Introducing “Vacca Watch”

When Streetsblog interviewed City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca a year ago, he was fresh off a press appearance with AARP calling for complete streets legislation in Albany. The Ninth Avenue protected bike lane was the backdrop. During our conversation a few weeks later he came across as someone who took street safety seriously and kept an open mind about redesigning streets for the 21st century. It’s been mostly downhill for Vacca since then.

Image: CBS 2

New York City is in the midst of re-envisioning the way street space is allocated, and the results are impressive: fewer traffic deaths and injuries, better bus service, and more people choosing to ride bikes for transportation. A transportation chair committed to safe streets and better transit could do a great deal to help extend these benefits throughout the city.

But Vacca has used his position primarily to inflate the perception of resistance to change. While he’s helped move forward some good bills and he talks a good game about slowing down speeders, overall Vacca hasn’t walked the walk as transportation chair. His performance at yesterday’s hearing on the city’s public plaza program was the latest in a series of public statements and political theatrics that only serve to obstruct progress.

Vacca’s stock in trade is to try and have it both ways. He’ll repeat the windshield perspective argument against street redesigns without claiming it as his own. “There is a view among many that with the failure of congestion pricing, that there are other things being done to drive car owners crazy,” he said at yesterday’s hearing. “I don’t want people to feel that, but they do.”

Presumably, as chair of the transportation committee, Vacca pays a modicum of attention to PlaNYC 2030 and did a little research before his hearing on the plaza program. So he should know that the city’s goal of creating new public spaces in park-starved neighborhoods has been a part of the plan for four years now and has nothing to do with the demise of congestion pricing. He should know that the taxi GPS data collected before and after the midtown plaza projects took effect — an incredibly robust dataset generated by millions of trips — shows that Midtown traffic is flowing better today than it was under the old configuration.

If you “don’t want people to feel that” improvements for pedestrians are “being done to drive car owners crazy,” then why repeat it at your City Council hearing with the cameras rolling? Any media-savvy NYC pol knows the only part that gets picked up by knuckleheads like Marcia Kramer and broadcast to millions is the part about driving car owners crazy.

This has been Vacca’s M.O. for a while now.

At last December’s bike policy hearing, he opened the proceedings by declaring: “Too many people are starting to get the impression that bike policy is about getting them to give up their cars.” The problem, for Vacca, is always the impressions of other people — but only certain perspectives seem to catch his notice. In an op-ed in City Hall News last summer, Vacca wrote that the Prospect Park West bike lane had been installed “over the objections of local residents and elected officials” when in fact the project had the backing of the local community board and council member. It was just Vacca’s pal Marty Markowitz who objected, and a former high-ranking commissioner or two (and a sitting U.S. senator).

There are real problems on New York City streets, and they’re not hard to spot. Motorists run over and kill pedestrians who have the right of way with terrifying frequency, and seldom get so much as a summons from police. Where’s the Vacca hearing on NYPD’s woefully shoddy crash investigations?

Pedestrians are getting killed on streets like Atlantic Avenue and Hylan Boulevard at stunning rates, and the death toll is entirely preventable. Where’s the Vacca hearing on how to expand the safety gains on streets like Ninth Avenue and Allen Street, where injury rates have plummeted, as quickly as possible?

Bus riders are flocking to new Select Bus Service while service cuts keep them away from transit elsewhere. Shouldn’t Vacca investigate how to make service better for all of NYC’s 2.2 million daily bus riders and turn around flagging ridership?

Vacca has shown that he can bring the heat for a good cause — witness his performance during the first round of hearings on the “Saving Lives Though Better Information Bill” — but NYC needs more from him right now. Residents of other cities are fortunate to have legislators like Tommy Wells and Tim Burgess who are well-versed in transportation policy and unafraid of taking political risks to promote good ideas. New Yorkers need the same from their transportation committee chair. We need someone who will actually lead.

Back when NYC DOT was the big limiting factor restraining the city from modernizing its surface transportation system, Streetsblog ran a regular series called “Weinshall Watch” — keeping tabs on then-DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall. Today it’s the City Council that’s become a huge drag on transportation improvements and safety innovations. James Vacca can keep on weighing down progress, or he can help make New York a safer, more livable city.

It’s time for “Vacca Watch.”

