street fights

The Sightseeing Bus Wars of New York City

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

You’ve probably seen the TopView Sightseeing ticket sellers in their hooded red jackets, standing opposite the Hershey’s store in Times Square, pushing bus tours to One World Trade or Wall Street. You’ve also probably seen sellers for Gray Line and Big Bus in their also red outfits, standing outside the M&Ms store and offering pretty much the same “hop-on, hop-off” rides around the city. They can be hard to tell apart, which is one of the reasons they’ve been engaged in various legal battles for years. And the occasional headbutt. “It’s a very complicated history,” TopView’s lawyer, Maurice Ross, tells me.

And really, it is. Earlier this month, the New York Court of Appeals reinstated a claim made by TopView that Big Bus and Gray Line have operated as a secret monopoly, giving new life to a yearslong drama that TopView sees as a David and Goliath story about who gets to shuttle tourists to the Fearless Girl statue. The suit alleges that Big Bus and Gray Line, among others, have used their “market share to ‘shut out’” TopView from the sightseeing hustle. (This isn’t Gray Line’s first time in court over monopoly allegations: In a 2015 settlement, Gray Line and another company called City Sights were ordered by the New York attorney general to pay $7.5 million and give up dozens of stops on their Manhattan routes to settle an antitrust suit filed by the state and federal officials and allow other companies into the market.) TopView also alleges that Big Bus and Gray Line have “impugned” its reputation in an effort to tank its business relationships. But the great tour-bus wars of New York City aren’t just playing out as courtroom dramas — which brings us to the headbutting.

The city’s sightseeing-by-bus industry has never exactly been peaceful, as ticket sellers tried to get an edge on one another while going after the same pool of tourists. But things came to a new head in June 2018. “These guys are motherfuckers. I’ll beat the shit out of you, piece of shit motherfucker. I’ll kill you!” a Gray Line worker yelled at a TopView employee stationed near the Empire State Building, according to a lawsuit filed by TopView that year. A few months later, at the same spot, Gray Line ticket seller Pitoh Poyodi was approached by TopView ticket sellers who allegedly wanted to poach him. When he declined, a TopView seller assaulted him. (The New York Post says he was headbutted and kneed in the stomach.) “There’s always fighting over territory around here,” one TopView seller told the Post. The result of these fights was a heavily negotiated memo on “Conduct Guidelines” signed by each of the named companies. This agreement included explicit directions to not physically assault competitors and guidance around smack talk, which was also rampant among ticket sellers. (Forbidden statements include: “They don’t have buses,” “They are being investigated by the FBI and Homeland Security,” “They don’t show you Statue of Liberty,” and “Their bus drivers are mean.”)

But the rivalries persisted all the same: In March 2019, just a month after the agreement between the tour companies was finalized, TopView filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against Big Bus, Gray Line, and other tour companies. Two months later, Big Bus filed its own suit against TopView, claiming its ridership was declining in part because of “the abusive, deceptive, reckless, exploitative, and dangerous practices” of TopView. Big Bus also claimed that in a single 24-hour period in January 2019, “over two hundred 5-star reviews” were posted to TopView’s Google Business profile, the majority of which allegedly came from Nigeria. Also included was an allegation that TopView’s use of the color red in the design of its tour buses — Big Bus buses are also red — was part of a pattern of “unscrupulous business conduct.” By allegedly copying Big Bus in this manner, the suit read, TopView “has unfairly arrogated to itself the benefit of millions of dollars that Plaintiff and its affiliates have invested in recent years in market research, strategic planning, and product design.”

Ask former employees, though, and it seems there are no good actors involved here. A former Big Bus tour guide seemed delighted that the companies spent so much time squabbling: “They are two miserable companies,” he tells me. “Let ’em fight it out and spend their money on lawyers.” A former TopView worker had this to say about his old bosses: “My feeling would be that whatever TopView is coming up with is just like a gangster ploy.” Former TopView employees allege that they had pay docked if they were late or had minor uniform deviations and were asked to report drivers for leaving the bus to use the bathroom. (TopView is owned by venture capitalist Asen Kostadinov, who declined to comment on the litigation and did not respond to specific workplace allegations. Big Bus, which is mostly owned by a private-equity firm called Exponent Private Equity and entered into a renewable consolidation agreement with Gray Line in 2020, also declined to comment on the legal proceedings and did not respond to questions about its apparent merger with Gray Line.)

One might think that the pandemic wallop to the city’s tourism industry quieted things among the bus rivals, and for a brief moment in 2020, it did look as though there may be a truce in the world of the hop-on bus tour. Big Bus voluntarily discontinued its 2019 case in 2020, proposing that both parties throw out their suits. “Prudence suggests that the parties focus on restoring their businesses and devoting resources to protecting and rehiring employees, rather than litigation,” the claim reads. “Moreover, because essentially no one is riding tour buses in New York City now (or for the foreseeable future), there are no reviews (false or otherwise) appearing currently on travel websites.” It was, perhaps, an opportunity to forget the alleged anti-competitive practices, forget the street fights, forget the purportedly fake reviews from Nigeria. TopView declined. When I asked Ross about the company’s commitment to the fight, he seemed surprised by the question. “We had good claims,” Ross says. “Why would we drop our claims?”

The Sightseeing Bus Wars of New York City