The NBBL Files: Norman Steisel’s Ideas Became Jimmy Vacca’s Bills

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the fourth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 11, 2011.

This is the fourth post in a series examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first, second, and third installments.

The primary objective of most members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” was clearly to remove the bike lane from Prospect Park West. They didn’t particularly care about bike lanes elsewhere, though they privately cheered every defeat of a sustainable transportation project as a sign that they might wipe out the bike lane in front of their homes. But because the NBBL strategy relied so heavily on impeding NYC DOT bike planning and tarnishing the reputation of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, their parochial crusade ended up empowering opponents of street safety across the city.

Former deputy mayor Norman Steisel and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca.

Nowhere is NBBL’s citywide influence more apparent than in the receptive audience they found with City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. As we reported earlier this year, NBBL leaders including former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall met with Vacca in the run-up to his December, 2010 hearing on bike policy — a harbinger of the bikelash that peaked later that winter. Communications obtained by Streetsblog indicate that NBBL not only influenced Vacca’s oversight hearings, they also managed to insert their ideas into his legislation.

Messages from bike lane opponent Norman Steisel reveal a close link between his crusade to thwart bike projects with red tape and two bills introduced in the City Council this June by Vacca.

In mid-February, Steisel, a former sanitation commissioner and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins, wrote a lengthy letter to Vacca and City Council Member James Oddo on the topic of bike planning. The letter was triggered by Oddo’s proposal to subject all bike lanes to environmental review, a suggestion that environmental law experts called a waste of taxpayer money. Some of Steisel’s suggestions ended up in two bills Vacca introduced this summer, which are still under consideration in his committee.

“Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes.”

– PPW bike lane opponent Louise Hainline, December 2010

In the February letter, Steisel put forward a number of recommendations to impede the city’s bike planning process, many of which were gleaned from his personal campaign to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane. For instance, Steisel wrote that bike lanes should be planned with the “historic character” of the surrounding neighborhood in mind (the appearance of the bike lane on PPW chafed at NBBL members’ aesthetic sensibilities). At the same time, he argued that the traffic-calming effect of bike lanes should not be taken into consideration (it irked bike lane opponents to hear that the PPW redesign was implemented to reduce speeding).

Steisel’s knowledge of New York City government runs deep, and his letter reads like the wish list of someone who wants to see bike projects mired in bureaucracy for years.

“I propose that the City Council enact legislation that would require the development of an updated citywide master plan for bike paths,” Steisel wrote. Later, he elaborated that “an effective citywide planning process must involve, in addition to NYC DOT, the Community Boards, the Borough Boards (and Borough Presidents), the City Council, and the Department of City Planning and Planning Commission… In addition, other governmental agencies (among them, Police, Fire/EMS, Sanitation, Education, Health and Hospitals, Parks, Economic Development, Landmarks, and the Art Commission) should participate.”

Many of the agencies Steisel listed, including NYPD and FDNY, are already consulted on individual bike projects and other DOT safety improvements that alter the geometry of a street. But his proposals would have shackled bike planning to complex, politically-fraught procedures and drowned the process in an alphabet soup of additional city departments. Steisel believed that several agencies he wanted to draw into bike planning decisions — including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the City Planning Commission and the Art Commission (now the Public Design Commission) — were “kindred spirits” of the bike lane opponents in NBBL.

After sending Vacca his letter, Steisel wrote to Weinshall — bike lane opponent, former DOT Commissioner and wife of Senator Chuck Schumer — telling her that Vacca was interested in his ideas. “Vacca implied he’d like to discuss,” wrote Steisel.

Steisel’s ideas surfaced in two Vacca bills introduced on June 29. The first requires the city to update the bicycle master plan every five years and compels DOT, before finalizing that plan, to consult with NYPD, FDNY, the Department of Small Business Services, the Mayor’s Office for Persons with Disabilities, community boards, borough presidents and council members. The bill also requires the bike master plan to quantify how many motor vehicle lanes and parking spaces would be removed under the plan, a level of specificity poorly suited to master planning but well-calibrated to stir up opposition.

The second bill requires DOT to consult with the same list of agencies whenever it undertakes a “major transportation project,” defined as one that adds or removes parking or motor vehicle lanes over more than a few blocks.

