Mischaracterizations From Marty Seep Into Vacca Op-Ed on PPW Bike Lane

City Council Member Jimmy Vacca has made several public shows of support for street safety initiatives since taking over as chair of the transportation committee at the beginning of the year. To draw attention to the statewide complete streets bill, he stood with Speaker Christine Quinn at 23rd Street, using the Ninth Avenue bike lane as backdrop. He appeared with Quinn, Mayor Bloomberg, and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan at last week’s big pedestrian safety announcement. And he told Streetsblog in an interview this spring that reducing speeding is one of his top priorities.

VaccaInterviewPic.jpgJimmy Vacca sketches out some street geometry during a Streetsblog interview in May. Photo: Noah Kazis

So it was disappointing to read this passage in a Vacca-penned op-ed called "City’s Bold Transportation Agenda Needs Public Buy-In," published in City Hall News last month:

Six months after taking over the New York City Council Transportation
Committee, I have already seen some of the problems that can arise when
communities do not feel they are part of the process:

In
early June, the Department of Transportation (DOT) replaced a driving
lane on Prospect Park West with a spacious, two-way bike lane. Built
over the objection of local residents and elected officials, the bike
lane has given rise to a civic group dedicated to removing the lane.
Among the members: two former DOT commissioners.

He also cites two more examples where he thinks outreach was inadequate: the striping of the Bedford Avenue
bike lane through Hasidic Williamsburg, which was erased soon after Mayor Bloomberg was re-elected last fall, and public notification about an increase in parking meter rates in February 2009.

Acknowledging that lockstep public opinion is impossible, Vacca goes on to say that "you can never please everyone; sometimes you need to charge forward and hope your opponents come around."

I spoke to Vacca last week to make sure he knew about the community board vote in favor of the PPW bike lane, Council Member Brad Lander’s support, and all the signatures that volunteers gathered asking for a two-way bike path to make cycling and walking safer on PPW — that the re-design had in fact been built at the urging of local residents and with the support of the local council member.

Vacca said that after the piece was published, he received a few emails from readers upset about his characterization of the PPW bike lane, and that Lander had contacted him to fill in the background about the public support that the project enjoys. Before the piece was published, he’d received emails from opponents of the bike lane, and "was hearing from Marty Markowitz." He said that he doesn’t oppose the PPW project. (If you’re wondering, Vacca couldn’t name the second DOT commissioner, in addition to Iris Weinshall, who’s come out against the bike lane.)

"It wasn’t that I meant to neglect any constituency, but I did want to reflect that not everyone was brought in," he said. The column, he said, was "meant to reflect an overall policy that I’d like to have. At the end of the day, I do believe that the process has to start at
the community board, and the community board is the entity that has to
identify all the stakeholders that have to be brought to the table."

When the phone call ended it still wasn’t clear to me what the "overall policy" that
Vacca has in mind would look like in practice. If community boards could conduct the sort of public process that groups like the Grand Army Plaza Coalition have employed — starting from a set of principles, bringing together partners, holding public workshops — some projects would probably enjoy more momentum when the inevitable opposition arises. But if the primary goal is to completely avoid the conflict that comes with changing the street, then the surest way to achieve it is to do nothing and
let the status quo continue.

As for the re-designed PPW, my guess is that Vacca would appreciate it if he came out to Brooklyn and saw the big difference it’s made in the character of the street. It’s a treatment that’s created room for safe biking while tackling a problem that he’s committed to addressing: chronic speeding. If the city won’t "charge forward" with a project like this after receiving more than a thousand signatures and a community board vote in favor, it’s hard to see how anything innovative will get accomplished.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If the primary goal is to completely avoid the conflict that comes with changing the street, then the surest way to achieve it is to do nothing and let the status quo continue.”

    As I have said, among internally consistent political economic systems for allocating resources you have socialism, under which what you get depends on what you need, at least in theory. And you have capitalism under what you get depends on what you earn, at least in theory.

    But New York works on neither principle. Its principle is feudalism, under which those people and interests perpetually in power get what they have got, regardless of need, regardless of what they earn. For those needing or contributing more, tough luck.

    The vested interests stay vested, as as the Russian proverb goes, when times get tough “the shortage will be divided among the peasants.” And not just in the allocation of street space, but in the allocation of public funds as well. No one has asked for my buy-in of existing conditions in either case.

  • Geck

    As more time passes, it has become quite clear that none of the alleged concerns about the changes to PPW have amounted to anything. The road diet has done what it was intended to do, it has substantially calmed traffic and increased safety, while adding a first class bike lane. There has been no adverse impact that I can see. Unfortunately, it seems there will always be a group opposed to any change, no matter how well orchestrated and planned out.

  • Larry, in what time period do you think feudalism took hold in New York and what do you think were the causal factors? I know the short answer to the second part of my question is “greed” but what about the checks and balances that were supposed to ensure good government?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Larry, in what time period do you think feudalism took hold in New York and what do you think were the causal factors?”

    I’m not sure, but it seems to be going national. Locally, it seems to date to the onset of political stagnation and one party politcs in the 1970s, with power held by in part by large corporate interests and in part by public employee unions. It’s much worse at the state level.

