DOT Culture: Stifling Innovation on NYC’s Streets?

weinshall.jpgUpon re-reading this morning’s Times article on the new pedestrian countdown timers, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at this statement DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall made at yesterday’s pedestrian countdown press conference. As reported:

Mayor Bloomberg has been a fan of the countdown signals, but Iris Weinshall, the city’s transportation commissioner, had some doubts. "The mayor for a number of years has talked to me about countdown signals," she said at the news conference yesterday. "He saw them in other cities. It was, I think, a very good exchange back and forth as to whether we should put them up or not."

Granted, this is an off-the-cuff remark describing a brief snapshot of dialogue between Mayor and Commissioner but here’s the impression you come away with: The Mayor of New York City asks his Transportation agency to try out a new tool on New York City’s streets. This isn’t a cranky neighborhood association, advocacy group or blogger nagging DOT — this is the Mayor of New York City putting in his request to DOT.

Now, the Mayor isn’t asking Weinshall to try out some new traffic calming measure requiring a physical redesign of streets, or dedicated bus and bike lanes requiring DOT to take street space away from cars, or congestion charging requiring the elimination of the decades-old entitlement of free motoring. Mayor Bloomberg is simply asking DOT to try out a new kind of traffic signal. Yet the Mayor apparently had wait "a number of years" before DOT was willing to run a simple, $186,000 trial at five intersections using technology common to urban innovation hotspots like Baltimore, Detroit and Albany.

I hate to pile on when it is clear that DOT is finally starting to try to do some good new things. But you have to ask: Why is it so difficult for New York City to innovate and experiment with new ideas for its streets and public spaces? How will the authorities responsible for New York City’s urban environment respond with the urgency and scale demanded by climate change, oil depletion and maintaining competitiveness in a global economy when it takes years of "back and forth" to get pedestrian countdown timers set up at five intersections?

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