Looking for a Bold Vision for NYC Streets? De Blasio’s Not Your Guy.

The mayor cares about preventing traffic deaths but has no broader appreciation for how diminishing the primacy of the car on city streets can make life better for New Yorkers.

Not his natural habitat. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Not his natural habitat. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Thanks to Politico for putting its scoop about Mayor de Blasio’s ruminations on the Times Square plazas up for public consumption. It’s a revealing glimpse into what the mayor says in private about one of the city’s most high-profile street transformations.

Sally Goldenberg and Dana Rubinstein take us back to 2015, when de Blasio and then-NYPD chief Bill Bratton, egged on by the tabloid front pages, were seriously considering turning the Broadway plazas in Times Square back into traffic lanes so tourists would no longer be confronted by painted breasts.

Here’s their recap of the FOILed email exchange between de Blasio and former Bloomberg chief of staff Peter Madonia:

Unlike several of his Bloomberg-era colleagues, Madonia, misspelling Sadik-Khan’s name, said the Times Square redesign was a “Bloomberg Jeanette Sadik Khan disaster based on lies that these malls, the bike lanes and street adjustments would reduce congestion.”

“Take it out,” Madonia continued. “No real New Yorkers use it and they hate walking thru it.”

De Blasio responded within half an hour.

“We are on the same wavelength,” he said, according to the emails obtained by POLITICO, via a Freedom of Information Law request. “Now, easier said than done. But very much on the table.”

Yes, because Real New YorkersTM would rather jab and kick their way through the impenetrable crowds of tourists on the old, narrow Times Square sidewalks, while inhaling tailpipe vapor from a hundred idling cars waiting for the traffic lights on Broadway to change.

You could give the mayor the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just humoring an acquaintance, but de Blasio’s unfiltered “wavelength” isn’t that much different from what he was saying in public.

Bratton, at the time, was complaining about Broadway as a “dead end” (which makes no sense if you’re walking), and de Blasio was open to the idea of removing the plazas. Why would anyone who cares about creating a good pedestrian environment even entertain the thought?

Under a different mayor, the realm of possibility for NYC streets would be more expansive. After last month’s motorized rampage that killed one person and injured dozens more, there might be serious discussions at City Hall about turning Seventh Avenue in Midtown into a street for buses and bikes only and limiting traffic on cross-streets to deliveries, so people can walk without worrying about the next random car attack.

De Blasio’s not that mayor. He has a genuine interest in preventing traffic deaths and he’s gone to bat for some important street safety projects. And those accomplishments count for a lot — New York City streets are significantly safer today because the mayor has directed DOT to engineer streets to reduce the risks of motor traffic. But he has no broader appreciation for how diminishing the primacy of the car on city streets can make life better for New Yorkers — that a low-car city is also a more affordable, accessible, productive, and enjoyable city.

If he did, the forthcoming “congestion plan” he’s ordered up would be a traffic reduction strategy that aims squarely at eliminating the city’s enormous and varied subsidies for parking. We’d be putting bus lanes on every avenue and bike corrals at every street corner, instead of sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into ferries. We’d have a working plan for a citywide protected bike lane network and pedestrianized blocks in every neighborhood, instead of a low-ridership streetcar route in development.

In a way, it’s impressive that anything of consequence has changed on de Blasio’s watch, given his general indifference to the experience of walking on city streets. Under a mayor with a stronger vision for a low-car city, much more could get done.

  • Vincent Howland

    Who should I support instead?

  • Reader

    Incredible that an officer at the Rockefeller Foundation, a supposed leader in the campaign to make cities more “resilient,” would advocate returning cars through Times Square. You can’t make this stuff up.
    https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/initiatives/100-resilient-cities/

  • The thing that a lot of people seem to constantly forget is that all the other candidates for mayor have a significantly lesser vision for any sort of urban transportation reform at all. Is anyone truly fantasizing right now about a possible Mayor Quinn “standing up to” Cuomo on MTA woes right now? de Blasio is merely avoiding him; she’d be covering for him.