  • Aaron Trustfunderstek

    Well, it’s clear that most of this city’s elected officials are not big fans of the biking public. They are either against the advocates or ambivalent. Few are like Brewer or Lander. So, perhaps it is time that the streetsblog crowd lay off the pithy blog posts and start running sympathetic candidates for office. Only problem with this is that most New Yorkers don’t like you guys either, so your candidates are unlikely to win many (or any) seats because as a political constituency, you just don’t have the numbers to back yourselves up. All you have is a loud microphone, bought and paid for by rich little brats.

  • guest

    No one wants to get hit by a car. I would like to see a transpo committee hearing on what DOT is doing to prevent that.

  • guest

    No one wants to get hit by a car. I would like to see a transpo committee hearing on what DOT is doing to prevent that.

  • Charles_Siegel

    ““There is a view among many that with the failure of congestion pricing, that there are other things being done to drive car owners crazy,”

    As everyone knows, congestion drives car owners crazy. Congestion pricing would have reduced congestion and drivers’ frustration.

  • Charles_Siegel

    ““There is a view among many that with the failure of congestion pricing, that there are other things being done to drive car owners crazy,”

    As everyone knows, congestion drives car owners crazy. Congestion pricing would have reduced congestion and drivers’ frustration.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I think the people at Streetsblog have one other thing in their favor:

    Unlike you, they care about leaving a livable world to our children and grandchildren.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I think the people at Streetsblog have one other thing in their favor:

    Unlike you, they care about leaving a livable world to our children and grandchildren.

  • Anonymous

    public favors bike lanes 54% to 39%

    http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1302.xml?ReleaseID=1569

  • Lois Carsbad

    You’re right – the microphone used by this blog is much louder than the one used by the NY Post, Daily News, Times, plus Marcia Kramer and Tony Aiello at CBS2, and the reporters and producers at NY1 and 1010 WINS. The trustfunders who run this site surely can command far more media attention than Vacca, Marty Markowitz, Dov Hikind, Iris Weinshall, Senator Chuck Schumer.

    Thank you for uncovering this vast and powerful bike-wing conspiracy and its nefarious plot to install potted plants and park benches all over the city.

  • Roseonpolitics

    In March a Quinnipiac poll showed the majority of New Yorkers liked the bike lanes. It is not hard to see their impact. It has made walking the streets easier, there is less noise, and as gas prices go up it can save people money.

  • I still have a lot of hope for Councilman Vacca s someone that can help lead a conversation about how to make transportation and public spaces improvement relevant and understandable to everyone.

  • Danny G

    Good point. Someone should be phasing out their blog commenting, and phasing in their electioneering. Tone down the environmental/green aspect, talk up the freedom of choice aspect, and you’ve got half a chance.

  • This was the second thing I’ve been too with Vacca and I have to say I am completely underwhelmed. His sleazy, underhanded attempt to look like he’s trying to be evenhanded while actually supporting cars over everyone else is infuriating. Every single question – and I mean *every* *single* *question* he asked (or ever asks, that I’ve seen) – has been “how is this going to affect motorists?” If you went by his priorities, you’d never think anyone in NYC ever took the train or walked, let alone biked. And even if this was Houston or LA, there are things like global climate change, peak oil and the addition of a million more New Yorkers over the next few decades.

    And you know what else, Jimmy? The reason drivers have a hard time getting around is… OTHER DRIVERS! Not bike lanes or pedestrian plazas. It’s all the goddam cars in the city that are getting in the way of other cars.

    Quite honestly, it *should* be harder to drive in the city. It would be a hell of a lot better for everyone, including Vacca’s precious drivers.

  • Krugman for Prez

    Like totally. And the New York Times should stop bitching about the House GOP and start a political party with Krugman as their candidate.

  • JK

    The name being used by the anonymous poster above violates Streetsblog’s comment policy and should be removed. It is an obvious attempt to insult Aaron Naperstek. The poster is entitled to their opinion, but not to using a name intended to demean another reader or commenter.

  • The email address this commenter left us with is not valid. If you’re still reading, anonymous commenter, here’s what I tried to send to you…

    Hi,

    You’re more than welcome to post contrarian comments on the blog, but

    you can’t use a handle that doubles as a false ad hominem attack on

    an individual. If there’s anyone at this email address, please use a

    different name in the future.

  • MR

    In fairness, Mark Gorton’s not going to be paying for that microphone for that much longer if he loses big on the piracy judgment against him (as most expect), so the playing field will be somewhat leveled.

