The New York Times JSK Profile: Politicos vs. Progressive Transportation

Has the Times ever published a profile so singularly devoted to one city commissioner’s relationships with other public figures as this Michael Grynbaum story?

It’s not so much a profile of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan as a 2,500-word description of her place in New York’s political firmament. The question that drives the piece forward is this: “What is it about Sadik-Khan that gets under the skin of state legislators, City Council members, and other political figures?”

A more revealing piece might have asked: “What is it about a program to make New York a better city for transit, biking and walking that gets under the skin of the city’s political class?”

New York is now seen as a national innovator in progressive transportation policy, emulated by cities all over the country. I would like to know more about why so many elected officials in this supposed bastion of progressivism are so worked up over this development, which has not really affected all that many streets. What is it about some thermoplastic stripes on a street that gives Lew Fidler such agita?

The quote that’s already sending the most ripples has nothing to do with Sadik-Khan herself, and everything to do with the program that’s advanced under her leadership at DOT. It comes from Congress member, congestion pricing foe, and once and future mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, at a Gracie Mansion dinner last year:

“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”

The strange thing about Weiner’s wisecrack is that he’s on the record supporting the expansion of NYC’s bike network.

In 2007, while he was opposing congestion pricing, he was supporting steps (including bike-share) to increase cycling in New York to 10 percent modeshare.

In 2008, while he was toying with a run for mayor, Weiner told the riders assembled at the first Tour de Queens:

We still have to make this city a much more bike-friendly town. For every ten dollars we spend for transportation in this city, nine dollars and 30 cents goes to moving cars around, and the other 70 cents is to help pedestrians and bike riders. We need to change that.

The shout-out to better streets for walking and biking even made it in to Weiner’s proto-platform, before he decided not to make a run at City Hall:

Finally, as evidenced by my work as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to secure millions of dollars for pedestrian and bicycle transportation options, we need to make our existing infrastructure safe and friendly for alternative modes of moving from Point A to Point B. Integrated neighborhoods — where individuals live, work and play in close proximity to one another, as Jane Jacobs once exalted — demand that we enable those who want to commute without polluting to do so safely and easily.

Interesting that the guy said something totally different at a dinner for New York’s congressional delegation. I think it says more about the audience at Gracie Mansion that night than it does about the person overseeing the changes to NYC’s streets.

  • Chris

    Maybe Weiner, like many other politicians is riding the anti-bike backlash bandwagon? Most NY politicians are not progressive by a long shot.

  • John Kaehny

    Rep Weiner’s lead-off remark about ripping out bike lanes was extremely disappointing, and at odds with his public remarks and his ear marking millions in federal funds for NYC DOT’s Safe Routes to Schools program and pedestrian safety in Brooklyn and Queens. While Weiner strongly opposed congestion pricing, he has supported pedestrian and bicycling safety with words and deeds. On a personal level Mr. Weiner has been sensitive to pedestrians and bicycle safety. His older brother was killed by a hit and run driver while walking in Virginia. Mr. Weiner should be asked directly about his unfortunate remarks and given a chance to restate his support for traffic calming measures that make all road users safer.

  • Marcia Kramer’s Semáforo

    I remember (quite fondly) Anthony Weiner’s speech at the Tour de Queens. And lots of people thinking he was a stand up guy.

    One has to really hope that Weiner’s expression was some sort of attempt at humor – misplaced, yes – because otherwise he needs to do some apologizing straight up.

    Streetsblog, can we corner him sometime next week and ask him directly?

    With our country heading down the tubes, our incredible reliance on oil and some states taking draconian measures towards mass transit, we need more people to be thinking green and alternative transportation. If Weiner starts talking like that, well I know dozens of very active people who vote in every election that he’ll lose next week. The ball is in Weiner’s court…

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Anthony Weiner’s Democratic primary campaign must come through the Upper West Side and Brownstone Brooklyn, the parts of the city with the highest concentrations of Democratic primary voters. Weiner is in for a rude awakening when he sees just how many of those triple prime voters also happen to be members of Transportation Alternatives and big supporters of the work that DOT is doing to make our streets safer and more sustainable.

  • ddartley

    What do you expect from a guy who voted for the Iraq War–why?–because “I was misled.” He’s what you call a politician.

  • Jay

    Does this surprise anybody?

    Jeanette has been commissioner for years, but only now does the Times discover all these supposed problems? Yeah, coincidentally right after she held firm on a project that somehow offended a politically powerful clique on Prospect Park.

    Just how many of those unnamed sources have ties to Chuck Schumer, anyway?

