said.