Vacca’s bills contain some remarkable similarities to Steisel’s proposals, though the legislation differs in significant ways from the procedural barriers imagined by the former deputy mayor. The two bills don’t touch on environmental review, as Steisel suggested, and they are more concerned with parking, a Vacca obsession. Jeff Lynch, Vacca’s chief of staff, told Streetsblog over email that Steisel “had no role in either bill.”

But it is clear that Vacca took Steisel and Weinshall seriously. Fellow NBBL leader Louise Hainline wrote in December 2010 that the transportation committee chair was especially receptive to their entreaties: “Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes.” Both Steisel and Weinshall were in frequent contact with Vacca before the February letter was sent, communicating by phone and email in the days before Vacca’s December bike hearing. The two bike lane opponents also sat down face-to-face with Vacca at least twice — once before the hearing and once in January 2011, at a meeting attended by City Council Member Steve Levin. And when Streetsblog asked Vacca’s office how he could justify the red tape in the master planning bill, his staff cited the PPW bike lane as a project that would have benefited from the extra bureaucracy.

The appearance of these two bills a few months after Steisel sent his letter shows NBBL’s ability to inject ideas into the legislative agenda of Vacca’s committee.

  • Dean Hainline

    Iris Weinshall on the idea of installing loading zones to facilitate deliveries and not cause double-parking:

    “…we could not afford to loose [sic] more parking spots…”

    Safety?  Not a concern. 

    Thanks, Mrs. Schumer!

  • Democracy in action.

  • Democracy in action.

  • J

    Steisel is way more shrewd than Hainline, and he doesn’t reveal his true opinions and intentions via email.

    Still, is there any precedent anywhere for cities to be required to update a bicycle master plan every 5 years? It seems ridiculous and an obvious way to saddle the city with unnecessary regulation. Portland, which is widely regarded as the most bike-friendly city in the US, updated their 1996 master plan in 2010, a 14 year gap between plans. Given that the NYC plan was done in 1997, perhaps it is time to think about updating it, if needed, but every 5 years is absurd.

    Also, it’s ironic (and not at all surprising) that people who ignored the public planning process for
    years are attempting to create an even more involved planning process. Then, they can continue to ignore it and then sue when it (inevitably) doesn’t go their way.

    The parking and lane estimate is a non-starter. No one does this anywhere, and it would basically require the city to design every single bike lane all at once. This would be a ridiculous and unmanageable task, which goes directly against NBBL’s own idea that “circumstances have to guide design”. You can’t possibly design hundreds of miles of bike lanes at the same time and expect them to be tailored to specific community concerns in each location. It’s a ridiculous and completely transparent move by Vacca via Steisel.

  • J

    Steisel is way more shrewd than Hainline, and he doesn’t reveal his true opinions and intentions via email.

    Still, is there any precedent anywhere for cities to be required to update a bicycle master plan every 5 years? It seems ridiculous and an obvious way to saddle the city with unnecessary regulation. Portland, which is widely regarded as the most bike-friendly city in the US, updated their 1996 master plan in 2010, a 14 year gap between plans. Given that the NYC plan was done in 1997, perhaps it is time to think about updating it, if needed, but every 5 years is absurd.

    Also, it’s ironic (and not at all surprising) that people who ignored the public planning process for
    years are attempting to create an even more involved planning process. Then, they can continue to ignore it and then sue when it (inevitably) doesn’t go their way.

    The parking and lane estimate is a non-starter. No one does this anywhere, and it would basically require the city to design every single bike lane all at once. This would be a ridiculous and unmanageable task, which goes directly against NBBL’s own idea that “circumstances have to guide design”. You can’t possibly design hundreds of miles of bike lanes at the same time and expect them to be tailored to specific community concerns in each location. It’s a ridiculous and completely transparent move by Vacca via Steisel.

  • Glenn

    Why didn’t Iris just call the one person with actual control over the situation? You know, her former boss, Mayor Bloomberg…all this effort on the legislative and judiciary aimed at making her former boss do something seems highly irregular.

    This also only confirms the bias of NBBL toward an onerous insider driven policy making process, ignoring the demands of the broader community in the local area and across the city.

  • It’s pretty clear that the NBBL people want to fight a war of attrition. It’s time for them to take some incoming. Iris should see the sidewalk outside her building chalked with “SHAME ON YOU, IRIS” every day. 

