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The Times Theory of Democracy: “More Power to the Design Commission!”

4:21 PM EDT on June 27, 2011

If you're looking for further evidence to support Jason Gay's "the bikes have won" theory -- that the anti-bike bile-fest of last winter was so much sound and fury signifying nothing more than the windshield perspectives of the city's intransigent political and media elites -- we present the latest, and perhaps lamest, salvo from the metro desk of the New York Times.

Since they can't argue with the results -- making more room for cyclists and pedestrians has reduced injuries and saved lives, the city's new public spaces are popular, and neighborhoods are clamoring for more -- Michael Grynbaum and co-author David Chen, or their editors, have set their sights on process. By introducing pedestrian plazas, among other initiatives, as pilot programs, they say the Bloomberg administration has subverted the very principles on which our nation was founded:

The pilot has emerged as the mayor’s signature policy weapon. Admirers see an innovative way around red tape. Critics see a blunt tool that undermines democracy by minimizing the public’s role in scrutinizing the ideas of government.

As evidence, the article offers up the Times Square pedestrian plazas, installed "with minimal involvement by the Design Commission." That the plazas were championed by the Times Square Alliance, vetted in dozens of meetings with various constituencies, and approved by Community Board 5, well, that just doesn't cut it. Those surveys showing the new Times Square an unequivocal hit with the public? Of no consequence. To the Times, the Design Commission, an obscure appointed body inside the mayor's administration that meets behind closed doors to review public projects, is apparently the sine qua non of democratic oversight.

Here's the kicker: Minimal involvement or no, the Design Commission signed off on both the pilot version of the Times Square plazas and the permanent version, which leads one to question why they were included in this article to begin with. In light of past Times Square coverage from the Times, this paragraph stands out:

In the end, the plazas failed to speed traffic as much as the administration had hoped, but the city made the program permanent, citing fewer accidents involving pedestrians and more foot traffic for businesses.

In other words, fewer people were being hurt and killed, and business is up, but the mayor made the plazas permanent anyway.

There is also the requisite sideways swipe at DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, whose department has "begun more than a dozen trial programs in recent years, like allowing pop-up sidewalk cafes or painting bike lanes green."

You've got to wonder about the timing of this piece -- framing bike lanes as a "trial program" mere days after it became clear that opponents of the Prospect Park West bike lane need to prove that DOT installed the project as a "pilot" in order to prevent their case from being thrown out of court. It's hard to see the rationale for including bike lanes under the umbrella of "minimizing the public's role in scrutinizing the ideas of government" when every protected bike lane going back to the first segment on Manhattan's Ninth Avenue has been approved in community board votes.

We could go on. The intense scrutiny bike lanes and public plazas have received from the City Council, the fact that the city is allowing pop-up cafes only in neighborhoods where the community board approves them, the failure of the reporters to cite any "critics" to support the "blunt tool" conceit. The bottom line is that the Times would have readers believe that the city's new public spaces are being imposed by fiat, when they are in fact going through the usual review process and then some.

But hell, where's the story in that.

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