    As for Vacca, you have term limits and some circulation among the rulers at the City level, so what is the problem? Too many either cannot participate “immigrants” or don’t bother (the young), and many of those who do drive.

    As former Governor Cuomo said years ago “if you don’t participate in the system it is going to hurt you.” In this case, a bunch of other people did participate, and vested interests are not amused.

  • m to the i

    I don’t agree that affirming the status quo would avoid conflict. I think we only have to look to San Francisco protests (Fell and Masonic Streets), DIY bike lanes and sharrow in LA, and acts of guerilla urbanism in many other places to show that the status quo would not be conflict free. People want safe streets, people want transportation choices. Politicians and mayoral candidates listen up!

  • Shemp

    Local gov’t/politics “feudalism” is probably the norm in more places around the U.S. and world than anyone wants to think about. NYC is certainly not unique in this regard.

  • Larry, the city is significantly less one-party now than it was in the 1950s. Never before has it had five consecutive terms in which the mayor was not a Democrat.

  • Well, I find it rather depressing that every time I go to the polls, I am essentially participating in a Soviet-style election with one candidate running unopposed and thus with little or no accountability to me, just to the party bosses.

    I dislike the two-party system so much that I was independent for years, but I switched my registration to Democrat once I moved to New York and discovered that the only time my vote mattered was in the primary.

  • JK

    Just to get the tally straight: you have the mayor/agency, city council member, the community board, and the biggest civic groups and most prominent issue advocacy groups supporting the PPW lane versus the borough president and a small group of people opposed. Plus, you have immediate measurable success reducing dangerous speeding. Wow, that’s a phenomenal level of community support and success for a low-budget, high result project. Incidentally, where is NYC’s grandee of neighborhood bicycle touring in all of this — the Senior Senator from New York, Chuck Schumer? Here’s a VIP famous for bringing out of town politicos on cycling noshing tours of Brooklyn and he can’t say anything about a beautiful, safe path across the street? Come on Chuck, you’re allowed to disagree with your family here.

  • Mike

    I find it unfortunate that the coverage (and the comments) have focused on Vacca’s misinformation in the examples he gives, when the overall tone and point of his piece are – as far as I can tell – excellent.

    “In the end, we don’t just want a New York that has more bike lanes, larger plazas and faster buses. We want neighborhoods to want more bike lanes, larger plazas and faster buses.” Amen!

    The piece is very savvy. It’s essentially saying, “I support what the city is doing and would like to see more of it (where appropriate), but in order for that to be feasible there needs to be more buy-in from a wider range of communities. Get savvier, DOT!” Bingo!

  • dporpentine

    “Built over the objection of local residents and elected officials, the bike lane has given rise to a civic group dedicated to removing the lane. Among the members: two former DOT commissioners.”

    Yet another instance of elite figures (the “elected officials” and “two former DOT commissioners”) pitching a fit when, for once in a very long while, the democratic process actually results in something that benefits the nonelite. I won’t even bother listing all the other advances that have been made over the objections of “local residents and elected officials.”

    The takeaway: I think we can now be confident that twenty minutes into the next administration, the PPW lane will be Williamsburged. Enjoy it while you can!

  • BicyclesOnly

    Ever wonder why there are virtually no bike lanes on the Upper East Side? Guess who lives there!

  • JK

    Just curious, what within reason was DOT supposed to do on PPW to allay opposition from the small number of opponents? I don’t live in Bk CB 6, so I don’t know exactly how the community process worked, but as reported, DOT seemed to have done a good amount of outreach. I want to know what Jimmy Vacca and others expect DOT to do to create community consensus. There is a shifting sand of standards for community consensus building. Really, exactly what does Vacca want? Let’s hear it. As for Marty Markowitz, he is an obvious hypocrite given the truly massive community opposition to Atlantic Yards — opposition that was so pervasive that Markowitz had to purge the community board of AY opponents.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Larry, the city is significantly less one-party now than it was in the 1950s. Never before has it had five consecutive terms in which the mayor was not a Democrat.”

    And the city is better run, but the state is killing us.

    Moreover, look beyond Senator, Mayor and Governor and we have a host of one party fiefdoms in legislative offices around the state, some Republican, some Democratic.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The piece is very savvy. It’s essentially saying, “I support what the city is doing and would like to see more of it (where appropriate), but in order for that to be feasible there needs to be more buy-in from a wider range of communities. Get savvier, DOT!” Bingo!”

    It had been said that three people showing up and whining were enough to stop anything, no matter how beneficial or essential, at the Board of Estimate. Universal buy in is not possible, because once people get the idea that they have a veto, they will seek to extract special privileges for themselves in exchange for changes they are actually in favor of.

  • Moses Hurwitz

    I agree completely with Mike’s sentiment. I think this article only exposes a small mis-step by a freshman council member. There is evidence that Marty had his ear, and Jimmy took that too far. He was not my first choice to chair the transportation committee, but he’s a sharp guy who cares … he’s going to be fine.

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