  • PPW’er

    Lois Carswell’s email that the removal of the Father Capodanno bike lane “makes me very happy…and gives me hope” is both the saddest and most vile thing I’ve seen so far.  Her hope comes at the expense of some of Staten Island’s most vulnerable commuters.

    Better bike lanes, my ass.

  • Park Slope Parent

    It’s pretty clear that the NBBL people want to fight a war of attrition.

    I’m more than happy to fight a war of attrition with 70-year-olds like Carswell and 300-pounders like Steisel. If it’s just a matter of sticking around the longest — I think we win that war.

  • Daphna

    Thank you to Noah and Streetsblog for doing this kind of reporting! I appreciate that you combed through all those emails that resulted from your FOIL requests at CUNY.

    It is absurd that Jimmy Vacca is chair of the City Council Transportation Committee.  Vacca lives in the most remote northeastern area of the Bronx: City Island.  City Island is an island in the middle of the Long Island Sound.  His perspective is that of a neighborhood that is the most atypical in the whole city.  I think whoever is the Transportation Committee chair should represent a district that is more representative of how the majority of New Yorker’s live and and travel.

  • Cygmund Freud

    Going through Norman Steisel’s obsessively lengthy letters to City Hall, I’m struck by the sheer volume of faulty assumptions and raw misinformation. So much of what he writes is simply, factually wrong. It is staggering that purportedly professional journalists like Michael Grynbaum at the NYT leaned so heavily on Steisel as a source. 

    Steisel seems to assume that the 1997 Bicycle Master Plan is some sort of binding, governing document, frozen in time. It’s like Norman is an urban planning “originalist” and the bike lanes drawn up in 1997 by the founding fathers of bike lanes are the only legitimate bike lanes and the City may never deviate from that plan. It’s just bizarre. Who would ever advocate doing city planning in this way?

    And check out the attached snippet in which Steisel tells Council members Vacca and Oddo that Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue bike lane is “only a ‘shared route’ rather than an actual bike lane.” That’s wrong. That’s not true. That’s contrary to actual facts that Norman could easily observed the bike lane for himself if he ever actually parked his Cadillac and walked around down on Fifth Avenue for a minute.

    Frankly, it’s just bizarre. The deeper we get into Norman Steisel, Iris Weinshall, Louise Hainline, Lois Carswell and Jim Walden’s smoke-filled back-room, the more pathological this all seems. Previously, I thought the PPW-fueled tabloid bikelash of 2010 could be explained by politics. But the more I read, the more it seems we need a psychological explanation for all this. There is something wrong inside these people’s heads.

  • Cygmund Freud

    Going through Norman Steisel’s obsessively lengthy letters to City Hall, I’m struck by the sheer volume of faulty assumptions and raw misinformation. So much of what he writes is simply, factually wrong. It is staggering that purportedly professional journalists like Michael Grynbaum at the NYT leaned so heavily on Steisel as a source. 

    Steisel seems to assume that the 1997 Bicycle Master Plan is some sort of binding, governing document, frozen in time. It’s like Norman is an urban planning “originalist” and the bike lanes drawn up in 1997 by the founding fathers of bike lanes are the only legitimate bike lanes and the City may never deviate from that plan. It’s just bizarre. Who would ever advocate doing city planning in this way?

    And check out the attached snippet in which Steisel tells Council members Vacca and Oddo that Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue bike lane is “only a ‘shared route’ rather than an actual bike lane.” That’s wrong. That’s not true. That’s contrary to actual facts that Norman could easily observed the bike lane for himself if he ever actually parked his Cadillac and walked around down on Fifth Avenue for a minute.

    Frankly, it’s just bizarre. The deeper we get into Norman Steisel, Iris Weinshall, Louise Hainline, Lois Carswell and Jim Walden’s smoke-filled back-room, the more pathological this all seems. Previously, I thought the PPW-fueled tabloid bikelash of 2010 could be explained by politics. But the more I read, the more it seems we need a psychological explanation for all this. There is something wrong inside these people’s heads.

  • Cygmund Freud

    A lobbyist — Norman Steisel — works with a City Council member — Jimmy Vacca — to write some legislation. That’s not huge news.

    Here’s the news:

    At the same time that Norman Steisel and Jimmy Vacca were participating in this secretive, smoke-filled back-room type of lobbying activity they were complaining so loudly about lack of public process and accusing bike advocates, Community Board members, Brad Lander’s staff and DOT personnel of participating in smoke-filled back-room lobbying activity.