  • jooltman

    I encourage you to write to the NYTimes telling them what a bunch of hooey this slash job is. Here’s my letter:

    Ms. Sadik-Khan’s “I-know-best style” is understandable because she really does know best! She knows that New York needs to balance its streets among all viable transportation modes if our city is to remain healthy and vibrant into the next century. The old school politicians like Weiner (who has about a Blizzard of 2010’s chance in [expletive] of becoming mayor) focusing exclusively on car convenience are in for a rude awakening when voters remember at the ballot box their anti-environmental stance. How can any politician who respects his constituents’ lives see that the DOT under Sadik-Khan’s leadership has created an environment where “…fewer people have been killed in traffic accidents on New York’s streets than at any time in the past century,” and continue to complain? They should lose their seats immediately on the grounds of blatant self-interest.

  • norwoodcitizen

    What’s this nonsense from Ray Kelly about “additional police efforts required by bicycle lanes”? The way he aggressively pursues parking tickets, illegal quotas and all, you’d think he’d love the bike lanes.

    For some reason, those are the only parkers that never seem to get written. Ever.

    Besides, how much of the NYPD’s “reduced manpower” gets wasted every day at traffic accidents? Safer streets mean more time for cops to enforce the law, instead of responding to collisions.

    But we all know it’s not a resource issue.
    It’s an issue of control.

  • David_K

    Anthony Weiner is a tired political hack, bereft of ideas.

  • capt subway

    Just wrote this message to Weiner at his website:

    Sir-

    I was shocked and horrified to read in the NY Times, in an article on DOT comish Sadik-Kahn, that one of the first things you would do if you were ever elected mayor of NYC would be to, as is reported you remarked to Mayor Bloomberg, “have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
    Now why ever would you do that? To make the street safes for reckless, homicidal motorists? To ensure that pedestrians lives, including children walking to/from school, continue to be put at risk by these same motorists? To ensure that there is no viable, alternative form of safe, environmentally “green” ground transportation?
    BTW, as everyone complains about reckless bicycle riders, how can one seriously compare a bike to a car or SUV? There’s just so much damage one bike rider, no matter how reckless, can do. A car or an SUV? Such motor vehicles can, and regularly do, injure and kill scores of people, right up to smashing into buildings and killing and injuring people inside. No way can a guy on a bike wreck that kind of mayhem.
    Sir, you should be ashamed of yourself for your ill informed and blatantly stupid remark. I hope you were not serious.

    I RECOMMEND ALL OF YOU CONTACT HIM WITH A SIMILAR MESSAGE!

  • IanM

    Okay, everyone, take a breath – in all honesty, Weiner’s remark at Gracie mansion sounds to me like it was a joke, and nothing else. According to the article, Bloomberg replied by saying “tell me about it”, right? We know that Weiner supports bike lanes. And we know that Bloomberg is supports lanes. It sounds like the two were exchanging a couple of friendly sarcastic remarks, commiserating about how crazy the anti-bike backlash has been.

    Had Weiner in fact openly confronted the Mayor and cursed at him, this would be somewhat of a bigger story, don’t you think? It’s just a little bit of of misinterpretation on behalf of the writer in an effort to make a story. Let’s just relax, people.

  • IanM

    Woops – Obviously, 3rd sentence should have been “And we know that Bloomberg supports bike lanes.”

  • Brooklyn

    You guys need to lighten up sometimes. Ever thought Weiner might have been making a joke?

    Based on Bloomberg’s response Mike got the joke as well. Getting deeper into it the source said that according to Bloomberg “Sadik-Khan was off on her own.” Clearly that’s not the case if you heard the interview Bloomberg gave today. So the Times’ source is either uninformed or more likely twisting the event to push their own agenda. Hmm, what politician could easily have been at a Gracie Mansion event, hates bike lanes, hates JSK, and cannot resist a call from a reporter looking for a quick quote? Could our masked man be Marty Markowitz? Maybe, maybe not, but I see enough to give Weiner the benefit of the doubt.

  • Brooklyn

    Sorry IanM, just refreshed the page and saw your post. Great minds think alike I guess.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I’m in the “bad joke” camp.

  • capt subway

    Not being an political “insider” myself (don’t hob-nob with Bloomie and his pals behind closed doors), and given the recent lunatic ravings of the likes of Marty Markowitz and any number of other low level elected officials, just about everyone at the NY Post and even Chuck Schumer I don’t think I, or anyone else in my “outsider” position, could be faulted for taking Weiner’s remark at face value and becoming understandably alarmed.