    And so, there’s a lot to lament, but it seems we’re doing the best we can with the options we’re given.

    It’s a thorny problem but the primary answer is: we need transportation to be a driver of citizen engagement overall, and not just some sort of permanently back-burnered decrepit utility in the eyes of the public. We need to at least DOUBLE the number of NYC residents who are regularly putting time into transportation activism, residents who are literate in the basic issues (e.g. “Does the mayor run the subway, yes or no”). And we need this audience to shape and promote candidates for public office in all corners of the city. Maybe it wouldn’t be too much to ask if the candidates who are earning endorsements had bona-fides in measurable awareness initiatives, rather than just filling out a PAC questionnaire. Right now it seems progress lies in seeing candidates who only themselves have basic literacy of transportation issues, running in races in districts where the average citizen has a profound indifference to politics but a feeling of (angry?) entitlement to decent transit and transportation performance.

    Complaining about de Blasio accomplishes little but getting a small like-minded audience to express gratitude that someone else thinks the mayor is a “bozo”, in tabloid parlance. Bringing up all the stuff that reflects poorly on him is a political intuition trap. Focus on presenting the “better vision” to a wider audience, and taking the small (and tedious) steps to get them there.

  • Communicating to a broad audience is important, but so is holding people in office accountable. Got to do both and de Blasio doesn’t get a free pass just because other candidates in 2013 were worse.

  • People are capable of many things at once. We can lament de Blasio’s shortcomings AND try to engage a broader number of people on these issues. You don’t have to shut up about the former in order to solely concentrate on the latter. That’s a very Dear Leader/Republican mindset.

  • AlexWithAK

    Seems to be an all-too-common disconnect among certain “progressives”. They go on about climate change and the need to change how we do things, but don’t you dare suggest reducing car use or parking. In their mind, “some people just need to drive” and electric cars solve everything. This is de Blasio to a T.

  • It’s about focus, not about doing “awareness” to the exclusion of all other activities.

    And I think it’s totally appropriate to be critical of individual decisions, projects and agencies – ruthlessly so, if need be. We understand de Blasio to be underwhelming because very good, very apt criticism has already been shared. It just needs to graduate to the next step in the activism community. (Not necessarily in the journalism community)

    But activists should know better than to line up behind political personalities anyway, even in the best of situations. The vision for the city and the community needs to be longer than de Blasio’s tenure… and it needs to not necessarily depend on him being the mayor + the one person in control of this. If anyone was truly expecting a full “Vision Zero” execution from this mayor (rather than some combination of lip service + continuing Bloomberg-era evolutions), I’m not surprised that they’re disappointed. But Vision Zero is still a good idea for NYC, and we need not forget about it until 2021.

  • TA and StreetsPAC so they can keep pushing elected officials and candidates for elected office.

  • Thing is, it seems like everyone’s talent on the Internet is to write on quick turnaround about things they do not approve of. (Believe me, I totally understand that.) de Blasio seems to have given a lot of fodder to that kind of writing – the day-to-day PR of his entire administration has been awful, so it’s not just us.

    And yet he’s still the best viable mayoral candidate on transportation issues in 2017. That’s maybe a little outrageous; no one in the political establishment sits on the left of a mayor who takes a daily car service across some of the densest urban areas in the country just to use a gym? The Democratic Party managed to squeeze all the other candidates out of the race when there was never a chance that the Republican frontrunner would get it together? (And the red side of the ballot is doubly ignorant about transit issues) There’s not a single “Subway Ticket” politician promising to organize an effort to reform the MTA?

    So yes, we need more discussions and solutions as to how to make our cause politically relevant and not just a briefly hot topic in the NYT metro section. And to that extent, we need a balance of proactive & reactive measures. The current reality shows that we haven’t done enough proactive stuff in NYC politics.

