On Progressive Transportation, Bill de Blasio Has Some Catching Up to Do

Tomorrow evening, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio will deliver the keynote address at the Transportation Alternatives summer benefit. When de Blasio’s name was announced as a headliner, it was somewhat surprising. As a City Council member, he was an early backer of making Prospect Park car-free. But as a citywide office holder and presumed 2013 mayoral hopeful, de Blasio has not made street safety or sustainable transportation a priority.

As Public Advocate, de Blasio commands a citywide bully pulpit and can highlight just about any issue he cares to. The position was created to serve as an “ombudsperson” — someone who listens to the public and speaks up for their interests.

Pedestrian safety and traffic congestion are the top two concerns of New Yorkers, according to a 2008 survey by the Citizens Committee for New York City. And, as Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign told Streetsblog after de Blasio was elected in 2009, the public advocate could use his office “to press for picking up the pace and scope of Bus Rapid Transit routes.”

But de Blasio has not had much to say on these issues. When he has spoken up about livable streets, he has tended to sympathize with opponents of current NYC DOT initiatives to improve bus service and bike safety.

Instead of asking the city to pick up the pace of bus improvements, he asked for more bureaucratic delay before DOT went forward with the 34th Street Transitway (de Blasio’s suggestion came just before the city announced that there would be no separated busway in the project). Most recently, he applauded the decision not to stripe a bike lane on Bay Ridge Parkway that was voted down by the local Community Board: “This was an important step forward that shows a willingness to respect the input of residents and community leaders.” In contrast, de Blasio has not come out and said he supports the Prospect Park West bike lane, which was requested and approved by the local community board in his old district.

Past citywide office holders have raised the profile of street safety and sustainability issues. Former city comptroller Alan Hevesi called attention to rampant traffic violations with a 2000 report estimating that motorists run red lights more than a million times each day in New York City. De Blasio’s predecessor as public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, who was widely considered a meek presence in the office, pointed out the folly of including so much parking in the city’s plans for the Far West Side of Manhattan.

De Blasio has not yet announced a mayoral run, but the Times reported last week that he raised nearly $700,000 in the first half of this year (less than Christine Quinn, about the same as Scott Stringer, more than Bill Thompson). As a big-city mayoral contender, de Blasio would have some catching up to do before he could plausibly claim to be a progressive candidate on transportation issues. The bar is high these days: Rahm Emanuel campaigned for mayor of Chicago with a strong commitment to expanding transit and bike infrastructure in his platform — promises that he is now delivering on.

Here is an overview of de Blasio’s record when it comes to transit, street safety, and public space issues.

  • Car-Free Prospect Park: As a council member, de Blasio helped win more car-free hours in the park, and supported a car-free summer trial.
  • Congestion pricing, bridge tolls, and MTA funding: De Blasio voted against congestion pricing as a council member in 2008. He then supported Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s plan to add bridge tolls pegged to the subway fare on currently free bridges.
  • The 34th Street Transitway and street redesigns in general: This March, de Blasio released a letter to NYC DOT in which he called for an environmental impact assessment of the proposed separated busway on 34th Street. De Blasio questioned DOT’s evaluation of several street redesigns, including the Ninth Avenue bike lane and Select Bus Service on the Bx12 route, calling for greater attention to be paid to traffic impacts in both cases. “In addition,” he wrote, “evaluations of Times Square and Herald Square Pedestrian Plazas, Broadway Boulevard, and Prospect Park West bike lanes all universally supported the DOT’s proposals, no matter the impact they had on surrounding areas.” The letter was then quoted in the New York Post.
  • Bike lanes: As a council member, de Blasio supported the 9th Street bike lane in Park Slope. As public advocate, he commended DOT for abandoning a plan to stripe a bike lane on Bay Ridge Parkway that would not have removed any parking spaces or travel lanes. The plan was opposed by local electeds and Brooklyn CB 10. He has not taken a position on the Prospect Park West bike lane, which is in his old council district.
  • Parking: De Blasio has a form on his website for constituents to tell him about defunct no-parking zones or broken fire hydrants that can be converted to curb parking.

Noah Kazis contributed to this post.


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