Double decker buses skirting the rules

'Special order' of former police commissioner should be suspended

BOSTON CONSISTENTLY ranks among the top 10 tourist destinations in the United States. From the Freedom Trail to Fenway Park to Faneuil Hall, the “Hub of the Universe” offers a cornucopia of experiences to travelers from near and far.

For more than 40 years, guided tour operators have played a lead role in Boston’s tourism success story. Trolley-style buses and iconic duck boat amphibious vehicles transformed how visitors interact with the city while emphasizing the highest standards for safety, fun, education, and respect of our uniquely rich and diverse heritage. Boston’s sightseeing tour operators routinely win high praise for their professionalism from organizations such as Trip Advisor, Forbes magazine, USA Today, and National Geographic.

Today, two companies are working to reshape Boston’s sightseeing environment in a way that will dramatically alter the current landscape. Recent news coverage revealed at least two groups are looking to launch sightseeing operations in the Hub with 14-foot-tall open top vehicles. These entities have not delivered anything resembling the standards of excellence that Bostonians expect from its tourism sector

Due to their size and design, double-decker buses pose unique safety challenges. Concerns include instability associated with a higher center of gravity and substantially larger blind spots that endanger other vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Further, open-top buses expose passengers to street signs, wires, and poles along with overhead bridges, low hanging tree branches, and falling objects.

A cursory internet search reveals that double-decker tour bus accidents are commonplace. In October, a Nashville double-decker sightseeing bus struck a woman in a downtown crosswalk, leaving her in critical condition. Last August, an open-top double-decker tour bus in Wales collided with overhanging tree limbs, leaving two children hospitalized. A summer 2016 open-top double-decker tour bus accident in Manhattan injured 11 when the vehicle jumped a curb and crashed into a tree on the Upper East Side. In 2015, an open-top double-decker sightseeing vehicle in San Francisco ran over a bicyclist and lurched down a busy street, striking several parked cars and overhead scaffolding, leaving six people with critical injuries.

Boston has spent the better part of the past decade reimagining the design and makeup of its urban streetscape. Prominent examples include Go Boston 2030, a citizen-driven plan to modernize city streets, and Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminate fatal and serious traffic crashes in Boston by 2030. Both programs were created in response to the city’s exceptionally congested streetscape.

Existing sight-seeing vehicles are designed with shorter wheel-bases to accommodate tight turns on Boston’s narrow streets. By contrast, open-top double-decker buses have a limited turning radius, raising significant questions about how these vehicles can operate safely in the city.

Earlier this year, neighborhood leaders and bicycling advocates asked Boston Mayor Michelle Wu to consider suspending a June 2019 “special order” issued by former Boston Police Commissioner Willie Gross that increased bus vehicle height limits to the measurement of open-top, double-deck buses. Both applicants reacted strongly. One argued that “‘safety’ issues” were “without merit.” The other – who submitted plans to park double-decker buses in his driveway in Mattapan– told the Boston Herald “he was being made to jump through hoops” – the same hoops existing operators jump through each year when renewing their permits.

Existing sightseeing tour operators understand why transparency is a requirement of licensure. Prior to gaining approvals, duck boat and trolley companies undergo a lengthy public review and vetting process. Under state law and related regulations, operators must demonstrate a public need for additional sight-seeing vehicles. Applicants must also demonstrate proof of vehicle ownership along with the financial wherewithal to operate.

To date, neither prospective double-decker bus operator has complied with these basic elements. This is concerning, especially since one applicant is reportedly engaged in negotiations with a multinational corporation to purchase its licenses, which would circumvent the state’s proof-of-ownership requirement.

Meet the Author

Chris Crompton

General manager, Old Town Trolley Tours of Boston
Boston’s sightseeing tour operators proudly represent excellence in tourism. The chaos surrounding would-be double-decker bus operators signifies something else. Nobody is above the rules. Surely, we can and should demand better.

Chris Crompton is the general manager of Old Town Trolley Tours of Boston.