Wanted: A New Traffic Boss for New York City

Primeggia_Retires.jpg
You won’t have Primeggia to kick around anymore.

The New York City Department of Transportation is posting a job ad seeking a new Deputy Commissioner of Traffic Operations. That’s because Michael Primeggia is retiring. After 30+ years in city government, New York City’s chief traffic engineer, a man who referred to the city’s streets as "my streets," will work his last day on Friday, February 13. DOT staff threw a party for him on Friday evening.

Primeggia leaves a mixed legacy. Many livable streets advocates will forever know him as "Dr. No," the classic, cars-first traffic engineer who repeatedly argued against car-free parks, delayed and killed bike, pedestrian and traffic-calming improvements and sought to convert slow-moving, neighborhood-friendly two-way streets into one-way thruways. Yet, in recent years, under the leadership of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Primeggia has been instrumental in helping to implement progressive projects like Summer Streets, physically-protected bike lanes and new pedestrian plazas.

Regardless of what you think of him, Primeggia’s retirement provides Sadik-Khan with an opportunity to hire a powerful and potentially long-lasting member of the city’s transportation bureaucracy. What kind of employee should she be looking for?

Here’s one thought: How about a planner instead of an engineer?

  • John

    Yeah, why would we want licensed professional engineers practicing traffic engineering? That’s just crazy.

    Oh, BTW, not all engineers are pro-car at the expense of other modes.

  • John – because traffic engineering, or optimization for the rapid voluminous movement of cars, is focusing on one aspect of streets to the detriment of all others.

    Also, it can’t fairly be called engineering, or couldn’t until recently, because until recently the models which traffic engineers used were not closely tied to reality; there was no control/variable experimentation.

    They were variably educated guessers. Not engineers.

  • J

    Good point John. While in general, engineers tend to be a more conservative bunch, that shouldn’t preclude a progressive engineer from taking the reigns as traffic commissioner. In the end, what we do with our streets is a political decision, articulated by planners and engineers. Your statement, Aaron, is like voting against a livable streets advocate because he is a Republican, and they tend to not like livable streets projects as much a democrats. Let’s not let personal biases and stereotypes narrow the pool of excellent candidates for the job.

  • Rhywun

    For decades “traffic engineering” was synonymous with “routing as many cars through the city at the highest speeds possible”. So it’s not surprising if some of us are skeptical.

    PS.

    For decades “city planning” meant “‘slum’ clearance”, “urban renewal”, and “superblocks”. The profession has thankfully moved beyond that; hopefully traffic engineering has matured similarly.

  • I don’t think it should make a difference whether it is an engineer or a planner as long as they have the best agenda for the department and the city.

  • J

    Kaja,

    It’s called transportation engineering now, and the lines between engineering and planning and being blurred more and more. Yes, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen in reality, but the same is true for all applied sciences. A structure is never built exactly as planned, but structural engineers are not called educated building guessers.

    My point is that engineering is changing to look at all modes and at all variables. For example, what happens to traffic when road capacity is removed? How does adding a bike lane affect bike mode share? How can we better evaluate pedestrian space? Your anger at old-school traffic engineers is understandable, but I think you should be cautious about letting this anger stand between you and a potentially powerful ally in the livable streets movement.

  • Matthew Roth

    It just got a little sunnier out here in CA. So long Dr. No. Hello Dr. Livable Streets.

  • New Urbanism has caught on in the field of Transportation Engineering, at least on the academic level, so there are plenty of progressive livable streets minded engineers out there.

  • Hans Monderman is dead and Jan Gehl is busy, but I bet they have protegés who would be available to spend a few years over here.

  • Norman Garrick (UCONN engineering professor) or Michael Ronkin (former Oregon DOT bike/ped guru turned consultant) get my vote.

    Both are highly skilled new urbanists who understand the value of ‘place’ and the actual engineering/planning/designing techniques and requirements that reinforce urbanism, rather than undermine it.

  • jr

    All these anti-engineering comments strike me as the equivalent of religious zealots who decry Darwinism. Certainly there are now a couple generations of traffic engineers who grew up in a culture that prioritized movement of vehicles over people. But the problem lies not in the engineering principles but in the cultural and political preferences that directed engineers to seek solutions to maximize throughput of vehicles. We are now experiencing a shift in the cultural and political momentum away from the primacy of personal vehicles and towards more integrated multi-modal solutions. NYC is one of the cities on the vanguard. But to claim that engineers created this mess is to ignore the millions and millions of car driving suburbanites who voted to make it happen.

  • I’ll second Norman Garrick, although I’m not sure if he would be interested in the position.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    All these anti-engineering comments strike me as the equivalent of religious zealots who decry Darwinism.

    Not really. I think it’s completely fair to say that the traffic engineering profession was absolutely integral in the screwing up of the American landscape. Sure, you can also blame the American consumer, their politicians, the suburban sprawl developers and a few other parties. But the traffic engineers are up there at the top of the list. Engineers like Sam Schwartz and Gary Toth will be the first to agree. The profession may be getting better but it’s improving from a place of near total bankruptcy.

    Stop by Brooklyn Poly Tech where Primeggia went to engineering school, pick up a course book and check out the transportation engineering curriculum. The next generation of NYC traffic engineers are still, primarily, being taught how to move vehicles and time traffic signals.

    Then go check out the transportation planning curriculum at, say, UC Berkeley. Note the holistic, multi-modal approach and the emphasis on “the interaction between transportation and built, natural, and social environments.”

    http://dcrp.ced.berkeley.edu/departments–programs/crp/concentration-in-transportation-policy–planning.htm

    What kind of professional do you want managing your city’s streets?

