Some thoughts on city transit policy from an ‘obscure transportation blogger’By
In the run-up to the end of the year, the New York press has engaged in a mid-term review of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The narrative is an obvious one — missteps, victories, fights against Cuomo, a very skeptical public but a good chance of reelection based on the make-up of the electorate and lack of obvious opposition. One common theme that has emerged in the stories has been de Blasio’s attention to those who are skeptical of his policies and approach. A gem in this Wall Street Journal article particularly caught my eye:
The mayor has begun to read obscure transportation blogs as he worries about advocates who criticize him, and he urged aides to schedule more visits to Staten Island, where his approval ratings are especially low. He closely studies polls even as aides publicly dismiss them.
The emphasis, of course, is mine, and I have so many questions. Is the mayor now reading this site — which has been critical of him (though moreso on my Twitter feed). Or is the mayor taking his transportation cues from Streetsblog, the hardly-obscure WNYC project Transportation Nation or from the LTV Squad, Cap’t Transit, Pedestrian Observations, the Invisible Visible Man, Bike Snob or Brooklyn Spoke? Obscurity knows no bounds. And while some of you may question whether this site or many of this listed are actually obscure, the truth is that they’re niche sites that attract people interested in the issues. Those who aren’t interested — those who view transportation policy as incidental (or inconvenient) to city life — don’t visit these sites, and an overwhelmingly large number of New Yorkers simply don’t consider the politics of the MTA or NYC DOT until these politics have an immediate impact on their lives.
So ultimately, I don’t know if the mayor is reading my site or someone else’s when the Wall Street Journal tosses off a reference to “obscure transportation blogs.” I hope he’s getting a broad range of policy exposure on issues of transport, from pedestrian safety, bike proposals and the nuts and bolts of the buses and the subways. Voters may not know that the MTA is a state agency rather than a city one, and de Blasio’s record on transit issues has been mediocre at best. If given the chance to speak with (or to) the mayor on these issues, I’d tell him something along these lines.
Vision Zero: I haven’t talked much about Vision Zero on this site; rather, I’ve saved my disappointment for Twitter. I commend the overall goals of Vision Zero but feel the city’s approach has been too timid and too siloed. A successful effort at driving pedestrian deaths caused by automobiles to zero involves more than just pure numbers. It involves a massive shift in mindset, one that actively encourages New Yorkers to use alternate means of transportation rather than a private car and one that ensures these modes are fast, reliable, frequent and prioritized. It involves support for bikes, a rational allocation of street space for buses and firm buy-in from the cops who are in charge of enforcement. It also involves being out in front on some form of traffic pricing plan, whether that’s Move New York’s comprehensive proposal or another plan that can reduce the prevalence of cars in NYC’s busiest pedestrian areas. Be aggressive; lives are a stake. And if it means upsetting a few motorists — and learning how not to be a self-described motorist in the first place — that’s a price to pay as a politician.
Buses: The mayor promised 20 Select Bus Service routes over five years. At the rate DOT and the MTA are going, we’ll get 20 new ones by the late 2020s. I appreciate the need to involve communities (and, begrudgingly by proxy, Community Boards) in planning changes at the hyperlocal level, but de Blasio’s DOT has been far too willing to kowtow to vocal pressure from a minority of residents on bus lanes, traffic calming and BRT/SBS planning.
Just recently, for the second time in two mayoral administrations, the city agreed to scale back plans for Bus Rapid Transit, this time on Woodhaven Boulevard. We have the street space for BRT; we do not have the political will. The mayor and his Department of Transportation should hold firm on rapid rollout for real BRT while doing a better job of explaining and defending these projects. The mayor and DOT should also consider the downstream impact of bus lane projects. People along Woodhaven aren’t the only ones who would enjoy better bus service. Are down-route communities isolated from transit (and the planning process) given an adequate voice at the table?
Parking: Can we just do away with free on-street parking already? Is there any other major city in the U.S. that gives away valuable street space for free with no real justification for it? This too is part of a proper Vision Zero mindshift.
Transit and the MTA: Finally, we arrive at the big one. In a way, the Mayor was right to fight Albany on MTA capital funding; after all, the MTA is a state agency and a state responsibility. But then, when de Blasio committed to funding some of the MTA capital plan, he showed his hands far too early and opted against exerting much control over the money. It was an embarrassing surprise to the de Blasio Administration when the MTA pushed back plans for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and it was a move that a mayor more engaged on transit issues would have headed off at the pass. The mayor should not treat the subways like a mode of transit Other People use. Nor should he rely on it only for photo ops. Ride the subway regularly; talk with riders about their experiences; and pay attention to what’s happening with the MTA. Even if Albany has been frustratingly slow to act on mayoral recommendations to the MTA Board, de Blasio should keep a finger on the pulse of transit goings-on. After all, few things touch the lives of his constituents more frequently than the subway system.
Affordable Housing: Finally, let’s talk affordable housing. The mayor has made affordable housing a centerpiece of his proposal for a more livable New York, but he hasn’t invested in transit upgrades that make or break affordability. Providing apartments for a reasonable/affordable rents in areas far from the subway and without upgrades to bus service or increases in transit capacity does little to combat the affordability crisis. By necessity, better transit access has to be a key component of affordable housing, and the mayor has not shown support for the transit piece of that affordability puzzle.
Maybe you might think it’s presumptuous of me that this admittedly obscure transportation blog I’ve run for nine years can find a sympathetic ear in City Hall, but if the mayor is listening to any of these sites, he would hear similar themes. Hopefully, he is and can mull over these ideas during the holiday season. If he wants to address the skeptics, at least he knows where to start.