    And, yet, we now know the exact opposite to be true: The process that led to the redesign of PPW took place entirely in public view at numerous public meetings over the course of a number of years. Steisel and friends did much of their work, we now see, in secret.

  • Carl Jung

    Cygie, not only does Steisel leave out the fact that 2nd Street itself “disappears” at 4th Avenue (not just the bike lane), he also fails to mention that it ends just a block from the Third Street lane that takes cyclists to the Smith Street lane en route to the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.  And not only does he fail to accurately characterize Fifth Avenue (which is not a bad route in the morning), but he “forgets” to mention that Fifth Avenue’s Class II lane (prior to its northerly Class III portion) is precisely the kind of “better” bike lane he and his comrades claim would like to see replace the safer, protected Class I lane on PPW.

  • Cygmund, Bloomberg has banned smoke-filled rooms, so how do you expect influential politicos to conduct their behind-the-scenes machinations?  By going out and doing actual research and taking logical, fact-based positions? By updating their thinking beyond 1997? Pshaw!

    It’s enlightening to know that barroom beers between radical pro-EBL lobbyists and DOT staffers is crystal clear evidence of collusion, but secret meetings, emails, and direct phone calls between former city officials and the head of the City Council Transportation Committee are just old fashioned good governance.

    Also, hats off to Norman Steisel for uncovering a fiendish plot involving DOT’s enlisting of TA’s Brooklyn volunteer committee to gin up support for various bike lane projects.  This effort was so secretive, in fact, that TA posted the meeting’s minutes ON ITS OWN WEBSITE!  Thank goodness for concerned neighborhood activists like Norman Steisel, or anyone without knowledge that the internet existed might never have found out!

  • Anonymous

    Cygmund and Carl: Not only that, but he states that his source – RideTheCity.com – is “the DOT’s web site.” Apparently, Steisel can’t distinguish that simply linking to a web site doesn’t make it the product of the DOT.

  • IsaacB

    Having watched this for a while, I keep wondering, what motivates the NBBL people and their allies? Is this a personal vendetta? Is this just about “my back yard”? Or ar these people working for some larger cause in the shadows…to stop the progress that NYC has made in setting a world-class example of a city that puts the lie to the notion that you must buy and drive a car to be a first-class citizen?

  • IsaacB

    Having watched this for a while, I keep wondering, what motivates the NBBL people and their allies? Is this a personal vendetta? Is this just about “my back yard”? Or ar these people working for some larger cause in the shadows…to stop the progress that NYC has made in setting a world-class example of a city that puts the lie to the notion that you must buy and drive a car to be a first-class citizen?

  • MelRosa

    Is it me? Or is Weinshall working harder now that she’s not DOT comish?  To boot, she’s working hard at saying “Remember me?”  I don’t remember her doing anything significant when she was in her position at DOT.  

    It’s a pity, too. BC she could take that energy and start working hard at her position in CUNY, instead of wasting the resources for that department..,

  • PPW’er

    IsaacB, it’s both.  Surely Carswell and Hainline’s only dog in this fight is that it’s “their” frontyard, although Hainline may be having such delusions of grandeur right now from her flirtations with the halls of power, it may have developed into a larger campaign for her.  (I don’t have a Ph.D in psychology, so I can’t really say.)  Steisel’s letter to Oddo is so all over the map that he’s clearly more about discrediting Bloomberg and his former assistant, Sadik-Khan, than some silly bike lane.  He’s said as much: “This is about how the Bloomberg administration operates.”  Interestingly, Steisel’s actions today speak volumes about how the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations operated.

    For Weinshall it seems to be a little of both.  She can’t “afford to loose more parking spots,” but it can’t help that her successor is being lauded around the country and the world for her innovation, safety record, and the obvious legacy she’ll leave on this city.

    I was only vaguely aware of Iris Weinshall before all this bike lane business; I certainly didn’t realize she was Chuck Schumer’s wife.  In a strange way, Prospect Park West has done more to make Iris Weinshall a household name in transportation circles than her work as DOT commissioner ever did.  How about that for a legacy?

    If Weinshall really wanted to salvage her reputation — and her daughter’s, and her husband’s — she could call this whole thing off.   I’m sure she could care less about any actual NBBL members; most of them are small potatoes compared to the senior senator from New York.  Come on, Iris, get Chuck on the phone to Randy Mastro and pull the plug.  You can do it!

