Highlights From TA’s District 25 Candidate Debate

helen_sears.jpgHelen Sears, Stanley Kalathara, and Daniel Dromm.

At the Transportation Alternatives City Council candidate debate last night, the three Democrats competing in District 25 sat down to tackle concerns about traffic, public space, and street safety. An overflow crowd of about 50 people packed the second floor office of the Queens Diversity Center to see them.

The starkest differences between the candidates centered around how to allocate street space and improve safety. Challenger Daniel Dromm, a school teacher, was the only one to speak unreservedly in favor of design and engineering improvements. "We need to have more bike lanes installed," he said. "We may need to have lighting systems that give pedestrians more time to cross the street."

Incumbent Helen Sears took a different view of cyclist safety. While Dromm had called for better education of both drivers and cyclists, Sears got more specific. "I think every company that makes bikes should have to produce a video that will absolutely show the cyclist exactly what the rules of the road are," she suggested.

Businessman Stanley Kalathara at first insisted that "providing a special route in the street" for bike lanes is "impossible," but later modified the claim, saying that 34th Avenue and 35th Avenue might have the necessary space. (Note: 34th Avenue already has a bike lane.)

Dromm was also the only candidate to express much support for congestion pricing. "I do support some form of road pricing that would help to alleviate the burden on the MTA," he said, adding that he would also support higher gas taxes or bridge tolls to fund transit. "The majority of people in this neighborhood probably do not have cars, and that’s why I make that such a high priority."

According to the most recent census numbers [PDF], Dromm’s intuition is correct: 52 percent of District 25 residents don’t own cars. Still, Kalathara pledged to oppose pricing in no uncertain terms, and Sears made her support conditional on the construction of additional municipal garages. Apparently the council member subscribes to the belief that car commuters will use her district as a park-and-ride if they can’t drive across the 59th Street Bridge for free. Logic dictates otherwise, but if there’s any way to fulfill that prophecy, thousands of additional parking spots would do it.

Off-street parking policy was something of an Achilles heel for all three candidates. Their prevailing view: More garages and more parking would reduce the terrible congestion problem in Jackson Heights, one of the most transit-rich neighborhoods in Queens. Someone should send around a copy of Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking to these folks:

  • Kalathara: "People are going to buy cars anyway, it has nothing to do with the garage."
  • Dromm: "I agree that any development that comes into the community should have
    parking attached to it. Some people here come from Jersey
    and don’t use transit. So they need space."
  • Sears: "We have very viable commercial areas. It’s a tri-state shopping center; people don’t take public transportation to get here."

After they’re done with Shoup, the candidates might want to peruse TA’s 2008 report, Guaranteed Parking, Guaranteed Driving, which spelled out that many car trips originate in Jackson Heights precisely because city zoning laws require parking attached to new development.

Each candidate also had one or two ideas that stood out as especially unique or insightful. I’ll end on a bright note with some of these: 

  • Dromm: "Reducing the speed limit is something we have to look at. These cars come barreling down the streets, especially the side streets, not the avenues. It rattles my windows." 
  • Kalathara proposed car-free summer weekends on the major shopping streets in Jackson Heights: "37th Avenue, 73rd Street, and 74th Street — make it like a shopping mall, car-free so people can shop and have a lot of fun."
  • Sears used the disjointedness of Queens Boulevard to justify her stance that it can’t accommodate a bike lane: "When [DOT] did studies for traffic, they did not do Queens Boulevard in its entirety, they did sections of it. As a result, they went by Community Boards; none of it connected." Okay, that’s a terrible excuse for inaction. But it’s also a pretty trenchant observation about DOT, when you consider that nearly all of the Class 1, on-street bike lane miles installed in the past two years have been confined to two community board districts in Manhattan, with two more in Brooklyn slated to receive some soon.
  • glenn

    Off-street garages only encourage newcomers to bring or buy a car. This should be the focus – any future development or residents should be encouraged to come without cars and ride transit.

    This is why neighborhood parking permits are perhaps the best way to satisfy current residents and say no more cars to future residents.

  • I don’t think it’s a stretch to say nobody running for office in this district understands how traffic or parking policy should be designed. No one running for office could get away with this kind of ignorance about how the NYPD works or how garbage collection works. But when it comes to bikes and cars everyone is entitled to mislead their audience. I’m not complaining that these candidates hold views that run counter to my own, I’m complaining because they hold those views based on assumptions about traffic and street management that are obviously false.

    I assume that there will be a tipping point sometime in the future where it won’t be okay to mislead the public about ways to make their streets work better but that point seems awfully far away after reading this post.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    What makes anyone think that any of these people have a deeper understanding of policing or sanitation or education or housing? If you know anything about those subjects you will find their understanding of those issues entirely superficial, borderline ignorant

    But if you think the politicians are stupid, you should meet the voters..

  • Grinner

    “… every company that makes bikes should have to produce a video that will absolutely show the cyclist exactly what the rules of the road are.”

    That’s a great idea! Then cyclists in NYC can learn about the Idaho stop sign. And cyclists in Millbrook can learn that NYC cyclists can ride two abreast. I see great things for I-274 when Brooklyn and Staten Island riders see the part of the video that mentions how cyclists are allowed to ride the Interstate in Montana.

    Don’t the tax payers of the U.S. own two of the Big Three? Maybe we can require videos that “absolutely show the drivers exactly what the rules of the road are” from them for every Clunker replacement! Or make that a requirement with every auto-loan the next time we bail out the financial industry.

    Councilwoman Sears, contrary to the Hunter College “we went out to look for cyclists behaving badly (while walking to our car)” report, cyclists are not the cause of congestion, car-bicycle collisions, car-pedestrian collisions, sinking ferries, increased asthma, potholes, global warming, subway station roof collapses, structural damage to buildings, or cavities. If your constituency includes GlaxoSmithKline, manufactures of suture equipement, asphalt companies, ambulance services, and/or construction companies, then you should by all means continue to blame cyclists and pedestrians.

  • The Opoponax

    Haha, really, Ms. Sears?

    I wonder if she also thinks all the auto makers ought to include videos explaining the rules of the road to drivers? Because some of the folks motoring around her district seem a little clueless on that front. I’ve certainly seen more complete driving imbeciles around western Queens than their cycling counterparts. Most people I see on bikes around here have to be absolutely on top of their game, lest they get mowed down by a driver who doesn’t seem entirely clear on what that funny looking red octagon is supposed to mean.

  • m

    You can see the whole debate here:

    http://tacandidatesurvey.org/blog/331

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