Pedestrian Interference



Left to right: New York City Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner/Senior Policy Advisor David Woloch, Commissioner Iris Weinshall, a procurement and technical servicea aide and City Councilmembers John Liu and Gale Brewer.

As I saw it, the three big bullet points to come out of yesterday’s City Council Transportation Committee hearing on Intro. 199, the Traffic Information & Relief Bill were as follows:

  • DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall expressed unequivocal opposition to Intro. 199. See below for her reasons. She also told a Newsday reporter that New York City’s traffic congestion is more an issue of public perception than a transportation policy and management problem. New York City traffic congestion, the Commissioner says, only seems worse than it ever has been. 
  • Councilmember Daniel Garodnick announced mid-hearing that he would sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill. Garodnick’s support tips the balance of the Transportation Committee in favor of Intro. 199 and ensures that the bill can move to a full Council vote. With 24 co-sponsors, the bill is two votes shy of passage and 11 votes short of a veto-proof majority. Still, it is hard to imagine that Mayor Bloomberg will allow City Council to pass this kind of legislation. Expect some sort of pre-emptive action from the other side of City Hall. 
  • DOT Deputy Commissioner Michael Primeggia provided the day’s highlight when he used the traffic engineering term "pedestrian interference" in describing how a street’s "Level of Service" is calculated. What a priceless glimpse in to the profession of traffic engineering and the mind of the man who, essentially, owns and operates New York City’s streets. The next time you’re almost hit by an aggressive SUV driver while crossing the street, think of yourself not as a victim but as "pedestrian interference" impeding that motorist’s Level of Service. As for all of the activities that Danish urban designer Jan Gehl refers to as "public life?" Turns out it’s actually "pedestrian interference." 

Yesterday’s hearing kicked off with Committee Chair John Liu’s assertion that New York City is experiencing "unprecedented traffic congestion of epic proportions." Intro. 199, he said, is aimed at helping the city manage its traffic congestion by collecting data in a new way. "We need to pro-actively manage traffic. In order to manage it we have to be able to measure it."

Intro. 199, in short, compels the City to "develop and monitor performance targets with the aim of assessing and reducing the amount of traffic citywide and within each borough." Rather than focusing on "output measures" like the number of traffic lights repaired and potholes filled as DOT currently does in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, the new legislation would mandate that DOT evaluate itself based on "targets" built around specific transportation policy objectives such as reducing congestion and pollution and increasing the percentage of trips taken on buses, bike and by foot.
This is similar to the kind of data collection now being done in London (see the bottom of this Transport for London press release to access TfL’s massive, detailed, annual traffic congestion monitoring report).

Flanked by two aides, Commissioner Weinshall was first to testify. "Under the Bloomberg Administration, DOT has made reducing vehicular congestion and bolstering alternative modes one of our primary goals," she said. She cited the ongoing Bus Rapid Transit study, the Thru Streets program, Muni Meters and the recent bike lane expansion as examples.

Weinshall then cited five reasons for her opposition to Intro. 199 (her full testimony can be found here). First, the City Charter already requires that DOT submit data to the annual Mayor’s Management Report so "any legislation to require additional reporting seems redundant." Second, DOT "is already, in fact, collecting and making available much of the data the bill contemplates." Third, DOT is about two years away from having "new advancing technology as a means to collect data" so it would be premature to make the agency set policy targets now. Fourth, collecting all of this data would be burdensome and expensive. Finally, transportation issues are regional. "Intro. 199 seems to ignore the multi agency nature of our transportation systems," she said. Weinshall also reported that DOT is planning to increase its data collection contract from $600,000 over two years to $3 million.

After her testimony, Liu asked the Commissioner if she thought New York City has a traffic congestion problem. "We would not characterize it as a crisis. We’d characterize it as a challenge," she said. Deputy Commissioner Primeggia added that Central Business District traffic counts were one to two percent higher than their pre-9/11 all-time highs. Weinshall said the increase in traffic is "an indication of the vitality and the growth of the city of New York." This particular rationale for not doing anything to change the dysfunctional status quo of New York City’s streets is also used by Weinshall’s boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the MTA.

Weinshall frequently pointed to the reams of data that the agency already collects and repeated her willingness to share that data with Councilmembers. During his testimony, Chad Marlow, president of the Public Advocacy Group, said that that particular point "warrants further examination." 

"I find it peculiar that, so often, when an individual Councilmember needs something done involving traffic or transportation, say, the installation of a new traffic signal or traffic calming measure, DOT’s response is, ‘We don’t have data to back that up,’" Marlow said.

"Yet in their testimony, all the DOT could talk about was how much data they already have and how happy they are to share it. I’m more persuaded by DOT’s day-to-day responses to Councilmember’s
real world problems than by the claims they made at this hearing."

  • HotSauceWhiteSauce

    so basically we have a bureaucrat with no background in transportation heading up the only city agency with direct control over the capital of the world’s transportation system, not to mention most of its public space? and her decisions and positions are primarily shaped and influenced by her deputy commissioners, who are cranky, sheltered engineers or arrogant policy aces high on their own power yet all but unaccountable to the public?


    (And at the outset of the 21st century we all watched with heavy hearts as New York City sank from being the Capital of the World to just a B-level global city, too unimaginative, apathetic or just plain incompetent to rise to the challenge of a new, non-auto-dominated era where quality of life trumps financial services chestbeating.)