  • JK

    There is politics and there are facts. New Yorkers are not well served when their politicians are unable to tell the difference. To date, Mr. Vacca has been a disappointment to anyone concerned with sound transportation policy, safer streets, mobility and common sense decision making. His leadership of the Council Transportation Committee should be closely scrutinized. As this piece correctly points out, Mr. Vacca has repeatedly used selective statements, and factual omissions to mischaracterize and distort the city’s renewed efforts to create safer and better conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. And, contrary to what Mr. Vacca’s remarks imply, it is a long-standing, and publicly stated goal of NYC environmental, health and transportation policy to get New Yorkers to use their automobiles less, and take public transit, walk and bicycle more.

  • Mark Walker

    “Most New Yorkers” live in car-free households.

  • Is Marty Barfawitz and Marcia Kramer’s eye brow also not allowed?

  • In my judgment there’s a clear distinction between choosing a username that lobs a specific falsehood at an individual and one that makes a disparaging yet silly play on words based on the individual’s name.

    If a commenter chose the username “Marty MaulsbabieswithhisSUVowitz” I might be more inclined to ban the identity. But Marty is more of a public figure than Aaron, so even that name would probably pass muster.

  • Eric McClure

    So far, Mr. Vacca has acted more like the Council’s Traffic Chair than its Transportation Chair. Very underwhelming.

  • Eric McClure

    So far, Mr. Vacca has acted more like the Council’s Traffic Chair than its Transportation Chair. Very underwhelming.

  • Argyle Smile

    I hope Vacca is reading some of this. When many in the transportation world saw he was selected, there was a collective groan, but also a well-I-didn’t-think-Ray-LaHood-was-gonna-be-good-either-and-he-turned-out-great-so-let’s-give-him-a-chance kinda reaction.

    And I think initially he talked a good game and seemed to be open to enlightenment. For the first few months people thought he was fair.But now he is obviously only going for the headlines and not trying to be productive and not looking out for what is best for NYC.

    I think he still could turn this around and do some real good, but he needs to step it up, stop grandstanding and allowing the naysayers and those who are against safer streets to control the tone of the debate.

  • carma

    @m_walker:disqus

    i wouldnt say most new york households dont own cars. that is quite false. most manhattan households dont own cars. but as a whole city, i recall the figure being approximately around 55% DO own cars.

    theres more to nyc than manhattan

  • Carma –

    No, it’s quite true and always has been. As of 2009, 54 percent of NYC households were car-free.

  • Mark Walker

    Carma: “Among all NYC households, 46 percent own cars, according to Census data gathered between 2005 and 2009, compared to 44.3 percent in 2000.” This was posted on Streetsblog just a month ago. Under the circumstances, I think your “more to nyc than manhattan” crack is unjustified, not to mention provincial.

  • carma

    I stand corrected. I didnt have time to source the absolute number. I just recalled the number being 55. Too bad i got it reversed. I still stand by my point that nyc includes not just manhattan.
    And in the outer boroughs, it does make sensr to own a car due to lack of other options. Not saying all areas. But some areas in this city are quite remote wirhout a car

  • Mike

    Vacca needs to realize that the Post is less influential than he thinks. Bloomberg tried to please them by going after teachers and they led him off a cliff. If Vacca’s trying to please them by opposing pedestrian safety, he’s making a big miscalculation.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    I admit to believing Vacca ‘started okay, will get better’ and am disappointed to be so wrong. “Reading some of this?” I doubt it. Part of why I said what I did was to give the council member positive encouragement. Apparently helped not one bit.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Vacca Watch: Transpo Chair Stays Strong on Speeding Enforcement

|
City Council Transportation Chair James Vacca showed his safety supporter side at a press conference in the Bronx this morning. Standing with DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan at the corner of the Grand Concourse and 165th Street to announce the installation of countdown pedestrian signals, Vacca had strong words for speeding motorists and endorsements for both […]

James Vacca, Welcome to Sweeneyland

|
With his skeptical reaction to the latest poll showing majority support for cycling infrastructure, James Vacca has established himself as the city’s most authoritative voice for anti-bike nonsense. This week Transportation Alternatives released the results of a telephone survey of 603 likely New York City voters, conducted by the firm Penn Schoen Berland. Along with […]