  • M

    Or Schumer… who could very well have planted the whole story in revenge for not getting his way on PPW. The timing is highly suspicious.

    The NYT should be above this type of thinly sourced revenge hit job.

  • Glenn

    Didn’t Weiner work for Schumer before he took over his Congressional seat? Schumer is sort of Weiner’s mentor. If Schumer’s working behind the scenes to rip out the PPW lane, You can bet some deal would be in place to get rid of it should he ever get elected Mayor. He might not even really want to do it, but to satisfy his political backers he would do any specific request like that. I would say Weiner’s support for the current wave of innovative bike infrastructure is suspect at best.

  • Westchesterite

    The myth that Grynbaum repeats is that there is no public process to DOT changes. This has been refuted many times, both here at Streetsblog and in the comments to the Grynbaum’s article (#21).

    Those who seem most put off by JSK are the “insiders” like Fidler or the Steisel/Weinshall crowd at PPW. I’m scratching my head as to why. Maybe they don’t like participating in the public process, or they’re not used to it? Remember the PPW hearings, where Steiel got to cut the line of all the other public commenters?

    Grynbaum seems firmly in the insiders’ camp; his articles are less about policy and more about insider-baseball. So why does he represent these insiders? They give him access and a dramatic story, and fodder for the next deadline.

  • gecko

    Bloomberg has no problem going up against the gun lobby and big tobacco. The fossil fuel industry must be next. With demonstrated spine, competence, and integrity; he has science, intelligence, and the future of humanity on his side.

  • Tsuyoshi

    The political class in this city all have cars, and they get free parking. It doesn’t help that voter turnout is extremely low, especially in primary elections, among people without cars.

  • gecko

    Like Harry Potter we are rapidly reaching the inevitable “Valdemort” moment.

  • Chris

    John Del Signore over at the gothamist wastes no time calling Weiner out on his (expletive) remarks.

    http://gothamist.com/2011/03/05/mayor_weiners_first_act_would_aboli.php

  • @Glenn,

    You beat me to it — Rep. Weiner is the political protege of one U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer.

    In my book, anyway, you don’t really qualify as a champion of health care reform if you talk about ripping out bike lanes. So which is it, Congressman? I’m sure Streetsblog would be happy to give you the space to explain your position.

  • Marina

    Ben, wonderful report as usual! I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. Here’s my letter to NYT editor:

    I’m writing in response to Michael M. Grynbaum’s article “For City’s Transportation Chief, Kudos and Criticism”. While I appreciate reading about Ms. Sadik-Khan’s achievements as DOT Commissioner, unfortunately I found this article less than balanced.

    Buried in the article is this sentence: Two-wheeled ridership has doubled during her tenure; European-style rapid-transit buses now ply exclusive, camera-enforced lanes; and fewer people have been killed in traffic accidents on New York’s streets than at any time in the past century, according to city records. I would have loved to see an elaboration on this rather than a long-winded complaint on how Ms. Sadik-Khan is perceived by politicians.

    Mr. Grynbaum could have written about why pedestrian plazas and bike lanes are needed and wanted in New York City, about how much healthier bicycling and walking is than driving for individuals’ health and the environment. How about giving Ms. Sadik-Khan kudos for helping clean up NYC’s air and helping fight obesity by making it safer for people to walk and bike?

    By the way, while I’m not familiar with the process of each new bicycle lane, I know for a fact that the Prospect West bike lane was requested by the local Community Board.

    We have a long way to go in making NYC safe for everyone: pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. It would be great if New York Times can get on board with this admirable goal that Ms. Sadik-Khan has been so tirelessly working towards.

  • tom

    Westchesterite: Bike lanes aside, DoT does not believe in the open inclusive public process. It is not a myth to the people who beg them to put in a needed stop sign, and get ignored. That’s why when bikes lanes came along that was the knee-jerk comment. Even with the bike lanes they were caught being dismissive of the public outcry. They have been forced to be more respectful by all the adverse publicity.

    Gecko: Whose side is God on, you seem to know more about these things?

  • AlexB

    The Weiner comment is very scary. This man could easily be our next mayor. Those bike lanes are an easy target for some crappy politician to score faux-populist points and could easily be ripped up. It happened during the Koch administration. Was Weiner really joking? I don’t know. If something comes from the mouth of someone in power (or someone who could have power) you have to take it seriously. I can’t vote for him and risk it.

    Readers of this blog know that Janette has never put in a bike lane over the objections of a community board, and has taken some out at their request. She is not ignoring constituents or other politicians. The Times article paints a false picture.

