The mayor of New York City rode the subway last week, and it was a Big Deal.
In most cities similarly transit-dependent as NYC, the simple fact that the mayor took a took a 19-minute, one-way, nine-stop subway ride from his gym to City Hall wouldn’t even merit an announcement, but New York isn’t most cities. In 2019, in New York City, a mayoral subway ride warranted a special announcement in the mayor’s public schedule, a press coterie, an Instagram post, and a media availability session afterwards. In year six of the Bill de Blasio Administration, this brouhaha around a subway ride — something as necessary as breathing to millions of New Yorkers every day — is a clear sign that something, somewhere went wrong with our mayor’s approach to transit, and the mayor’s comments afterwards laid bare the depths of the problem.
The purpose of the Great Mayoral Subway Ride of 2019 was to drum up support for an MTA reform-and-funding plan reliant and congestion pricing, and the mayor seemed to view it as a personal fact-finding mission. To start the press conference, Streetsblog’s Gersh Kuntzman asked the mayor what he learned from his subway ride, and the answer is something to behold. “What I gleaned,” the mayor said, “is people really depend on their subways. They need their subways to work and they are frustrated.”
Marinate in that statement; soak it in. The Mayor of New York City learned last week that New Yorkers, his fellow citizens of this city since he moved back here for college in 1980 and his constituents since he first won a City Council seat in 2002, really depend on their subways. This too is what a bunch of out-of-towners visiting from Nebraska learn on their first trips through the New York City subways.
The mayor continued with his answer:
A lot of people I talked to said I don’t know when I’m ever going to get to work. Some days I get to work on time, some days I’m a half hour late, 45 minutes late, you can hear the frustration. And you can hear the urgency. And I will tell you, this was just going out there, talking to a bunch of New Yorkers, I wouldn’t have been shocked by any number of reactions. What I heard consistently was a demand for action and a belief that we need a plan, we need it to be voted on now. So my message to all the strap hangers was this is the last best chance to get something done. The Governor and I have a plan, it’s going to actually turn around the MTA – we need people to support it. And most people responded very favorably.
Is this new to the mayor? Has he bothered to look into constituent complaints about the subway that have grown exponentially in volume over the past two or three years? Does he know how New York City works?
The mayor’s initial answer speaks to a six-year problem transit and livable streets advocates have long had with the mayor: He does not seem to understand New York City. The mayor has long been a self-proclaimed motorist first and a transit rider/pedestrian a distant second. Practically speaking, this means the mayor has a vastly different relationship with travel around the city than most New Yorkers who haven’t had the privilege of free car rides and free parking in Manhattan for the bulk of their professional careers.
During his tenure, the mayor has implemented a disjointed transit and transportation policy at best. My views on the NYC Ferry system are well-documented in my past posts on this site and on Curbed, and the BQX leaves much to be desired as a signature transit proposal. The Department of Transportation has made some strides toward its Vision Zero goal, but the city has no overall policy for reducing private vehicle use and congestion while promoting more equitable means of travel or safer streets for people who walk, ride their bikes or take the buses or subways. We do not have a mayor devoted to an aggressive policy of prioritizing street space for high-capacity buses — which could include city-implemented physically separated lanes, a citywide signal prioritization efforts, aggressive enforcement of bus lanes and/or a reduction of parking placards that lead to private cars parked in what are supposed to travel lanes for buses. We do not have a mayor devoted toward building a bike network that provides safe spaces for low-income travel. Instead, city vehicle miles are up; placards are ascendant and abuse rampant; and the mayor cannot even maintain a reasonable pace for something as simple as bike rack installation, let alone bus route rollout.
I know we’ve had small wins here and there on bike lanes and transit but man, every time I go for an extended walk around this city my overwhelming feeling is that NYC is getting more car-centric by the year. The incremental approach of this mayor and DOT are not working.
— Travis R. Eby (@travis_robert) March 3, 2019
The ongoing debate over the 14th Street Busway is a prime example of de Blasio’s insufficient and non-supportive approach to transit promotion. The Busway, proposed for the L train shutdown that isn’t, could have been a model for a better way to move people across town. The current M14 routes maintain speeds below 4 miles per hour — or walking pace for healthy adults — and the traffic means that everyone who needs to rely on a bus can’t get anywhere particularly quickly. It’s an access issue and one that should get to the heart of the Mayor’s old “Tale of Two Cities” campaign rhetoric. But when Gov. Cuomo pulled the plug on the L train shutdown, the mayor threw the Busway to the wolves, and instead of strong executive support, it’s been up to local politicians who understand transit and transit advocates to fight to maintain these modest upgrades on one out of Manhattan’s 255 crosstown blocks.
