Will New Yorkers Elect Our Own Rob Ford in 2013?

As the 2013 mayoral race gradually shudders to life, the city New Yorkers should look to as a cautionary tale is Toronto. It was in Jane Jacobs’ adopted home town that a progressive mayor, David Miller, laid plans to prioritize pedestrian safety, surface transit, and bicycling, only to see his successor Rob Ford assume office, declare an end to “the war on the car,” and proceed to reverse much of the previous administration’s initiatives.

When it comes to transportation policy, will NYC's next mayor be more progressive than Toronto's disastrous Rob Ford? Photo of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NLN_Bill_DeBlasio_01.jpg##WikiMedia##; Photo of Rob Ford: ##http://metronews.ca/voices/ford-for-toronto/319841/ford-accidental-progressive/##Torstar News Service##

So when a 2013 mayoral contender calls the last five years of progress toward safer, more sustainable streets the product of a “radical” approach, as Public Advocate Bill de Blasio did in a David Seifman column this weekend, everyone’s ears should perk up.

De Blasio soft-pedaled his words by framing himself as the “incrementalist” to DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s “radical.” But when you consider how large the city is, the innovative street designs that are making it safer to walk and bike in New York have been rolled out in small increments. Less than one half of one percent of NYC street space had been reallocated to pedestrians, bike lanes, and bus lanes as of last summer.

And there is no tide of public sentiment threatening to undo these changes. The public opinion numbers are unambiguous: New Yorkers have a healthy appetite for the portions of progress that NYC DOT has been serving up the past five years. Every time a polling outfit asks people what they think of these projects — from the 2009 Q Poll about the Times Square plazas right up until yesterday’s Times poll about bike lanes — clear majorities say they approve. If the point of incrementalism is to gradually enact progressive policies without provoking widespread hostility to change, then you can call what DOT has been doing “incrementalism.”

While DOT obtains community board approval for the vast majority of these projects, the process of implementing each one can still be rocky at times. By now, the pattern should be pretty familiar: A city street is redesigned to prioritize biking, walking, buses, or public space, and not everyone is pleased with the effect on traffic lanes, parking spaces, or delivery zones. In some cases, acceptance of the project becomes widespread after an initial adjustment period. In other cases, the city makes changes in response to feedback.

The project that de Blasio cited as an example of Sadik-Khan’s “hell or high water” approach, the Kent Avenue bike lane, is actually a good example of the latter. It arose from plans for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a grassroots transportation project if ever there was one. But when DOT removed parking on Kent Avenue to make room for an interim, painted bike lane, the Williamsburg Hasidic community took issue. So DOT went back and installed a two-way, protected bike lane, converted the street to one-way flow, and restored the parking lanes. Today Kent Avenue is a safe, lively street, a big momentum-builder for the greenway, and a great example of how bike infrastructure can support growing neighborhoods.

If you don’t have the fortitude for any kind of pushback, trial-and-error, or negotiation, then you can just stop trying to improve city streets for transit, biking, and walking. But then you’ll never have a moment like we saw in Jackson Heights last week, where the one-time skeptics of the 37th Road pedestrian plaza came together with Council Member Daniel Dromm to pledge their support and resources to maintain the project. You’ll never produce a success like Kent Avenue or Prospect Park West, never demonstrate how new ways of planning our streets produce tangible safety benefits or better bus service, and never build any kind of constituency to keep moving forward. You might as well declare an end to “the war on the car” and let the status quo — hundreds of annual traffic deaths, buses that crawl along in congested traffic, neighborhoods starved for public space — continue.

In a way, supporters of livable streets should be thanking de Blasio for this eye-opener. No matter how strongly public opinion backs pedestrian- and bike-friendly policies — and every poll indicates that the support is broad — the 2013 race is wide open and there’s just no telling, at the moment, how the next mayor will align on these issues. You can be certain, though, that New Yorkers who want to see continued progress will have to work hard to make their voices heard before next November, and after.

  • Anonymous

    If DeBlasio wants to run as the progressive candidate in 2013, he should take a look at what the members of the Council Progressive Caucus are saying about transportation. Co-chairs Melissa Mark-Viverito and Brad Lander are the city’s staunchest livable streets supporters, and members like Danny Dromm, Julissa Ferreras, and Letitia James aren’t too far behind. Van Bramer, Levin, even Staten Island’s Debi Rose are on board.

    DeBlasio can run as the outer-borough backlash candidate if he chooses. But if he wants to stay true to his position as a man of the left, he needs to get on board with environmentally sustainable and socially equitable transportation policy. 

  • Anonymous

    Who can I vote for that will keep JSK as DOT Commissioner past the end of Bloomberg’s term?  I genuinely can’t think of anything else I’d rather see from the next mayor.

  • car free nation

    Isn’t de Blasio in the pocket of the taxi lobby? 

  • Mark Walker

    I’m with JoshNY. A candidate who promises to keep JSK will get my attention. A candidate who uses the “radical” slur on livable streets is poison. De Blasio will have to do a whole lot of backpedaling to get my vote. I’d rather vote for someone who gets it right the first time.

  • Anonymous

    Every candidate for mayor that I’ve heard of, with the possible exception of Scott Stringer,  is a standard-issue machine-politics troglodyte, generally with painfully regressive attitudes toward transit. I’d be happy if someone could point out that I’m wrong here. Very happy.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “No matter how strongly public opinion backs pedestrian- and bike-friendly policies — and every poll indicates that the support is broad — the 2013 race is wide open and there’s just no telling, at the moment, how the next mayor will align on these issues.”