    We also know that the recent progress, while wonderful, is not enough. Until there are protected, on street bike lanes extending the length of Manhattan, connecting to every bridge, and radiating deep into the boroughs, the bike network is incomplete. It is very upsetting that the city-wide expansion is starting to stall right now and I wish there were a way to reverse this trend.

  • gecko

    re: tom “who’s side is God on?” Life is intelligence

  • gecko

    . . . And virtually the same. Nature provides everything. You figure it out.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Weiner’s remark at Gracie mansion sounds to me like it was a joke, and nothing else.

    I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of our likely next mayor saying that he’s going to destroy NYC’s new and growing bike infrastructure. And I really hope that hundreds of people are writing letters this weekend to Weiner and the Times. But…

    I do think the commenter above may be on to something. Weiner’s got a pretty strong sense of humor. It’s entirely possible that this was delivered as a laugh line and the Mayor’s response was basically a throw-away.

    We don’t know who the source was for this anecdote. But we do know who the reporter is: It’s Michael Grynbaum. We know that Grynbaum has an axe to grind against the Bloomberg DOT. His transpo reporting has never been straight, it’s always been biased. Insiders also know that Grynbaum’s journalistic practices sometimes border on sleaziness (shenanigans with on- and off-the-record quotes). It would not surprise me at all if Grynbaum, via his unnamed source, pulled this Weiner comment out of context and ginned it up, just like the Post did with JSK’s Ray Kelly quote after the blizzard and the Albany guys did with JSK’s speeding ticket on the Thruway (in fact, lights and sirens were never on) and everyone is doing with this notion that DOT doesn’t solicit community input.

    These are all — let’s call ’em what they are — lies. Granted, they are perceived as true and in politics that’s sometimes all that matters. But Grynbaum and the Paper of Record just presented them as true. So, no, it would not surprise me if Grynbaum also spun-up the Weiner quote and made it into something much bigger and more serious than it was ever intended. This seems to be the little prick’s M.O. He’ll have a New York Post column in no time.

  • Rep. Weiner’s bike lane remark is equivalent to Jesse Jackson’s ‘Hymie Town’, and The kiss of death for his mayoralty hopes

  • mjd

    The facts show that NYC streets are safer for pedestrians, motorists, and bikers under Ms. Sadik-Khan’s tenure. She has got results. The rest is sound and fury, entertaining for sure. Weiner is a smart guy, he used the classic technique of picking a fight with the best to get attention. Attention he got. Anybody who wants attention goes after Ms. Sadik-Khan, bike lanes, etc. Look at Markowitz. It’s a great distraction from his dismal failures, including his stance towards Atlantic Yards. And for the record, rapid bus transit is not European style, it is also Asian and South American style. Call it Global style. The reporting in this article is centered on dramatic conflict, which explains the absence of facts and the abundance of nonattributed quotes. My guess is that the writer is probably a little embarrassed about the content of it, but happy, like Weiner, for the attention.

  • J

    @AlexB, Spot on. I see two cases:

    1) Weiner is serious, in which case he’s lost my vote and the votes of most of the people who read that Times article, judging by the comments recommended by readers.

    2) Weiner made a poor-taste joke in front of the wrong audience and with really poor timing, given the recent media “outrage” and lawsuit threats. In this case, he’s got a pretty poor sense of political judgment, and he needs to quickly get going on the damage-control. Even if it is simply bad political judgment, it still makes me think he’s not that good a candidate for mayor.

  • Or there’s this:

    3) Grynbaum wanted his lede to be something that would grab everyone’s attention, something incendiary even, and that would set the antagonistic tone of the rest of the piece, playing into the media-created meme right now that bike lanes are the 3rd rail of NYC politics and community relations.

    In that he succeeded.

    Instead of a piece on real measurements of street safety, before-and-after comparisons, and other journalistic measurements, he went the NY Post route and instead focused on the political game of it all.

    Chalk it up to yet another opportunity for serious discussion wasted, this time from the Times no less.

  • Aaron Naparstek

    For what it’s worth, the New York Times policy on use of anonymity states:

    “We resist granting anonymity for opinion, speculation or personal attacks.”

    If anyone wants to push it a bit, you can reach the NY Times’ public editor here:

    http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/thepubliceditor/index.html

    I’d also be curious to get his opinion about Grynbaum’s ongoing use of New York Post columnists and reporting as sources in his stories.

    This stuff seems to fall far below the typical standards of the Times.

  • Pure coincidence surely that Rep. Weiner is the second talking head featured in this Onion News Network video clip.

