Here Come the Tour Buses, Minus the Loudspeakers, and Maybe Human Guides

By the city’s count, affirmed with a touch of official hokum in Times Square on Tuesday, a record number of tourists, 50.2 million, will have visited New York City by the time 2011 gasps its last in 10 days.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

New Yorkers, especially people living in certain parts of Manhattan, will tell you that every single one of those 50.2 million rides through their neighborhoods aboard the inescapable red or blue double-decker tour buses. It isn’t true, of course. But it does sometimes seem that way.

In Greenwich Village, where streets are narrow and streaks of independence broad, residents consider themselves especially put upon. When the open-air buses lumber through, with tour guides spreading information and occasional misinformation through loudspeakers, village people can feel as if their living rooms have been invaded.

“There’s nothing as intrusive as this except for motorcycles and emergency vehicle sirens,” Cormac Flynn, who lives on West Eighth Street, told a City Council committee hearing last year. He has a fifth-floor apartment. His living room is set well back from the front of the apartment. Even so, Mr. Flynn said, “we have to stop, give up trying to hear what they’re saying on television because there’s a tour bus stuck outside of our house.”

Grievances of this sort led to a new city law last year requiring the tour bus industry — which essentially means Gray Line New York Sightseeing (red) and CitySights NY (blue) — to equip passengers with headphones that confine the guide’s spiel to their ears only. This change is to be phased in on all buses over five years.

But there is a natural law that is more powerful. It’s the one governing unintended consequences.

Tour guides say that Gray Line is using the headphone requirement as a pretext to get rid of them. The company, they say, informed them that the new system would be expensive to install and that there would have to be layoffs to help pay for it. Instead of flesh-and-blood guides, automated recordings would be piped into the headphones telling visitors that up ahead is Riverside Church and that Gracie Mansion is named for George Burns’s wife. (O.K., maybe that second one isn’t part of the tour. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.)

Replacing guides with machines is not the purpose of the legislation, said Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, who was its guiding force.

“Unfortunately, the law is being used as an excuse to undermine the employment security of the tour guides and, in turn, the safety and security of passengers on sightseeing buses,” Ms. Brewer, of Manhattan, wrote this month to Jonathan Mintz, the city’s consumer affairs commissioner.

In an interview on Tuesday, she said, “You need the nuances of a human being to make the tour an enjoyable experience.”

A labor leader said that at one point the company suggested it would do away with all but three dozen of its 159 licensed tour guides. Then the word was that far fewer heads would roll but that salaries would be cut by 25 percent, and 20 buses would be converted to an automated system in the new year.

By now, “it gets so complicated that even I don’t understand it,” said the labor official, Robert Murphy, a shop steward with Local 225 of the Transport Workers Union. We would love to offer clarification from Gray Line, but its officials did not return several calls.

It is the nature of New Yorkers to grumble about tourists for an assortment of sins, like walking four abreast, clogging sidewalks and forcing the locals to move at a maddeningly slow pace. But there is no underestimating the visitors’ importance to the city’s economic health. They spend a lot of money, $32 billion this year, City Hall said. So attention must be paid.

Bear in mind, Mr. Murphy said, that sightseeing bus guides like him get the visitors out of Times Square and into other neighborhoods.

“We’re the ones who distribute the tourist dollar,” he said.

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