Home Public Transit Policy A Mayor leaving transit riders out in the cold

A Mayor leaving transit riders out in the cold

by Benjamin Kabak

With the news this week that the Mayor’s plan to allow livery cab drivers to pick up passengers in Outer Borough was to be torpedoed by the taxi industry, Michael Bloomberg suffered yet another political defeat of a transit promise made during his 2009 campaign. Since he won election to a third team as the city’s chief executive, his tenure has been marred by marked failure in the transportation and transit arena. Despite the fact that millions of New Yorkers rely on subways, buses and taxis to get around the city every day, Bloomberg has not been able to fulfill his transit policy promises, and it appears as though his team is now subtly turning their backs on these badly needed improvements.

Bloomberg’s first major defeat wasn’t even that. As part of the centerpiece of his 33-point transit policy plan, Bloomberg called upon the MTA to provide free crosstown buses for everyone. Not 48 hours after securing election, the Mayor seemed to backtrack on the idea, and it has all been downhill since then.

While preparing this post, I went digging for the Mayor’s proposal, and I was shocked to find that it’s not available online any longer. His reelection site had posted it online right here in 2009, and it came with a companion PDF document that used to be available right here. Both of those links have long since been reassigned, and it is as though Bloomberg and his team are trying to erase their lofty promises from existence. I’ve tried to piece together the major components from my coverage and old articles in The Times and on Streetsblog.

It appears that Bloomberg’s proposal broke down in neat little buckets. The first concerned subway upgrades that were already in progress and out of his control. These included the expansion of the countdown clock program and a comprehensive bus-tracking program as well as F express service and a host of other quasi-populist desires the mayor cannot control.

But other transit areas were well within his purview. He proposed an expansion of the dollar van program as well as better taxi service for those beyond east of Manhattan or north of 96th St. He wanted to pilot either light rail lines or streetcars along the Brooklyn waterfront, and he wanted to usher in the expansion of bus rapid transit routes throughout the five boroughs.

What has happened to nearly every single one of those proposals has been failure. That taxi program we know is on the rocks. The group ride/dollar van program died a quiet death because the city seemingly wasn’t interested in learning how to make it work. NYC DOT has determined that streetcars for Red Hook will be too expensive and underutilized without up-zoning the area. The 34th St. Transitway — what should have been the city’s shining BRT moment — has been toned down in the face of NIMYBism and local opposition. Other ideas — an Adopt-a-Station plan to keep the subways cleaner — went nowhere.

For now, Bloomberg still has a few irons in the fire. He’s working on a plan to improve ferry service, and DOT and the MTA are still working on Select Bus Service routes. But the list of New York City transit improvements that have fallen by the way side during the first 16 months of Bloomberg’s third team have grown steadily.

Over at Market Urbanism earlier this week, Stephen Smith noted these mounting failures, and something he said struck a chord. Noting that transit reform advocates have been focused almost exclusively on defending bike lanes, it’s quite possible that we’ve lost sight of how people get around. Bike lanes should be a key part of the city’s transportation infrastructure, but tens of thousands stood to benefit instantly from the 34th St. Transitway.

Simply put, the city needs these transit improvements that haven’t gained traction, and the mayor must find a way to usher them through. Not doing so is a failure of leadership. With another two and a half years to go, Bloomberg is running out of proposals to let fall by the wayside, and already, New York’s commuters are worse off.

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paco April 29, 2011 - 2:38 am

great article… solid perspective on present day bloomberg administration.

Jah April 29, 2011 - 8:08 am

Anyone that voted for Bloomberg is an idiot! He went against the will of the people to get the third term and ran almost entirely on a bash the MTA platform which was instantly thrown out once he won.

R. Graham April 29, 2011 - 9:39 am

I’m not Bloomberg fan nor did I vote for him, but I will say that calling anyone who voted for Bloomberg an idiot is uncalled for.

You make it seem as if the other options were much better. I know you will say “well, anyone but Bloomberg would be better.” However, that’s not always the case and I’m not a settle for less type of guy. He has a lot of transit failures, but at least he has tried.

Not much can be said for past mayors and past mayor candidates which scares me enough now. We need a candidate to win who has transit in mind. Beyond Bloomberg I can’t see who that’s going to be. Yes Bloomberg is rich and out of touch, but at least he’s bored enough to want to attempt to be constructive in the transit arena. We can’t get those who are supposed to be more in touch with the “common folk” to give a damn about transit because the Bill Thompson’s of the world drive everywhere. I know the mayor taking the train to city hall is about as phony as his positive poll numbers but at least he can say he knows how bad things are down there. When was the last time Bill Thompson has even seen the turnstiles?

Point is be careful in your tone. Your wishes for something different might get you more of the same or worse. No effort at all.

BrooklynBus April 29, 2011 - 8:27 am

Ben, I nominate this as the best article you have written. Great work!

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines April 29, 2011 - 9:01 am

[…] Ben Kabak: Little Progress on Bloomberg’s 2009 Transportation Platform […]

J April 29, 2011 - 9:16 am

You say “transit reform advocates have been focused almost exclusively on defending bike lanes.” I think this is a bit of an overstatement. Yes, advocates have probably spent and undue amount of time on bike lanes, but I also think that 34th Street busway has gotten a lot of attention as well. I think what we need is a transit advocate at city hall. Villagrossa has done wonders to spur transit investment in LA with his visionary 30/10 plan. Imagine what could be done in NYC with the same kind of leadership. Right now, there is no champion for transit improvements. The mayor is busy with other things, and most other legislators and media are content to bash MTA while stripping it of funding. We need a transit hero.

