Dysfunction Rules at CB 6 Discussion of Select Bus Service

who_uses_34th_st.jpgManhattan CB 6 could have used this reminder of who actually uses 34th Street. Graphic: NYCDOT

Last night’s meeting of Manhattan Community Board 6’s transportation committee was a reminder of how opaque and undemocratic New York City’s public review process can be, at its worst. Between a mismanaged meeting that descended into chaos and a parade of NIMBYs who ensured that neither plans for First and Second Avenues nor for 34th Street could be discussed on the merits, it’s hard to see how last night’s proceedings contributed to an informed discourse about New York City’s transportation needs. 

The night was marred by a series of procedural irregularities, which riled up an already restive crowd. During discussion of a resolution in support of Select Bus Service and safety improvements on First and Second Avenues, two committee members proposed an amendment in favor of adding buffered bike lanes to fill gaps in the physically-protected bike route proposed for the corridor.

When Fred Arcaro, the committee chair, declared that the amendment failed 6-5, a combination of whispers and shouts filled the room. Some at the meeting, including committee members, felt that there had been a miscount and that the amendment had actually passed. When I followed up with Arcaro today, he said that the amendment officially failed 8-6.

Arcaro also informed me that the public isn’t entitled to see the text of community board resolutions until they are passed by the full board. Until then, he said, they could still be amended. When I asked how non-members are supposed to participate in these public meetings without knowing what is being discussed, Arcaro said only, "listen carefully." The meeting was constantly interrupted by shouts from the audience and even from committee members seeking information or trying to set the record straight. Perhaps more open information might have kept the rowdy crowd a bit happier. 

Overall, the meeting was less an exercise in participatory democracy than a lopsided forum for purely parochial concerns.

East_Side_Interpolation_cropped_small.jpgCB 6 could also have used a reminder of how many people get injured along First and Second Avenues every year. Image: Transportation Alternatives.

The discussion of Select Bus Service along First and Second never mentioned the 58,000 New Yorkers who ride the M15 bus each day and barely touched on the cyclists and pedestrians whom the redesign would keep safe. The discussion didn’t even include the effect on vehicular traffic. 

Rather, Community Board 6 spent its time discussing who will get a bus stop where. Members of the Turtle Bay Association and a local group that calls itself the "Sutton Area Community" stood up to decry the lack of an SBS stop at 50th Street, a stop which MTA planners say just doesn’t have high enough ridership.

Even though there will still be a local stop at 50th Street and local service should benefit from the use of SBS lanes, these opponents proposed scrapping Select Bus Service altogether and instead restoring the crosstown bus service on 50th Street which recently fell victim to budget cuts. "With the $20 million they’re planning to spend for the SBS bus, the cuts seem just outrageous," said Gail Haft of Sutton Area Community. A representative from Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s office gave rambling remarks to make the general point that "they’re isolating Turtle Bay."

The resolution which ultimately passed the committee, which has only advisory power, supports Select Bus Service on the condition that stops at 28th Street and 49th/50th Streets be included. Are those stops really make-or-break for a project where, as Mike Auerbach of Upper Green Side told us, "traffic will be calmer, pedestrians will be safer and cyclists will be given the protection and priority they deserve"? Added Auerbach, "Furthermore, getting the best design possible for SBS on First and Second Avenue is tremendous because of the doubt associated with funding for a full length Second Avenue Subway."

The discussion of the 34th Street Transitway, which would construct New York’s first physically separated bus lanes, was similarly limited. The only voices heard at the meeting belonged to 34th Street residents upset about curbside access to their apartments. One member of the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, who apparently doesn’t ever walk west from her home, told the DOT presenters that the pedestrian plaza slated for the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues "is great for tourists, but I live on 34th Street. I pay taxes on 34th Street. I vote on 34th Street." 

Another 34th Street resident fought for an even narrower agenda, arguing that it was unfair that cars could no longer pull up to his side of the street, where the bus will run, while his neighbors across the street retained curb access. One committee member one-upped them all in a fit of privilege, asking the DOT, "Would you not agree that the thrust of these initiatives are to accommodate transients?" Referring, presumably, to people who ride buses. 

This isn’t to say that questions about curb access along 34th Street aren’t important. DOT’s Eric Beaton made clear for the first time that Access-A-Ride vans will be allowed to travel in the bus lanes, ensuring that disabled New Yorkers, who really might not be able to cross 34th, will remain mobile. Beaton also told the crowd that the design, still in its earliest stages, will change block-by-block to accommodate institutions with special needs, like NYU’s Cancer Center. But a debate hijacked by the small constituency of people who both drive and live on 34th Street can’t be productive. It didn’t end with a slate of ideas to help make transit improvements work, but with many audience members calling to route buses off 34th entirely. There was no vote.

Community Board 6 isn’t opposed to livable streets on principle. A resolution in support of bus lane camera enforcement passed unanimously with little difficulty, for example. But the process on display last night is broken, leaving out the voices of the overwhelming majority of those affected — pedestrians, bus riders, and even most drivers. 