    Brooklyn Poly:

    http://www.poly.edu/ce/graduate/transportation/planning/index.php

    PROGRAM REQUIREMENTS

    TR 6313 Traffic Control and Signalization I
    TR 6323 Traffic Control and Signalization II

    Select at least 2 from:

    TR 6013 Fundamental Concepts in Transportation
    TR 6023 Analytic Methods in Transportation
    TR 6223 Intelligent Transportation Systems and Their Applications
    TR 7033 Transportation Safety
    TR 7123 Transportation Planning and Congestion Management
    TR 7323 Design of Parking and Terminal Facilities
    TR 7333 Design & Mgmt of Arterial & Street Networks
    TR 7343 Urban Freeways and Intercity Highways

  • Smellis

    Marty,
    I’d want someone who understands BOTH areas of study. Just one example, traffic signals timed for BICYCLE arterial progression requires knowledge of traffic engineering principles, as does understanding how to judiciously apply minimum turn radii for various types of buses. My point being that blanket labeling of an entire profession is short-sighted.

    ~ellis, a young traffic engineer (Rutgers ’05)

  • NeitherAnEngineerNorAPlanner

    First, a number of you are really unfairly stigmatizing Primeggia. The fact is, is he’s a decent, thoughtful, capable guy who by and large responded to the direction of the people above him, while trying to keep a very large and complex organization functioning. These people, throughout most of his 30 years in government tended to swat down any idea, good or bad, pro-car or not. As I’m sure some of you know, Primeggia himself got swatted down a number of times by the parade of mooks, mopes and misfits that have wandered through DOT’s executive suite over the last 15 years or so. The present administration is several notches above any of its predecessors in terms of overall professionalism, subject matter expertise, and policy judgement. So what did this crowd do? It charged MP with executing a good portion of their program, which he did enthusiastically and professionally.

    Second, this business of “engineer” vs “planner” is just plain silly. The full spectrum of transportation “vision” can be found in both populations (and in a number of other disciplines as well). The trick will be finding someone with the managerial and “can do” chops to translate the vision into action while keeping the lights on (literally and figuratively). If the worst thing that ever happened to transportation in NYC was Mike Primeggia we’d be in a lot better shape.

  • Isaac

    Well discussed. I agree – traffic engineering by its nature does not have to be focused on throughput of the maximum number of automobiles. However, my experience with NYCDOT and its engineers has shown me that their evaluation of operations is based solely on satisying design criteria for carsn – this is not only Mike Primeggia.. Yes, I agree jr. – this is a policy choice, and to Mike P.’s credit I think he changed some of his views.

    Let’s not forget that DOT is set up – that job was set up – to enable vehicle throughput. It should be up to DOT’s executives to listen to different points of view within their agency and choose the one that makes sense. To some extent, Primeggia’s job was to represent the automobile. To DOT’s credit, they’ve been creating positions for people who are supposed to fight for non-auto modes.

    Also – he deserves a lot of credit for one thing. Don’t forget, in addition to policy, he was also an administrator and could be relied on for clear guidance and quick decision-making and a returned phone call – not something you can take for granted in city government. In that regard he will surely be missed.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    Ahhh, NAE/NAP, the old “I was just following orders” argument. I like Michael as an individual, but will miss him not as deputy commissioner in charge of telling the community to go ef-itself.

  • christine

    This is a good opportunity to embbed multimodal in the DOT’s DNA : Replace him with four engineers: one chief engineer for car lanes, one for pedlanes , one for bus lanes, one for bike lanes .
    Then JSK can make the space and time allocation decisions based on policies and needs.

    Who knows how much more effective our streets would be if pedestrians had coordinated walk signs and did not have to stop for 40 seconds every 200 ft ? What if the cars , which carry only a third of the volume had to stop longer and let the larger volume pass ? All scientific questions that do not get asked.

    This will ensure that not one discipline sounds more scientific than the others and that engineering does not drive the policy.

  • > But the problem lies not in the engineering principles but in the
    > cultural and political preferences that directed engineers to seek
    > solutions to maximize throughput of vehicles.

    Total agreement. Christine’s suggestions immediately above all sounds fantastic to me.

    Anecdote time: Reading over the Tillary Street re-timing plans (recently linked off this site), I was amused to notice that actual observation clocked pedestrians at over 50 seconds crossing the Brooklyn Bridge entrance at Tillary’s north side, while the lights were only timed walk for thirty-something seconds. The “average person” actually couldn’t cross on a Walk sign before it went don’t-walk.

    Engineering isn’t the enemy. Tone-deaf attempts to solve the wrong problems are the enemy.

  • Warren

    For what it’s worth, if you read the City Charter (http://www.nyc.gov/html/charter/downloads/pdf/citycharter2004.pdf) literally, it says that the deputy commissioner for “highway” operations must be a licensed P.E.:
    “§ 2902. Deputies. The commissioner may appoint three deputies, one of whom shall be in charge of highway operations and be a licensed professional engineer in good standing under the education law.”

    Then again, I’ve been told that Primeggia was not a licensed P.E., so may be it’s interpreted flexibly; also, DOT has way more than three deputy commissioners.

  • fdr

    That’s interesting. The Buildings Department’s current Commissioner isn’t a P.E. and he had to be Acting Commissioner for a few months while they changed the law, which had required a P.E. How does DOT get away with this? If you look at their bios on the DOT website it looks like there are 9 Deputy Commissioners and none are P.E.s. Some of them must have other official titles, Administrative Manager or something, but still, no P.E.s.

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