    Because they believe they only have to pander to the political/union class, and not unduly put out the financial/executive class, to win the primary and ensure their election.  We’ve had five, count ’em five, consecutive Mayoral elections in which there was a real choice on Election Day, when all the serfs show up.

    De Blasio is a shrewed careerist.  He has figured out that the serfs are unlikely to matter in 2013.  And unless a real threat of a candidate who can get on the ballot as an independent arises, he’s likely to be right.

  • I live in Toronto and am not particularly a fan of Rob Ford. It’s silly though to say that he is regressive in terms of transportation. He is PRO-subway, as opposed to lesser transportation like slow, street-running LRT. And even with that, the Eglinton line, which will be street-running LRT at either end, is being built anyways.

    If he were really regressive, he would be against rail transit expansion period.

  • “Less than than one half of one percent of NYC street space had been reallocated to pedestrians, bike lanes, and bus lanes as of last summer.”

    This can’t be repeated enough.  

  • De Lame

    Mr. “9 points” DeBlasio would have had a chance against 30 points Quinn if he hadn’t been so negative about JSK and the great changes she has made.  He still has a shot if he reverses course right now and gets very animated about livable city issues….but I don’t see it happenin’,

    I certainly tell everyone I know to not even consider voting for him and they tell 2 friends and so on and so on. He has no idea how many people he has turned off.  He thinks he has some magic plan, but he isn’t in touch like he used to be back when he first got elected in Park Slope.  My guess is he won’t even make the runoff versus Quinn.

  • @9123d3aeb413a30274bfb06d0d565b76:disqus  But we still don’t know where Quinn stands on livability/walkability/bikability issues. I want her opinion on these issues. 

  • Joe R.

    @742ec67ca99409c49641a2a7b1a1d8f1:disqus Just a guess going by her physical appearance, but I’d say walking and biking don’t rate too high for Quinn. Of course, I’ll allow that I could be wrong.

  • jooltman

    Any “radical” approach that results in the lowest traffic death stats in one hundred years is worth supporting, right Bill?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/30/nyregion/nyc-traffic-deaths-set-100-year-low-mayor-says.html

  • Anonymous

    Can we take a sec to congratulate Ben Fried for a positively brilliant, timely and all-around kickass post? I will anyway: I’m in awe.

  • J

    @9123d3aeb413a30274bfb06d0d565b76:disqus De Blasio has certainly lost my vote. When did safe streets become a radical idea? And will he really appeal to outer borough voters with his Park Slope address and progressive background? Sounds like he just pissed on his base without really gaining much support elsewhere. Not only an asshole move, but not smart politics, either.

  • Miles Bader

    @facebook-523311334:disqus The charge one often sees made against Rob Ford is he’s playing a rather insidious game, by intentionally championing vastly over-expensive and not-so-useful transit projects and strongly resisting more cost-effective and more useful projects, because he knows the former will be rejected, allowing him to kill transit without taking the blame for doing so.

    I don’t know enough about Toronto to say whether that’s true, but it would certainly fit with Ford’s general reputation (“evil, but clever”).

  • De Lame

    I am guessing Quinn will not be a shining beacon on biking or probably even livable streets, but she won’t crap on it either.  Maybe the base could get her doing more on transit though.

    De Lameo on the other hand…..

  • Warren Wilhelm

    Like him or not, Bill is going to be New York City’s next mayor — not Quinn, not Stringer, not Thompson and certainly not Wiener or Liu. So, folks better figure out how to work with him.

  • fj

    The fight against the monopoly of transportation systems based on cars within our communities and public spaces is similar to the fight against big tobacco supported by a very aggressive and destructive minority encouraged and supported by a cash rich effectively socio-pathic select few.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Agreed with LyleLanny. The most progressive position right now is to share the streets with all users and make them safer for all. That’s what JSK/Bloomberg have done well. It will be a hard act to follow.

  • Ex-driver

    Too bad this is a Post article.  It doesn’t really say anything. I’d like to know more about the dialogue he had with TA.  Unfortunately, the article focused almost exclusively on rhetoric.  He criticizes JSK as a “radical” but she’s obviously not staying no matter who the next mayor is.  What’s important is his views on the substance, which weren’t addressed in the article at all.

  • Ex-driver

    Too bad this is a Post article.  It doesn’t really say anything. I’d like to know more about the dialogue he had with TA.  Unfortunately, the article focused almost exclusively on rhetoric.  He criticizes JSK as a “radical” but she’s obviously not staying no matter who the next mayor is.  What’s important is his views on the substance, which weren’t addressed in the article at all.

  • Ex-driver

    @google-9ed3368a6439fa92efd353af4436290d:disqus Rob Ford isn’t that smart.  He likes subways because they are shiny and underground and don’t get in the way of car traffic, and because they boost the values of his developer pals’ property.

  • MD

    I’m not too worried.  Di Blasio has no core convictions and certainly knows how to read polls.  He probably just made a clumsy attempt to reach out to the tabloid editors and cranky driver types.

  • Betsy Gotbaum

    I think it’s safe to say there’s not a single person walking around New York City today wearing an “Official Member BdB Fan Club” t-shirt. I never thought it would be possible for someone to do less with the office of the Public Advocate than I.

  • Xxx

    The public advcoates office is  a disgrace. His office refuses to address bad construction by HPD and other developers.  He refuses to advocate for better housing for his constituents, he refuses to address why the same developers keep getting the same contracts from HPD. He refuses to address the other city agencies where there is obvious corruption right at his finger tips because he seems to have donations from these developers.

  • Thomas040

    please please please don’t take away the bike lanes … oh man i wish some candidate comes along that is as progressive as bloomberg!

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