R. Graham April 29, 2011 - 9:47 am

Leadership is only a small part of the problem. The mayor has tried things and you have to give him that much. He’s tried more things regarding transit than Guliani and that’s if Guliani has tried anything at all on that front.

The real problem are the NIMBYs, the political red tape, the politicians who drive and worry about losing their Manhattan parking spots or having to pay to cross a free bridge, a constituency that hates transit and is only concerned with it when it’s going to tax more green from their wallets.

This is a spoiled city because transit exists and expectations are unrealistic. In LA at one point all they had were terrible buses and highways. I could have gone over there and called for better transit and got it done because it was a good idea for a constituency that was desperate for something to get done. If I tell you I can build a subway line in an area that’s going to relieve highway traffic, give you more transit options and allow for less stress commute for all without additional tolls and tariffs, who wouldn’t jump at that idea?

Red April 29, 2011 - 9:27 am

Probably the most overlooked group in this whole story is the Straphangers Campaign, which has been more active in defending Select Bus than probably any group in the city, but not in ways that have made the papers. You might want to contact them and see if anyone is willing to go on the record.

JAzumah April 29, 2011 - 10:26 am

The group ride program was designed to fail, but Brooklyn Van Lines is still operating their service. The city has asked BVL to convert their group ride authority to a normal commuter van authority so they can bury the program. The city has been in litigation with my company over offering charter bus service on several cancelled lines since last July.

In short, the city has no interest in low dollar independent transportation projects. Involve a ferry or millions of dollars and you might get their attention. Ordinary buses and trains are not interesting to the city. Congestion pricing’s goal was to replace the city’s contribution to the MTA with dollars generated at the bridges.

John-2 April 29, 2011 - 10:29 am

Bloomberg’s pretty much following the paths of Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Robert F. Wagner and Edward I. Koch, all of whom were elected to third terms that turned out to be failures, either due to inertia/lack of focus within the administration itself after a decade in office, or via the lesser ability to coerce anyone to do anything anymore, because they know the public is tiring of you and realize they can wait you out and not fear any long-term retribution, because odds are high someone else is going to be in City Hall a couple of years from now.

The fact is you have to be a hard-ass to be any sort of effective mayor of New York City, because if you show any sign of softness/weakness you will get rolled by the various special interest groups every single time. Bloomberg’s loss of focus which helped result in the great snow disaster of 2010 was a sign of softness which in turn created even more weakness. No wonder his transit/taxi plan is getting nowhere, because he’s not dedicated enough to follow through on it, and those in opposition aren’t afraid of any sort of retribution if they openly defy him.

Cameron April 29, 2011 - 10:42 am

This doesn’t shock me one bit because I knew Bloomburg wasn’t going to do most, if any of the transit stuff he said he would in 2009. It was all just a trick to get suckers to vote for his sorry ass again and unfortunately, there are a whole lot of sorry ass NYers who voted for that pig and now look at where we are and it’s not going to get any better. All he cares about is that damn 7 train extension and that in itself is a mess that didn’t have to be. Bloomburg can kiss my ass.

Phillip Roncoroni April 29, 2011 - 1:31 pm

The old mass transit plan is here, via the Internet Archive:


Bolwerk April 29, 2011 - 2:13 pm

Simply put, the city needs these transit improvements that haven’t gained traction, and the mayor must find a way to usher them through. Not doing so is a failure of leadership. With another two and a half years to go, Bloomberg is running out of proposals to let fall by the wayside, and already, New York’s commuters are worse off.

I agree, but it occurs to me that Bloomberg doesn’t really seem willing or able to bridge the real problem: he has no control over the MTA, and the MTA and city both are under Albany’s thumb. I dunno, maybe he’s engaging Cuomo to change this. I don’t think Pataki, Spitzer, or even Paterson were very sympathetic to the problem – Cuomo might be. But in the meantime, what’s Bloomberg going to do? He has four major political stakeholders who must approve every proposal, and the two making up the state legislature will scuttle almost anything if there’s a whiff of opposition in their own ranks. Even if City Hall/Christine Quinn (another stakeholder, the fourth being Cuomo himself) is a bit more deliberative about his proposals, there’s the whole issue of local community boards and byzantine regulations needed to change every problem.

Maybe, if he has time, Bloomberg could at least leave a legacy of a more flexible/open/experimental/technocratic process in the next City charter, if he starts pushing for it yesterday morning and the next mayor, if he happens to be as progressive on paper, can get more done in practice.

Larry Littlefield May 1, 2011 - 2:46 pm

The MTA has been destroyed financially. Perhaps Bloomberg realizes this and understands that bikes are the way many people will have to get around as the system deteriorates as city, state and federal tax dollars are siphoned off to past debts and retirement obligations.

The time to complain about those obligations is when they were gleefully run up, not after the fact. Not its time to adapt.

herenthere May 4, 2011 - 6:03 pm

Lucky for everyone here, once something is online, it can’t be erased. (Check your email, Ben)


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