Vacca Watch: Transpo Chair Stokes Fears of Phantom Bike Lanes on NY1

To borrow from the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, this NY1 segment starring City Council Transportation Chair James Vacca seems to come straight out of the “shrill and embarrassing” early 2011 phase of NYC bike coverage.

Once reporter Michael Herzenberg intones in his best investigative journalist voice that “believe it or not, many of the most controversial lanes were actually part of a city master plan developed under a different administration,” we are well into bizarro land. An NYC where there’s no public opinion data showing 56 percent of voters favor the expansion of the bike network, where one cyclist is presumed to speak for everyone who might ride a bike, and where a document from 1997 — an era when no one ever considered building a protected bike lane on the streets — is controlling the bike policies of today.

And there is the transportation chair, waving at a street and expressing his consternation that it may one day sport a bike lane. Or maybe just bike stencils. Who knows? Yes, it’s on a Giuliani-era map of potential bike routes, but DOT hasn’t actually proposed implementing a bike lane there.

Eventually, we get to the actual news, which is that Vacca has proposed a bill requiring the city to update the bike master plan every five years, starting in 2012. Innocent enough, right? But here’s the bizarro part: Vacca’s bill would compel DOT to estimate, “to the extent practicable,” where every route in the plan would eliminate parking spaces or travel lanes. Safety first.

The fact is that every bike project already goes through the community board process before implementation. Vacca’s bill would add an extraneous layer of bureaucracy to the long-term endeavor of building out a connected network for safe cycling.

Vacca spokesperson Bret Collazzi compared the bill to long-range exercises like the city’s waterfront plan or the school construction authority’s five-year plans. But the waterfront plan is an outline. So is the bike plan — details like configuring the bikeway and determining what happens at the curb don’t get hammered out in a long-range plan.

Collazzi also contended that presenting detailed projections upfront, even for projects that might not get built for decades, is “a more responsible way to do community planning.” He cited the Prospect Park West redesign as an example of a project that would have benefited from Vacca’s approach, since it appears in the master plan as a one-way, un-protected lane. But the PPW process was as community-based as you can get, the result of years of public workshops, meetings, and votes. It was, in fact, the community board that asked DOT to study the two-way protected bike lane that was eventually built.

As it happens, the point about PPW’s place in the 1997 master plan was also raised by none other than former deputy mayor Norman Steisel, a fierce opponent of the PPW project, in an email to DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and copied to Vacca, last fall [PDF]. When Steisel forwarded his message to Marty Markowitz and Iris Weinshall, he said of Sadik-Khan, who worked under him in the Dinkins administration: “she once considered me a mentor, now her tormentor.”

Transportation Alternatives responded to the Vacca bill in a statement:

What’s more valuable: a human life or a parking spot?

Bike lanes save lives. These street safety improvements are proven to reduce fatal crashes by 40 percent for everyone — bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers.

This bill co-opts the already-extensive and participatory community process in order to prioritize the convenience of motorists over everyone’s safety.

There’s just no good reason to single out bike lanes for extra bureaucratic review. Community input in transportation planning is important, that’s why we have Local Law 90, which requires the City to present and take community feedback on all of its bike lane projects.

Duplicating the existing mechanisms for community process and adding the requirement to highlight lost parking is a simply a way to obstruct and slow down life saving street safety improvements. This bill will drown out the voices of ordinary New Yorkers, who are clamoring for these safety improvements by a significant majority.

Collazzi denied that Vacca sought out the cameras, saying that NY1 found out about the bill from someone else. “They came to us,” he said. “We’re not looking to fan the flames of bike hysteria. We’re not in a position where we’re trying to get everyone hyped up about this.” Yet, that is basically what happened, with Vacca starring in a segment that pushes a narrative about the city building “a controversial proliferation of bike lanes.”

Vacca did not share the proposal with NYC DOT before introducing the legislation. Collazzi said Vacca expects to speak with DOT about the bill soon, and plans to hold another bike hearing sometime this year.

The torment continues, apparently.

  • Shemp

    Embarrassing is the word – that people like this get elected in NYC and that you apparently don’t have to go to college to work in “journalism.”  

  • Barb

    The reporter is Michael Herzenberg not John. 

  • Fixed, thanks.

  • Berlin

    Congratulations to Norman Steisel, Iris Weinshall and friends for convincing Jimmy Vacca to treat the 1997 Bike Master Plan like it was some kind of holy document handed down at Mount Sinai on stone tablets.

  • What I don’t get is why isn’t anyone pointing out that that narrow street is too narrow for two way traffic in the first place?  Did you see the car making the turn creep into the oncoming lane, then back?  And it’s “So narrow” and “so dangerous” yet there’s parking on both sides of it, so essentially in a street that really should be single direction, it’s two directions with two parking lanes.

    And a bike lane is the problem.

    Yeah.  Whatever.

    Vacca’s not a bad guy for the most part, but he’s way out in looney Marcia Kramer land on this one.

  • What I don’t get is why isn’t anyone pointing out that that narrow street is too narrow for two way traffic in the first place?  Did you see the car making the turn creep into the oncoming lane, then back?  And it’s “So narrow” and “so dangerous” yet there’s parking on both sides of it, so essentially in a street that really should be single direction, it’s two directions with two parking lanes.

    And a bike lane is the problem.

    Yeah.  Whatever.

    Vacca’s not a bad guy for the most part, but he’s way out in looney Marcia Kramer land on this one.

  • The Spin Guru

    Or log onto a webpage and post a stupid comment

  • Vacca, never one to turn down an opportunity to talk about driving, had a good quote in the Post today too about bridge tolls:  “We may be reaching the point of diminishing returns with the constant toll and fare increase. If they keep raising it further, I’m worried about the impact on jobs. The reality is, some people do have to take their cars to work.”

    More here.

  • I accept that there are reasonable cyclists out there who disagree with me or with the DoT about the design of some recent bike infrastructure, but I can’t accept this guy Lawlor saying that there needs to be more “community input.”  Has he ever even been to a community board meeting? CBs are far from perfect but they are what’s available for people who want input in the process.  

  • Berlin

    The Steisel-Markowitz email exchange is priceless!

    I like how, in a mere nine word description of his relationship with Janette Sadik-Khan, Norman manages to grossly flatter and delude himself two times:

    “she once considered me a mentor, now her tormentor.”

  • Anonymous

    Right, because if they tolled the Brooklyn Bridge at, say, $8 one way, you’d definitely give up your $150,000/year job in Manhattan to avoid driving.

  • krstrois

    Steisel doesn’t write, he oozes. 

  • Vacca rhymes with Caca.  And it is fitting it should.

    Just as Steisel rhymes with pigfcuker.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if any of this ongoing hostility-toward-bikes dialog was rattling around somewhere in the minds of the drivers that have ‘inadvertently’ killed a cyclist.  Nah!  A little bit of ratings from news as entertainment never hurt anyone now did it?

  • Yeah.  They “Have” to drive to Manhattan because otherwise it’s just so inaccessible.

    What a load of crap.

  • JamesR

    This guy will never change. This is what happens when you have a guy from a part of the city that is basically the suburbs making transportation policy. It’s like having someone from Mamaroneck chairing the land use committee. He’ll never see things our way because his New York City and ours are two different places in most of the ways that are germane to bike/ped issues.

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