  • What I found most disconcerting yesterday was Councilman Liu’s statement that he was “not for reducing traffic.” If reducing congestion only means reducing delays (especially at intersections) DOT is already quite good at moving massive amounts of vehicles through the local street grid often at speeds of 40-50mph. With the new technology they’ll no doubt do well at breaking up the bottlenecks. But I want to take back real estate and air. That means indicators that measure the quality of life — like land converted from sidewalks & parkland to asphalt each year. Noise. Views and access.

    The bill is obviously worth fighting hard for, but I do wonder if everyone agress what the objective is.

  • someguy

    HotSauceWhiteSauce – Yes, quality of life, not to mention sustainability.

    Hilary – I think John Liu’s objective is higher office. 🙂

  • Thanks for the overview of what happened yesterday. I wish I could be there, but we did have a representative from Upper Green Side present our testimony. We are proud that CM Garodnick and Lappin are now sponsors of the bill.

    Strangely, on the same day around noon, I received the official response to my request for protective barriers on the Park Avenue pedestrian medians. My favorite line was “guardrails may be considered a source of crash potential themselves”. Yeah, exactly…that would even worse than pedestrian interference.

  • Re: Hilary’s comment: What I found most disconcerting yesterday was Councilman Liu’s statement that he was “not for reducing traffic.”

    I don’t know that I would characterize it like that.

    I was going to comment that this was one of the bullet points that Aaron should have included: the awakening of John Liu. He asked the panel that included TA, TSTC, Chad Marlow, and Citizens for NY whether they believed that the eventual goal should be reducing congestion or reducing traffic overall. Everyone on the panel agreed – correctly, to this observer – that reducing congestion while not reducing traffic in total would be insufficient.

    I think Councilmember Liu saw the light at that moment – that we could, in fact, as a city, decide to have fewer vehicles. Let’s hope that was the lesson he took away, and will continue to use his seat to persue.

    – Ian

  • I saw Gale Brewer at a dinner later that night and had a few moments to chat about the hearing. (She asked if I enjoyed my free theater that morning. 🙂 )

    I think we agreed – Iris sure sounded strong coming off her prepared statements, but under questioning, her facade fell apart. Councilmember Brewer was most entertained by Dan Garodnick’s questioning – trying to get basic information out of the Commissioner and her aides, and just getting smoke.

    And I know from our community’s – and community board’s – negotiations with DOT over the Houston St. redesign, that where DOT has data, they are unwilling to share it. If you force them to share it, they will share only what supports their case and claim that they don’t have much data at all. That’s not what I heard in the DOT testimony.

  • AD

    Two things.

    1) Traffic is 1% to 2% higher than the pre-9/11 all-time highs? Then what’s with the spate of news articles talking about how Weinshall thinks it’s all in our minds?

    2) Try searching Google for “New York City Traffic.” Look who’s in the first, second and third position.

  • CB

    Teh only data they are interested in is the opoinion of their boss. In their political world the data is only there to illustrate the point the political powers want to make ..

    Case in point was the west side stadium. The analysis showed the traffic would be horrendous .. but the conclusion was still , no problem ..

    We have a CEO problem here. Mr bloomberg is not asking the right questions..So now the Board of directors steps in .. We need ot help councilman Liu design the right measurements

  • CB

    Indeed in their car centric world no one measures pedestrian traffic flow, speed and car interference..
    woudl be fascinating to measure the impact on commute time if the pedestrians were given as much green time as the cars ..

  • Dan

    I don’t even know how to measure how outraged I am at the DOT. It just seems to me like there a bunch of people who think we can make a better city with better streets and better public spaces and then there’s the city(DOT,MTA) standing in opposition. But not the good kind of well meaning principled opposition, but the kind of churlish immature opposition that comes from opposing things you don’t know how to address in the first place.

  • JK

    Thanks Aaron. Good work T.A. for getting this going.

    It’s disappointing that the mayor’s office did not see this bill as an opportunity to build support for the “sustainable” transportation measures that should come out of PlaNYC. The mayor’s office had months to come up with an alternative more to it’s liking that would build support for what are sure to be controversial traffic reduction measures. The advocates would no doubt be very happy to back a mayor’s traffic reduction plan or bill.

    (Incidentally, how can the “sustainability” people at City Hall watch testimony like this without feeling embarrassed for the mayor?)

    It’s too bad City Hall doesn’t perceive the benefit of leading on traffic reduction. Why should they grant the rhetorical high ground to the same councilmembers, including John Liu, who will oppose many of the specifics of a mayoral traffic reduction plan?

    Oh, lastly, a majority in a city council committee does not mean passage, or a vote. Speaker Quinn will weigh 199 as one issue among the big slate she has with the mayor.

  • Weinshall’s assertions that NYC DOT is already (or soon will be) doing what the legislation would mandate, takes me back to 1999. Right Of Way had recently published KILLED BY AUTOMOBILE — a massive research project sustained entirely by heroic volunteer effort — and was seeking funding support for an update from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. Our intended research focus was to explain the *decline* in pedestrian fatalities in 1998 from the higher 1994-97 plateau we had documented in KBA. City DOT blackballed our research proposal, claiming that the agency was already (or soon would be) studying that very issue. A lie, as it turned out.

  • NY Times has an excellent opinion piece by Robert Sullivan:

    “FOR the past two decades, New York has been an inspiration to other American cities looking to revive themselves. Yes, New York had a lot of crime, but somehow it also still had neighborhoods, and a core that had never been completely abandoned to the car. Lately, though, as far as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of America, and the rest of America is acting more like the once-inspiring New York.”


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