Torres: DOT “Abdicating Its Public Safety Function” to Community Boards

Council Member Ritchie Torres has a proposal to survey community board demographics in an effort to promote more accurate and diverse representation. Among other information, the survey would reveal the share of community board members who own cars, which tends to be much higher than car ownership among the general public.

Council Member Ritchie Torres. Photo: William Alatriste
Council Member Ritchie Torres. Photo: William Alatriste

Torres, who represents neighborhoods in the central Bronx, says getting a clearer sense of car ownership on community boards is a key goal of the bill (Intro. 1046). In fact, the legislation is the first piece in a “personal crusade” to change the way DOT defers to community boards on street safety, he told Streetsblog on a phone call yesterday. Highlighting the out-sized representation of car owners on community boards is just the beginning.

Torres said no other city agency besides DOT lets community boards decide the fate of public safety projects. With DOT letting the whims of car-owning community board members take precedence over public safety, Torres is concerned that important improvements will fall by the wayside.

In his district, he asked DOT to include bike lanes in a redesign of Tremont Avenue, which he expects to generate some pushback from the community board. But if parking and traffic are the community board’s primary concerns about the redesign, that won’t be an accurate reflection of the area’s public safety needs.

Here’s a short Q&A with Torres about his bill, lightly edited for length.

In April, at a hearing on community board term limits, you said that, “the real issue is not whether there should be term limits, but why do we allow community boards to be stumbling blocks to safe streets? We don’t require community board approval when we’re making decisions about fire safety or policing policy. It’s a matter of reminding DOT that your first obligation is not to appease the community board. It is to do what has been empirically shown to prevent traffic violence on our streets.” What drove you to propose this legislation — and to include car ownership as one of the surveyed demographic points?

When I think of community boards, the phrase that comes to mind is “personnel is destiny.” I would argue that outsized representation of car owners leads to over-representation of opponents of safe streets. I would argue that community boards have become the cult of car ownership. We have a personnel problem on our community boards.

Street safety shows that demography matters and the demographic conflict between community boards and their districts has negative effects on public safety. I don’t object to notifying community boards. DOT is so terrified of community boards that it has effectively made a policy of abdicating its public safety function under the guise of community engagement. In community boards, you have people who function as self-representatives. The premise of this legislation is that the community boards can be deeply unrepresentative of the communities they are in.

How would you like to see the city’s community board system change and how is this bill a part of that process?

Most of my ire is directed towards DOT because DOT is far too deferential to community boards. How many people have to die before the agency realizes that sacrificing safe streets makes for terrible public policy? I’m exploring a legislative strategy for eliminating DOT’s deference to community boards on safe streets. This legislation is the first part of a personal crusade.

What is your position on the mayor’s proposed elimination of parking minimums from affordable housing developments within one-half of a mile of public transit?

The dollars wasted on unused parking should go to housing. Most of my constituents who come to me care more about affordable housing than parking.

  • The District 15 part of East Tremont Avenue, between Grand Concourse and Arthur Ave, could really use bicycle lanes in both directions as it is one of the few streets that cross the Harlem Line railroad tracks. There is also a lot of traffic interchanging with I-95, which is a couple short blocks away.

  • DRDV

    Too soon to start the Torres for Bronx Borough President campaign?

  • Kristi Roberts

    Fantastic. I’m a novice to the community board scene. I went to a meeting of CB9, because I heard about the safety redesign of Broadway and wanted to add my support. It was my first CB meeting ever. DOT was there for a second presentation, and after the rancorous reception, said they’d redesign and present yet another time. After the meeting, I went out to the DOT official and asked him why? Why didn’t they just go for it and redesign the street? He sidestepped my question, said something about having pushed through another Harlem project without support and it costing them good will. Leading me to think again, “well, so what?” At the CB9 meeting I kept hearing how “this neighborhood is different.” Of course it’s not. Why should safety improvements that work downtown somehow fall short uptown? Why should safety projects be fragmented? The DOT should have the mandate to make improvements across the city wherever they see fit. Kudos to Torres.

  • Ritche Torres for mayor.

    This is exactly the approach a safe streets advocate in City Council should be taking.

  • Also, “Most of my constituents who come to me care more about affordable housing than parking.”

    That should be a mantra around the city.

  • Omykiss

    This is great

  • QueensWatcher

    I am a Community Board member and I totally support this and would be happy to fill out such a survey. I would say though that survey questions need to involve more than “do you own a car.” I own a car. My dirty secret is that I rather enjoy driving, but that car gets shared between 3 families, I pay to park it, and I don’t use it to travel the couple miles to my CB meeting each month. After the meeting I am joined by only a couple fellow Board members down on the subway platform even though Queen’s best subway lines run right through the middle of the district and where we meet sits above an E, F express stop. So a couple questions focused on mass transit/bike use should be part of the mix also.