    And that’s not to reject the last 10 years of progress. Things have improved a great deal. But the lack of coalition building puts the improvements we have already gained at-risk for removal, as we are seeing here. Ripping out the plazas wouldn’t be “on the table” if Bill thought he would seriously erode his political support over it. (Maybe he realized that after the fact. Though I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on it)

  • ohnonononono

    You think Quinn would definitely be worse than de Blasio on this? Remember this? http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/quinn-city-run-subway-bus-systems-article-1.1314375

    Sure, she was grandstanding, just like Bloomberg was, but I’m not so sure she’d be more of a pushover on transit to express fealty to Cuomo. She also had her own BQX idea, but it was BRT, and it’d at least be less expensive and use exclusive lanes: http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2013/07/a-substitute-for-the-three-borough-x-line-as-proposed-by-christine-quinn-000000

    BDB has his own mystifying level of inattention to detail and stubbornness on these issues that is tough to match.

  • I really disagree with your assessment. There’s an entire crop of City Council members who are on board when it comes to these issues. Antonio Reynoso, Carlos Menchaca, Brad Lander, Vanessa Gibson, Ydanis Rodriguez, Mark Levine, Dan Garodnick, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, and many more. There have been City Council hearings on all kinds of livable streets issues and a host of bills to support them, including the ROW law and Tish James’ bill to change the laws surrounding countdown clocks. Even some community boards have become more aggressive in asking for street safety improvements.

    Jon Orcutt once said that the agents of the bikelash sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Their silly arguments brought out tons of people who otherwise might not have paid attention. I’d argue that when the mayor reveals himself to be wildly out of touch, it’s actually quite productive to call him out on it. It shows him that he needs to catch up with the many coalitions that want a city that’s not dominated by cars.

  • JudenChino

    It’s also understated just how close we were to getting Congestion Pricing last time around. It had the support of the Mayor and Council (that’d be easy to get, given the state of congestion) and would’ve passed Albany but for the criminal Shelly Silver. If our Mayor wasn’t a total fucking coward, he could even get Queens CM on board for E. River tolling as part of a comprehensive reformation of tolls on all E River crossings. That’s the thing that pisses me off. The Congestion is insane! As such, the floor for support for congestion pricing/Move NY etc, will be fairly high. The opportunity is there. We just need a modicum of leadership.

  • Exactly. These things are more popular than the mayor realizes. It’s just that the donor/political class he needs doesn’t like them as much as everyone else.

  • J

    Until we have a mayor that uses means other than a car or helicopter, we’re going to see more of crap like this

    De Blasio is the very definition of limousine liberal.

  • J

    Yes! 5 years ago, there was definitely not the pro-bike pro-transit CBs or the city council contingent we have today. Let’s get one of these council members into Gracie Mansion. De Blasio has shown pretty thoroughly that he lacks leadership and vision.

  • J

    yep, and we sure aren’t going to get that leadership from De Blasio

  • J

    Whoa, that’s a scandal. He may not last long after this story.

  • J

    Yep. See John Cassidy, nationally a liberal, but locally the car-advocate equivalent of Charlton Heston.
    http://www.newyorker.com/rational-irrationality/battle-of-the-bike-lanes

  • HamTech87

    Most progressives in the suburbs of NYC don’t even realize there are county bus systems, and they almost never try to imagine themselves in bus riders — or pedestrians’ and cyclists’ — shoes. They know little of the danger and discomfort that comes with not driving.

    The most glaring examples are at MetroNorth stations. The ones with priced parking machines have a ‘shelter’ covering the machines so people using them won’t get wet. And MetroNorth platforms are covered, and the platform shelters are fully enclosed and even have push-button heaters!

    Most bus stops have no shelters from the elements. Most lack pavement to stand on, and are wet mud holes, tick-filled tall weed patches, and snow embankments — got to keep the motorist lanes clear of snow (sarcasm)! In winter, waiting bus riders often must stand in the motor vehicle lane terrified of getting hit by a motorist or truck.

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