  • If this were Harlem, the amount of NIMBYism here would make DOT never propose any bus service improvements in the area again.

  • Excellent summary Noah–thanks.

    Although the reso for “Design D” buffered bike lane treatment failed by one or two votes, such split votes are unusual on CB committees (even setting aside the irregularities), and leaves the door open for a resolution to be presented and passed by the full Community Board 6 when it meets next week. We have received consistent statements of support and encouragement from several individual board members who are not on the Transportation Committee, suggesting that safe streets advocates will get a better reception at the full Board meeting. Also, full CB meetings use a formal public comment procedure in which all of the people who sign up to speak immediately prior to the meeting are given a two minute opportunity to speak.

    So make sure to arrive no later than 6:45 pm at the CB6 meeting next Wednesday night, May 12, sign up to speak, and give the board two minutes of your thoughts! The location of the meeting is Sutton Place Synagogue, 225 East 51st Street.

  • This dysfunction is so typical of community board meetings! It’s a wonder people manage to attend and not slit their wrists in frustration.

  • I live in CB6, near 34th, and I bike to work on 1st & 2nd everyday … I was planning on attending this meeting and only missed it due to a bit of unfortunate time mismanagement on my part.

    Reading this summary of events makes me wonder if 1) it was better that I wasn’t there, fearing the aforementioned wrist-slitting-madness I likely would have suffered, or if 2) I should have been there to voice the opinion of all us normal folk who want something better for this city.

    Reading this summary, however, makes it sound like we “normal” folk wouldn’t even have gotten a word in edgewise. Is this really true? If meetings are run like this, how can our voices be heard if we’re constantly deafened by nimbys and close-mindedness?

    I want to do my part to help my neighborhood implement these kinds of changes, but attending CB meetings doesn’t sound like it’s the way to do it. Am I wrong?

  • Glenn

    Community boards are advisory. A good advisor is usually a good listener first and foremost.

    CBs only have power when they truly speak with a unified voice. Most elected officials are loathe to go against a unanimous CB vote on an issue. On controversial issues Community board members should be constantly reminded that their ability be persuasive relies on listening to the people that they purport to represent and come to some type of rough consensus. At a minimum they provide a forum for real decision-makers to hear the full flavor of opinions in all their complexity on local issues.

  • vnm

    “Transients.” What a loaded word. The farthest the M34 goes is 2 miles away to the West Side. Do they consider people from the West Side “transients”?

  • Shemp

    Noah, are you new in town?

    The following sentence is entirely synonymous with the statement that “A community board meeting took place.”

    “Overall, the meeting was less an exercise in participatory democracy than a lopsided forum for purely parochial concerns.”

  • FiftyNinth

    Shemp:

    The CB meetings I have attended north of this district have been much more democratic and functional. I had never witnessed anything like Monday’s mess before, myself.

  • Brooklyn

    To live in the middle of the big city and have the noise, soot and danger of vehicular traffic disappear overnight? Sounds like a dream to me — but these roaches must live in a different world.

  • Ian Turner

    My guess is the hidden agenda here is the fear that the change will in fact raise the standard of living and therefore rents. I once looked at a lovely apartment on E 34th St. and would certainly have taken it but for the street noise.

  • I was the board member who drafted the bicycle amendment to the resolution and one of two who tried to get it passed. I was told I could bring my proposal to the meeting. I was almost not permitted to even do that. (despite having worked for years on Bicycle issues as a fifteen year board member, Transportation chair and vice Chair.

    As you saw this is one of the most reluctant bicyclist safety community boards in the city.

    The board’s view of bicyclists is that they are maiming and killing pedestrians and a big public safety nuisance especially for the elderly.

    When proactive alternatives like this come along supported by the Mayor and Transportation Commissioner, this board just doesn’t get it or want to get it.

    Further, this board’s committee leadership, through it’s Byzantine selection process had just exhibited another display of anti-byicycle, anti-public opinion (unless you represent one of the entrenched local neighborhood groups – you know, NIMBY types), and anti-openness unless it agrees with the chair’s prerogative.

    As far as the text of the resolution, as a resolution is being drafted in committee and in public meetings any member of the public is entitled to hear it. This was not the case hear.
    As a member who emailed and talked to the chair and vice chair directly, I never saw the text of the resolution or heard it a general discussion. IEven though it was circulated in committee for some time.

    This is public information as required under city CB by-Laws, Dept of Community Affairs regulations, and Robert’s rules of Order (the default rule when no specific language exists in By-Laws).

    My bottom line suggestion is persist with vigor, don’t give up, fight on, fight in numbers.
    Make sure you attend the Community Board meeting in droves next Wednesday Evening May 12th 7 pm (sign up to speak). Meeting location has changed it is at a Synagogue on E51st st. Call Board office for info.

    Lastly get your opinions to the Transportation Commissioner and Mayor, hammer all the local public officials who represent an entire district not one small neighborhood.

    Common sense, good public policy and a good design will not only promote and protect bicyclist but the local neighborhoods as well – even though they don’t know it yet.

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