  • J

    @Doug G,

    I agree that Grynbaum likely printed this quote to exploit conflict and drum up readership. However, it’s published now, so I think Weiner now needs to explain the quote as a joke which was printed out of context to drum up readership. Otherwise, we have to assume that he’s completely serious.

  • Oh, totally agree. If it’s all the news that’s fit to print, then Weiner should explain himself. Even if he was just joking, given the hostile media environment this winter, he needs to explain why he thought it was funny.

  • dirtycrumbs

    I sorted the comments following the article by “recommended” and it instantly washed away the bad taste this article left in my mouth. It really sounds like most New Yorkers are on board with JSK’s sensible changes to our streets.

  • dirtycrumbs:
    If oil keeps rising they will. And Weiner will eat those words attributed to him in that article.

  • Alan in SF

    Take a strong, intelligent stand and then sell it out completely? If I didn’t know better I’d say Weiner was a liberal Democrat.

  • vnm

    @ J #33: Re your second scenario, his timing wan’t that bad. The Times is dredging up a remark he supposedly made last June.

  • eddie quillen

    The bike lanes in Manhattan are a disaster; all they do is increase congestion. The biggest joke is the bike lane/pedestrian mall on Broadway near Times Square, which has increased crosstown gridlock immensely. The only people that use the bike lanes on Broadway are riders who go so slowly that most bicyclists use the main drag on on Broadway anyway. Most residents of the area hate the bike lanes because the increased congestion has tremendously increased pollution in an already polluted area. They haven’t improved the quality of life, they, and the mall, have degraded it.

    In midtown West you are more likely to be hit by a bike rider than a car. This minority of bicycle extremists constantly disobey traffic laws and are a hazard to pedestrians. I taught my kids to cross the street with their forearms at the ready to protect themselves from these lunatics.

    The bike lanes in Chelsea are a congestion nightmare, and most residents hate them. The ones that they are going to put in on the upper west side will be hated by most residents also. There are those of us who remember the nightmare when they redid Columbus Avenue some years back; how bad it was to get around on the UWS. This won’t be temporary on a strip that already is very congested. While a vocal minority will like the bike lanes, trust me, the average resident will hate it, like they do the other bike lanes in Manhattan.

    Obviously I’ll be shouted down on this blog, but a bunch of extremists are setting policy here. I hope Weiner wasn’t joking, and would tear up the lanes and islands. Oh, and Weiner was a councilman for years before he took over Schumer’s seat, not Schumer’s assistant.

  • Eddie Reply

    Eddy,

    I am not gonna shout you down, but if you are teaching your kids to cross the streets with your forearms at the ready, that might protect them from bikes, but heaven forbid they get hit a turning car which is about 50x more destructive. And that happens on almost every block in Manhattan every day.

    Also, not sure if you saw one of the most recent articles, but in the last 3.5 years only less than .05% of all the streets in the city have been altered for pedestrians and cyclists. At the very least, if you look at the fact that somewhere over 1% of the cities residents bike (and it can be close to 5% in some nabes where these changes have occurred) then there is hardly an attack on driving in the city.

  • Eddie Reply

    Ooops that should have said: .5%. Less than a half of one percent.

  • gecko

    When you have a chance to look at the congestion you will see only cars.

  • gecko

    #43 Eddie, When you have a chance to look at congestion in this city you’ll see only cars. Most of these cars will have only one passenger and will be greater than ten times he passenger’s weight and the size of at least a very large walk-in armored closet with humongus ridiculously large wheels requiring power steering. And, that dull dopey clueless look . . . would be hilarious except that this stuff is truly life-threatening, expensive, and messing up everything!

  • par4

    A duplicitous politician? That’s rare!

  • IsaacB

    > New York is now seen as a national innovator in progressive transportation policy, emulated by cities all over the country

    …and that’s the problem exactly. The idea that there’s an alternative in American life to having to travel everywhere by car, even for a cup of coffee at the 7-11, that there’s an alternative to every adult having to own a car, essentially paying a “tax” to the car industry and then paying a “house tax” to the housing industry to store that car…

    Is subversive and dangerous.

  • J.J. Hunsecker

    Doug G. – Why is everyone always so surprised that the “vaunted” NY Times lowers its standards when it suits them? They’ve been whores for awhile, just like everyone else.

    Yes, there is good journalism done there. But it’s a business too, and they’re more aware of that now than ever before. The only way a major media organization can survive today is by generating site hits, buzz and outrage.

    With the JSK story, the NYT delivered on all fronts. We’re fuming about it, aren’t we?

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