  • Andrew Barberi

    @MelRosa: You may not remember Iris Weinshall doing anything significant at NYC DOT but the families of the 11 people who died on the Staten Island ferry in 2003 sure do:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/2005/12/30/2005-12-30_report_rips_city_commish___a.html

    THE CAPTAIN WHO FELL ASLEEP at the helm of a Staten Island ferry
    deserves only three months in jail for the 2003 accident that killed 11
    passengers – while bureaucratic bigwigs bear the “lion’s share” of
    blame, a blistering new report charges.

    A federal probation
    official recommended just a wrist slap for ex-ferry Capt. Richard Smith
    and former ferry director Patrick Ryan, while blasting city
    Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall.

    “The DOT
    commissioner and her deputies exercised inadequate oversight of the
    ferry service management,” Tony Garoppolo, chief probation officer for
    the Eastern District, wrote in a scathing presentencing report for Smith
    and Ryan.

    …He concluded “the lion’s share of culpability” for the Oct. 15,
    2003, crash of the Andrew J. Barberi, which killed 11 people and injured
    hundreds more, rests with DOT higherups who caused “a dangerous,
    systemic breakdown in New York City ferry operations.” Victims’
    relatives were outraged by the light sentence recommendations – as well
    as charges that high-ranking DOT officials also fell down on the job.

    “We haven’t been happy with anything so far as to who’s been
    prosecuted and what they’re getting,” said Debra Canini, whose husband,
    Pio, was among those killed.

    The report particularly scorches
    Weinshall and her handpicked deputy commissioner for ferry services,
    Joseph Albano, whose background was in traffic signals and streetlights.
    “Albano should never have been in the position of running the ferry service,” Garoppolo wrote.

  • Anonymous

    1: Great reporting, Streetsblog!  This has been a highly entertaining series to read, and stunning how it has pretty much confirmed or exceeded my most cynical visions of what goes on behind the scenes in city politics.

    2: Andrew: Weinshall is quite the competent achiever isn’t she?

    3: Freud:  Your diagnosis is correct.  I was at what I think was their first meeting, held on the grass strip next to PPW, advertised by flyers under windshield wipers.  From the get-go, more cyclists showed than NBBLers, and I’m sure that is one reason they went underground immediately. The vibe at the meeting was very strange, and the cabal seemed really worked up, wild-eyed and emphatic. I’m sure they believe every single thing they’ve told themselves.  It had the vibe of a vigilante mob more than a group of people interested in improving their community.  Whatever larger issues are in play, there is a certain amount of sheer kookyness at the core.

  • Joe

    The real story here is how CUNY is subsidizing opposition to Bloomberg’s bike lanes, although the CUNY trustees have taken no formal position.  Iris Weinshall has stolen lots of time from her duties to CUNY and lots of CUNY’s computer and phone resources to improve the value of her and Chuck’s apartment.  The same goes for all of the CUNY employees engaged in this caper.  If Noah and Streetsblog wanted to make an impact, press the inspector general and the ethics commission to investigate and punish Iris and her colleagues for their theft.

  • Warren Lewis

    Joe, I think Iris Weinshall and Louise Hainline have hurt, not improved, the value of their apartments.  If I were a prospective buyer and took a look at something in 9 PPW, the minute I learned about these meddling neighbors I’d head for the hills, or at least a comparable condo.  If these are the types of people involved with the co-op board, how easy is it going to be if I need to do a renovation or — gasp — try to get a bike storage room installed in the basement?  No thanks.

    Still, the abuse of CUNY resources is astounding.  It should not go unnoticed, nor should it go unpunished.

  • Stevel

    This is a fantastic piece of reporting; Iris Weinshall shall be cursing the fact that she used her work email address for years to come -as should anyone who is caught in these emails working her side in private while saying something in public.

    I think the people that come out the worse are the press. It will be interesting to see how it gets covered by CBS news, for example…

  • Bronx

    By the way Vacca sent his daughter to the City Island school….but he lives in Silver Beach a gated community where he has fought to keep bicycle lanes away from. He helped trunkcate the greenway at the future Golf Course and routes the annual tour d’Bx up lafayette and through to the PB Park without coming near the TN Peninsula. He has referred to the bike P’s as “outsiders” “undesirables” and has expressed distain for them while removing pamphlets from his CB10 desk when District Manager

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