Weinshall Upheld a “Cars-First Status Quo,” T.A. Says

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Transportation Alternatives has come out with its statement on the resignation of DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall along with a brief to-do list for the next commissioner. Executive Director Paul White isn’t pulling punches. From T.A.:

Iris Weinshall upheld the cars-first status quo at a time when New York City streets desperately needed innovation and change.

To her credit, Commissioner Weinshall stabilized an embattled agency that just prior to her arrival had seen four commissioners in a period of six years. Commissioner Weinshall filled potholes better than her precedessors, and made pedestrian safety improvements to some of the city’s most dangerous streets. But these successes were eclipsed by Commissioner Weinshall’s failure to redress the enormous economic, heath and quality of life costs imposed by the City’s outdated car-based surface transportation system.

To reduce the cost of congestion and meet the challenges of growth and global warming, New York City needs a new cadre of expert transportation planners led by a progressive-minded DOT Comissioner who can institutionalize and apply modern street management practices that will shift driving trips to cleaner more space efficient modes. The Mayor should look to London and other big cities for the right candidates.

Road pricing, parking reforms and streets redesigned to maximize walking, biking and surface transit are solutions that the new commissioner needs to make happen if New York City’s 6,000 miles of streets are going to perform better for residents and business alike. Tasks that the Commissioner should tackle:

  • Adopt new universal street design standards that would make traffic calming, pedestrian, bicycle and bus improvements the routine rule, not the ad hoc exception
  • Expand annual data collection to better understand how New Yorkers travel, and what they need to drive less and walk, bike and take transit more.
  • Begin a comprehensive study of how variable road pricing can be effectively and fairly applied
  • Reform on-street an off-street parking policies to reduce unnessary driving and traffic
  • Improve community based planning and outreach to make streets work for residents first and through-traffic second.

Says Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, "New York City needs a new DOT commissioner with a new mandate. The old mandate was to move as many cars as quickly as possible. The new DOT commissioner must figure out how to move the most people around the city, using all of the available tools including mass transit, walking and bicycling." 

  • I second Paul White’s statement, though I might question his assumption that the next commissioner has to come from outside the city. (OTOH, if that’s necessary to get around the “political baggage” problem, so be it.)

    I want to applaud the leadership TA and Paul have been showing for a good while now. The ideas, vision, positive opportunism, openness to other points of view, tough-but-fair style — it’s all good, if not terrific.

  • TU

    While I’m not sure if I agree with all the goals outlined by by Transportation Alternatives, some deeper — less automatic, less “mindless” — thinking about the goals and objectives of a D.O.T. does seem to be in order.

  • JK

    There is no doubt that it was time for Weinshall to go.

    But let’s talk about what’s fair.

    Wouldn’t it be fair to mention that pedestrian injuries and deaths fell to a one hundred year low while Weinshall was at DOT, instead of dismissing her safety accomplishments by listing them after filling potholes and then giving her credit for improvements on “some of the most dangerous streets?”

    Is it fair to ignore the significant growth in the bicycle network (which TA has rightly hailed in the past?)

    Is it fair to saddle the DOT commissioner with responsibility for failed land use and parking policies far outside of her control?

    Is it fair to single out the outgoing DOT Commissioner as a supporter of a car-first status quo when you could say the same thing about all of her predeccessors, the mayor, almost all of City Council — including the Transportation chair, John Liu, who has consistently opposed congestion pricing and supported very large parking projects.

    Just a few short months ago Weinshall was being touted for her new vision and “renaissance.”

  • someguy

    Thanks for cutting thru the echo chamber, JK.

    That being said, the anticipation of who the new commish will be is killing me.. 😉

  • Daniel

    JK,

    Yes, the criticism is fair.

    Iris didn’t take the lead on the Queens Blvd ped improvements that she constantly touts. She didn’t take the lead on bike network improvements. Iris’s DOT was, essentially, bludgeoned by advocates and neighborhood groups into making those improvements. When Iris’s DOT spoke on these issues it was to do things like killing the Downtown Bklyn Traffic Calming Project. Her DOT made conditions better for cyclists and pedestrians grudgingly and only marginally. 200+ miles of painted bike lanes in three years? I know that T.A. has to say, “great” but please. The paint’s already wearing off Year One’s new lanes. And I note you don’t mention bus riders above. Well, Iris’s DOT NEVER made conditions better for bus riders. They’re still “studying” how to that. Everyone knows that Iris put the brakes on that study prior to the last mayoral election.

