DOT Culture: Stifling Innovation on NYC’s Streets?

weinshall.jpgUpon re-reading this morning’s Times article on the new pedestrian countdown timers, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at this statement DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall made at yesterday’s pedestrian countdown press conference. As reported:

Mayor Bloomberg has been a fan of the countdown signals, but Iris Weinshall, the city’s transportation commissioner, had some doubts. "The mayor for a number of years has talked to me about countdown signals," she said at the news conference yesterday. "He saw them in other cities. It was, I think, a very good exchange back and forth as to whether we should put them up or not."

Granted, this is an off-the-cuff remark describing a brief snapshot of dialogue between Mayor and Commissioner but here’s the impression you come away with: The Mayor of New York City asks his Transportation agency to try out a new tool on New York City’s streets. This isn’t a cranky neighborhood association, advocacy group or blogger nagging DOT — this is the Mayor of New York City putting in his request to DOT.

Now, the Mayor isn’t asking Weinshall to try out some new traffic calming measure requiring a physical redesign of streets, or dedicated bus and bike lanes requiring DOT to take street space away from cars, or congestion charging requiring the elimination of the decades-old entitlement of free motoring. Mayor Bloomberg is simply asking DOT to try out a new kind of traffic signal. Yet the Mayor apparently had wait "a number of years" before DOT was willing to run a simple, $186,000 trial at five intersections using technology common to urban innovation hotspots like Baltimore, Detroit and Albany.

I hate to pile on when it is clear that DOT is finally starting to try to do some good new things. But you have to ask: Why is it so difficult for New York City to innovate and experiment with new ideas for its streets and public spaces? How will the authorities responsible for New York City’s urban environment respond with the urgency and scale demanded by climate change, oil depletion and maintaining competitiveness in a global economy when it takes years of "back and forth" to get pedestrian countdown timers set up at five intersections?

  • Lars

    Yeah, not only have they been running in Baltimore, Detroit and Albany, but they are up all over in Berkeley, Washington D.C., San Francisco and just about every city I visit, even small ones.

    Why this “innovation” took so long is beyond explanation, but at least it is being “experimented” with.

    I think it speaks to the culture of transportation in NYC. Our DOT is hopefully changing for the better, but a trial? For this? Who could be against knowing how much time you have to cross the street?

    Just put them in.

  • Sproule

    I have to say that after hearing Commissioner Weinshall and her Deputy Commissioner at the City Council hearings this Spring regarding a trial 24/7 ban on cars in Central Park, I would characterize her as much worse than reluctant. They both referred to the Central Park Loop drive (where everyone recreates – not the transverses, which are designed for cars) in the same breath as the FDR or the West Side Highway, as if the park were a traffic artery.

    As has been discussed on these pages and others, banning cars from the park loop would increase safety, lower pollution, and have virtually no effect on traffic on remaining roads. Yet, Commissioner Weinshall and her department remain steadfast in resisting this and other innovations. The frustration and resignation of Andrew Vesselinovitch, former Bicycle Program Director at DOT, confirms this. I believe that Weinshall is standing in the way of a lot of good ideas, and is more of a problem on this front than the Mayor.

  • JK

    Setting aside the larger issue of a culture of conservatism in NYC DOT — I’m not convinced countdown timers are worth the trouble. Studies show they are better understood and more popular with pedestrians than the blinking, red, DONT WALK, hand.(Nationally,1/2 of peds dont understand the blinking hand>solid hand>solid ped figure signal) But I havent seen anything that shows they improve pedestrian safety or reduce turning conflict — compare this to Leading Pedestrian Intervals which are known to reduce turning crashes and conflict and are essentially free to install.

  • Well, in any case, it does seem like there is an era of change starting up. The question is, Is Weinshall the best choice to continue managing the DOT during the era of change?

  • brent

    Aaron, Sproule, and anyone else- it is good to here that others are just as frustrated as I am and are expressing it. I have experienced nothing but frustration with Iris ever since a few years back when I wrote a letter expressing my opposition to the (soon to be completed) chain-link fence spanning the 59th St Bridge. I don’t think there isn’t anything “experimental” needed. There are simple, time- tested, tried and true methods of slowing down traffic, saving lives, and improving quality of life. The DOT, under Iris Weinshall’s leadership, is incompetant. Their only priority is keeping motorists moving, and they are even failing miserably at that. I don’t see any reason to keep this person in this important and powerful position. I would like to become involved in any movement out there to have her replaced.

  • someguy

    First of all, Weinshall, a career bureaucrat with no transportation background whatsoever, was *never* a good choice to guide the agency, and Bloomberg should feel like a dope for keeping her here this long, with the abyssmal record of NYCDOT under her watch. (Midtown Thru-Streets, MuniMeters, and tinkerings on Queens Boulevard – wow, blow my mind with your innovation!)

    Second of all, Lars, any change is not necessarily good change. There is not a censensus that these things are better than the status quo, and in some cases they could be worse. I think DOT had some legitimate gripes with these. However, that is not a reason to stall and avoid trying an experiment to see.

    Finally, I think the main answer to Aaron’s question about “Why is it so difficult for New York City to innovate and experiment with new ideas for its streets and public spaces?” is one word: LITIGATION. NYC’s government, perhaps because NYC really is different in this regard and has a more litigous culture, or perhaps wrongly – I’m not an expert – has an extreme bunker mentality of giving highest priority to avoiding potential lawsuit situations. All levels and all agencies have this at the forefront of their mind.

  • JK

    No, litigation is not the reason change is so slow. There are countless things DOT can do without any fear of litigation — and things they do which invite litigation (WBB bike bumps for example.)As to dumping Weinshall — she clearly wants or wanted to leave. Press stories have her being turned down for the top job at the Downtown Alliance last year. Incidentally, where is Bloomberg going to find a high caliber candidate to be NYCDOT commissioner for two years?

  • JK

    Oh yeah, regarding Weinshall’s “abyssmal record:” She looks like a goddamn star compared to the commissioner du jour circus of incompetence and sex scandals put on by her predecessors. Twelve pedestrians a year were being killed on Queens Blvd before Weinshall. Now it’s two or three — yes it should be zero, but it’s still a big difference. Pedestrian fatalities are down by half and injuries by about a third. Could things easily be far better, yes. But they are better than they were.

  • Anon

    One of the tragedies of the situation is that a relatively smart city administration has a DOT commissioner that it can’t fire at will because of her connection to Sen. Schumer.

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