  • BBnet3000

    Deferential unless the CB asks for cycling improvements. Then the excuses start.

  • CB Watcher

    DOT needs to grow a spine, and CB members better start
    representing their communities or they’re going to wake up one day and find
    they have no one to represent.

  • Ollie Oliver

    At Manhattan CB 7 Transportation Committee earlier this week, a member of the board (but not the committee) said from the audience that losing affordable parking is the same as losing affordable housing. You can’t make this stuff up.

  • Joe R.

    I wasn’t aware that NYC had an epidemic of homeless cars. Seriously, stuff like this is exactly why the general public shouldn’t be involved at all in matters of traffic engineering, other than perhaps to point out unsafe streets to DOT so they can be fixed.

  • AnoNYC

    Physically separated bicycle lanes at that. East Tremont Avenue is already a wide street. I would also love to see bus only lanes. Cross-town trips are a nightmare in the Bronx for all modes of transportation.

  • Maggie

    whoa – I had no idea that comment came from a member of the board. Wow.

  • Ollie Oliver

    I was under the impression that the reason he was being called on to speak was that they were taking feedback and a vote/straw poll of members in attendance who were not on the transportation committee.

  • AlexWithAK

    I really think it’s a relic of the backlash against mid 20th Century urban planning. People were rightly tired of their neighborhoods being ripped apart and their history being erased. They rose up against the forces of “urban renewal” and the heavy hands of Robert Moses and his ilk to stop them from destroying their neighborhoods.

    The irony is that the same sentiment that stopped highways from being build across Manhattan now manifests itself as resistance to bike lanes and street redesigns that improve safety. After successfully and rightly stopping urban renewal, people carried forward a notion that they have the right to stop ANY changes that they disapprove of. Of course that’s taking it much too far but it explain some of the crazy hyperbole you hear from these people. But to the rest of it, it’s clear a bike lane taking away a car lanes is NOT the same as a highway taking away blocks of urban homes.

  • Reader

    What’s crazy is that that line should be spoken by Mayor de Blasio instead of a new member of the City Council. The mayor is really out to lunch on this issue.

  • Bernard Finucane

    My sister parked a junk car (reported stolen in TN) on the streets of Manhattan for years.

    It’s what we call a “yard car” where I come from. A man can’t hardly live without no yard car.

  • Joe R.

    That sentiment is understandable when neighborhoods are being ripped out completely to make way for a highway. It might even be understandable when developers want to replace historical buildings with glass boxes. That said, part of the essence of NYC is constant change. People can’t expect their neighborhoods to remain exactly the same forever. And to some people, any change, even if it benefits the majority, is seen as bad. I suspect that’s the cause of some of what these people say. They don’t want bike lanes because they don’t want bikes in their neighborhood. The reason for that might simply be because bikes weren’t in their neighborhood much 40 or 50 years ago. Moreover, they see a bike lane as something not benefiting them personally.

    But to the rest of it, it’s clear a bike lane taking away a car lanes is NOT the same as a highway taking away blocks of urban homes.

    It’s not even remotely similar. The most disruptive kind of bike infrastructure I can envision might be a bike viaduct above the street. Even that wouldn’t necessarily be a visual blight if done right, it wouldn’t block out sunlight like a highway or an el, it wouldn’t be noisy, and most importantly it wouldn’t cut a neighborhood in two, or require razing buildings. And that’s a worst case scenario. A bike lane at street level if anything makes the street safer to cross.

  • AlexWithAK

    Yup. I’m guessing the strong residual sentiments of protecting one’s neighborhood combined with a loss of perspective due to the passage of time lead to this kind of hard line resistance. That and human resistance to change.

    Of course all this is why the city can’t simply bow down to these voices when making safety improvements. A balance needs to be found between communities having too much and too little power. And of course that doesn’t even begin to address the problem of Community Boards not actually being representative of the community. But it informs how to approach them.

  • dporpentine

    How many people have to die before the agency realizes that sacrificing safe streets makes for terrible public policy? I’m exploring a legislative strategy for eliminating DOT’s deference to community boards on safe streets. This legislation is the first part of a personal crusade.

    I feel like I’m hearing my own language spoken by another person for the first time.

  • AMH

    So glad Torres is speaking out on this. It’s great to see an official with some cajones.

  • HamTech87

    “Torres said no other city agency besides DOT lets community boards decide the fate of public safety projects.”

    I think NYC Parks does this too. Just look at the stalemate around paving of the Putnam Trail in Bronx Van Cortlandt Park, where cyclists can’t use the trail due to its muddy mess and overcrowding bushes. These cyclists divert to far more dangerous streets. As for separated bike lanes on the alternative streets? The CBs ask: where would people park?

  • neroden

    If he were a lawyer (I think he isn’t), I’d propose Torres for Bronx DA.

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