Faced with the choice of losing its franchise with the city or allowing women riders to sit where they please, a Brooklyn bus line that is authorized and monitored by New York’s Department of Transportation says it won’t engage in gender segregation.
But it appears that in the company’s nearly four decades plying the streets between Borough Park and Williamsburg, government officials may have long known about the company’s improper practice and looked the other way not only because no one complained, but because the almost exclusively Orthodox passengers seem to prefer it that way.
“It has been that way since its inception,” said a former elected official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his current job doesn’t allow him to speak to the media. “The reason it has become an issue now is because somebody got on and decided to make it an issue. But I would say overwhelmingly everybody in government knew exactly what goes on.”
Isaac Abraham, a Williamsburg Satmar chasid who is active on housing and transportation issues, also said the segregation was no secret. “I’m sure they knew this was a religious bus abiding, or attempting to abide, by issues of religion,” he said. “Obviously there were no complaints from passengers that ride this bus on a daily basis.”
The franchise for the B110, the only arrangement of its kind in the city (another company runs a Kennedy Airport route), must be periodically renewed in a competitive process, and the former official suspects that a tip from a rival who wants to take over the route may be behind recent press coverage of the line’s seating arrangements.
Haredi and chasidic men and women avoid sitting together in public. But DOT regulations, as well as the federal public accommodations law, prohibit any preferential treatment or seating designations based on race, gender, religion or other factors, other than designated seating to aid riders who are pregnant, handicapped or elderly.
A similar bus service, Monsey Trails, which runs publicly subsidized routes from Rockland County to Manhattan, agreed to stop segregating men and women for onboard prayer services in 1995 after a female, non-haredi Jewish rider sued the company.
Zev and Jacob Marmurstein, owners of Private Transportation Corp., which operates the B110, did not return several calls from The Jewish Week. But on Tuesday evening the DOT provided a letter from Jacob Marmurstein saying that while the company was “in full compliance” with the franchise agreement, “we will undertake to confirm our policy of non-discriminatory conduct with our drivers and other company personnel.” He also said signs would be posted to notify riders of that policy.
DOT spokesman Scott Gastel said “While we are pleased with the operator's response, we will follow up with them regarding their proposed actions to prevent incidents like those that were recently reported in the press.”
The change comes after a journalism student at Columbia University highlighted the charter line’s practice of reserving the front of its buses for men, with drivers evidently enforcing the separation. Accounts of the practice were published in a Columbia publication as well as the New York Post and the New York Times.
After those reports the executive director of DOT’s Office of Franchises, Concessions and Consent, Anne Koenig, sent Marmurstein a letter demanding his response to the press reports. The DOT requires that franchisees keep a log of all complaints about service. The letter, a copy of which was provided to The Jewish Week, requests the company’s complaint log for the period of July 1 to the present, as well as an accounting of what the company is doing to prevent segregation “including but not limited to driver training and the posting of notices.”
Koenig warns that segregation “constitutes a direct violation of the franchise agreement and may lead to its termination.”
DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow told The Jewish Week that Private Transportation, which recorded 618,459 riders in 2010, has operated under its current franchise as far back as 1973. Riders pay $2.50 per trip. MetroCards cannot be used.
“The franchisee is required to comply with all applicable laws and is prohibited from discriminating in the provision of the bus service on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, handicap, marital status, or real or perceived sexual orientation,” said Solomonow in an e-mail message. “No exception from compliance with these requirements has been granted in this case.
“We’ve reached out to the company about this alleged incident to ask for its response, with the expectation that it will take steps to prevent the occurrence of incidents of this nature.”
In an interview, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Borough Park said he knew about the bus but does not use it, was not familiar with its operations and had never heard a complaint about it in his nearly three decades in office. “I’ve never been on that bus so I’m not sure that I actually knew in terms of whether [riders] prefer it that way or just go along with it and say ‘I’m not going to rock the boat.’ No one ever came to me to say anything about this.”
He said that, on the contrary, community members have praised the Marmursteins for providing free transportation for community events and senior citizens’ travel.
Hikind said he had mixed feelings about the segregation on the bus line — “Is it my personal cup of tea? No,” — but said in the end the segregation could not legally continue.
Councilman David Greenfield, who also represents Borough Park, declined to comment.
When asked about the bus line at a press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last week that the practice is “obviously not permitted” on public buses and added, “Private people, you can have a private bus,” he said. “Go rent a bus, and do what you want on it.”
But the mayor’s comments could be misinterpreted since even a private bus company that offers rides to the public would not be permitted to require separate seating.
“A public accommodation is subject to civil rights laws,” said Marc Stern, an expert on law and religion and associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee. “The public-private dichotomy doesn’t work so neatly.”
Stern said that while an argument could be made that voluntary self-segregation does not infringe on any laws, the involvement, if any, by the bus operator is key.
“If a woman were to sit up front and to be harassed and the bus driver not intervene, that would raise the question of whether you could invoke the voluntariness [argument].”
In the account by the Columbia student, Sasha Chavkin, a female rider who accompanied him on the bus was told by passengers to sit in back, and the bus driver supported those passengers. In another account in the Post, a reporter was told, “That’s reserved for men,” by the bus driver. Both reports cited posted signs asking women to sit in the back during busy times, but in neither case did the driver insist on the seating change.
When a Jewish Week photographer rode the B110 on Tuesday, no such signs were in evidence.
Stern, who often aids plaintiffs in discrimination suits tied to religious practice, said he had never been approached about the B110.
“I knew the bus exists but not what kind of franchise it held,” he said. The larger question for consideration, he said, is whether citizens can voluntarily give up rights in the name of religious practice. Should we acknowledge that different religious groups have patterns of conduct and should we accommodate them or not? When it is a profit-making enterprise, the general consensus is: no.”
The bus controversy comes just a week after Yiddish signs were placed around Williamsburg reading “Precious Jewish Daughters: Please move over to the side when you see a man cross.” The Parks Department removed 16 signs posted on trees and city property.
“This is about owning the public square,” said Queens College sociology professor Samuel Heilman, author of two books about haredi life in America. “These folks feel so at home in America, particularly in this city and state, that they are willing to take places that you may think are public and say ‘we are going to set the rules about how this public space is used. It’s an expression of ethnic pride and multiculturalism.”