Further afield, the mayor has constantly gotten outfoxed by the governor on issues relating to subway funding and governance. In fact, during the same press conference, the mayor played right into Cuomo’s hands. When defending the MTA reform/congestion pricing plan, the Mayor essentially ceded any say in MTA matters to the governor:
“This is a very bold plan…You know the estimate now is over $20 billion. That sounds bold to me – changing the entire governance structure of the MTA, finally assigning responsibility fully to the State and the Governor, a whole lot more checks and balances in terms of how the MTA does it’s work because we have all seen the problems. I think professionalizing the work and adding more transparency makes a lot of sense. So, this is perfectly bold.
“To the question of City revenue – clearly most of what happens with our subways and buses comes from straphangers, comes from tax payers, comes from New York City government, that’s where most of the revenue comes from already. But we didn’t have a governance structure that made sense. You think having four members on such a big board gets us anywhere? It hasn’t. So I would rather have – the equivalent I make is like mayoral control of education, I would rather have one person in charge, it clearly should be the Governor.
Later on, the mayor was challenged on this issue of gubernatorial control. Why, he was asked, is he more comfortable with control now if the Governor has presided over the MTA for the last eight years New Yorkers are not satisfied? He responded:
Because I don’t believe there has been clear, public acknowledgement of who is in charge. That is – you know better than anyone, the MTA structure was created for the purpose of making sure that no one was seen to be in charge. This is saying out loud, everyone understands, again, the equivalent of mayoral control of education, gubernatorial control of the MTA, full accountability, there have to be some checks and balances as always, but full accountability. And I think it changes everything.
There hasn’t been a clear, public acknowledgment of who is in charge because Andrew Cuomo rightly determined years ago that it benefits Andrew Cuomo to try to argue against reality and de Blasio went along with it because he couldn’t articulate an argument against the view that no one was in charge of the MTA. Through these words, de Blasio is essentially ceding any say in transit matters fully to Albany and Governor Cuomo. Before this proposal was revealed, Cuomo had full control over the MTA, but the city could exert a voice. In this instance last week after his very special subway ride, Bill de Blasio seems to be giving up even that voice on a local concern as vital as transit matters. It’s a state problem now, the mayor says, as he washes his hands of this mess. Whether city or state control would be best for New York City’s transit system is a separate issue worthy of a long post, but either way, Bill de Blasio isn’t too interested in fighting for his constituents to ensure Albany doesn’t keep mucking it all up again and again. Ain’t my issue now, he says.
To make matters worse, de Blasio undermined congestion pricing at the same time. He had already gone on record last week stating his belief that a millionaires’ tax, a plan that delivers none of the benefits of traffic control, would be best, and during his press availability, he spoke more on the watered-down congestion pricing proposal he support. He talked about how he has “taken the bridges out of the equation” and wants multiple hardship exemptions, a situation ripe for abuse on the same level as the city’s rampant placard abuse epidemic. He simply can’t speak to the benefits of reduced congestion in Manhattan or the need to envision a city without cars everywhere. It escapes his worldview and he will not try to understand this different perspective.
In a way, despite years of feuding, de Blasio and Cuomo are more alike than they would probably care to admit. They are of the view that what each determine to be the way forward is the only right one and no one can charge either man’s mind. For Cuomo, that leads to spending with dubious value and transit projects that cement his legacy as a builder. For the mayor, that means largely ignoring the need to defend New York City and its transit riders from a disinterested but meddlesome governor and ignoring the need to promote best and more efficient and equitable uses of city streets.
We’re stuck with Cuomo until he loses or decides not to run again, but the mayor’s term ends in 2021. When we have another choice, we pick someone who understand what transit means to New Yorkers and how best to shape a city so that mobility for all comes to the forefront. A subway ride for anyone, let alone the mayor who has to represent everyone, shouldn’t be a reason for a press conference; it should just be a part of the day, like it is for millions of other New Yorkers day in and day out.