    Iris never protested, complained about or tried to improve the failed land use policies that you cite. Iris’s DOT never put forward any truly progressive, innovative citywide transportation policy while our sister cities and competitors across the Atlantic, Paris and London, reduced traffic congestion by signficant amounts and totally reshaped the way they do inner city street management.

    Iris says it in her own resignation letter. Her DOT kept the traffic “flowing smoothly.” Her major policy innovation was “Thru Streets.” Fewer pedestrians are being killed today then when she took office. That’s all we got out of her. The latter is a great accomplishment. But is it Iris’s? Maybe. Though, maybe fewer peds are killed today because Midtown traffic speeds are now so incredibly low. maybe it’s because trauma care has improved. Maybe it’s because DOT finally, after YEARS of pushing and many deaths, made some fixes to Queens Boulevard and various other known death traps.

    The bottom line is that we don’t know why ped fatalities went down over the last decade. The reason we don’t know? Iris’s DOT doesn’t collect meaningful data other than counting the number of cars on city streets. And when a piece of legislation emerges to push her to do just that, Intro. 199 last week, for example, Iris tries to kill it.

    It’s one thing for a DOT commish to be cars-first in 1993. But given what we know today about urban transportation and the incredible achievements being made in other cities it is unacceptable for a commish to be cars-first in 2007. Or 2002, for that matter. NYC fell way behind under Iris. That’s how history will see it.

    So, yeah, JK, the criticism is fair. More than fair. And necessary.

  • Daniel, JK, et al

    You both make very good and fair points. There were bright spots and missed opportunities. Activists and neighborhood groups did have to apply quite a bit of pressure to get seemingly basic improvements in some areas so we can forgive them for being frustrated after seven years. We can leave a lot of baggage at Weinshall or the DOT staff’s doorstep, but that’s not where the buck stops in the City. She could only stick her neck out so far on major policy issues. If real change in policy is to occur, the pressure has to come from the top. The choice of a new commissioner and whether or not they charge that person with a good livable streets agenda will be a defining moment for the Bloomberg/Doctoroff legacy.

  • P

    The next director of the DOT should be honored to have such a collection of fair-minded gadflies. 🙂

  • JK

    Glenn is right on — it’s the mayor. And I hope the mayor heeds the excellent recommendations made by TA.

    Daniel, wholeheartedly agree it has taken mighty bludgeoning, flogging and dragging (Thanks TA and many others!) But some good has happened and it’s good to applaud it — which the advocates to their credit, are usually very good about doing. I absolutely agree that there have been failures too numerous to mention, though your list was a good start. My point was only that if you’re gonna hold the captain accountable for everything that happened on their watch, they have to get some credit for good things. (On the failure list, very good point about the forsaken and forgotten bus rider — the Metrocard Mayor needs to step in.)

    Incidentally, I do think we know why ped crashes have declined so much. Two reasons: first TA advocacy and neighborhood anger raised public expectations about safe streets. Second, NYPD TrafficStat created an oversight and accountability system that improved their enforcement and cajoled DOT to do basic lighting, signage and design improvements at hotspots. Big (but highly imperfect) fixes on Qns Blvd and the Grand Concourse and better ones at Herald and Times Squares have also helped.

  • Daniel Millstone

    The criticism is fair. The person at whom the criticism should be aimed is Mr. Bloomberg. Ms. Weinshall carried out Mr. Bloomberg’s policies. If we blame the agent, we risk ignoring the wrong header policy of the principal.

  • Although Weinshall certainly wasn’t great, I absolutely agree that Bloomberg should take the lion’s share of the blame. The buck stops there, just as it stops with Bush concerning US policy. I think the thru streets idea was a good one, but certainly many on & off street parking issues still need to be tackled. These could greatly improve pedestrian & bike safety concerns.

  • crzwdjk

    I wonder, by the way, if the recent spate of new bike lanes had anything to do with Weinshall’s impending departure. Maybe she figured there wasn’t much to lose by doing it, and it would improve her reputation a bit among the non-car crowd. Or something.

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