“Vision Zero,” or Zero Vision? De Blasio Says “Jury’s Out” on Midtown Plazas

Bill de Blasio, who adopted an aggressive street safety platform during the Democratic mayoral primary, reverted back to a livable streets skeptic at last night’s mayoral debate. The mayoral frontrunner claimed “the jury’s out” on the city’s popular Midtown pedestrian plazas, which among other benefits have led to dramatic reductions in pedestrian injuries. Republican candidate Joe Lhota was non-committal too, but given the de Blasio campaign’s stated commitment to eliminating traffic deaths, his response was especially jarring.

At the 51-minute mark, moderator Maurice Dubois asked the candidates a question dripping with windshield perspective: “Would you take out the tables and chairs from Times Square and Herald Square and reopen Broadway?” De Blasio responded:

I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue. I’m a motorist myself, and I was often frustrated. And then I’ve also seen on the other hand that it does seem to have a positive impact on the tourist industry. So for me, the jury’s out on that particular question. I think it’s worth assessing what the impact has been on traffic, what the impact has been on surrounding businesses. I would keep an open mind.

“He may be the judge but the jury has spoken,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White told Streetsblog this morning. Since the plazas were installed in 2009, they’ve been the subject of numerous polls, traffic studies, and business reports from the city, independent pollsters, and business groups. Given the evidence, de Blasio’s assertion that there needs to be even more review defies credulity.

“The position de Blasio articulated last night is completely inconsistent with Vision Zero,” White added, referring to the candidate’s campaign plank to eliminate traffic deaths within 10 years. “Putting pedestrians first is clearly saving lives and boosting business, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Times Square.”

Two months after the Times Square plazas were first installed, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 58 percent of New Yorkers supported them, with only 35 percent opposed. A Times poll this year showed that 72 percent of New Yorkers, including strong majorities in every demographic, support the citywide plaza program.

Before the plazas were made permanent in 2010, surveys from the Times Square Alliance business improvement district found that the majority of property owners and retail managers supported the program. In 2009, 70 percent of Times Square residents and workers supported the plazas; in 2012, the percentage jumped to 80 percent, the Alliance said. After pedestrianization, Times Square has consistently ranked as one of the most desirable retail destinations on earth.

Citing the plaza’s popularity and safety gains, including dramatic reductions in the number of pedestrians walking in the roadbed and a 35 percent drop in injuries, the Alliance said there’s no reason why the city should halt construction on a permanent plaza. “The current capital project to build a world-class plaza in Times Square — already well underway — makes sense to continue,” the group said in a statement.

The sentiment is similar on 34th Street, where the local BID is looking to come to an agreement with the city that would give it more control over maintaining and programming the plazas. “The pedestrian plazas are a huge success, and must stay,” Dan Biederman, head of the 34th Street Partnership, said in a statement. “They have created great new urban life, raised real estate values, and cut pedestrian injuries.”

As for car traffic, cab drivers in Manhattan below 60th Street have seen average speeds go up 6.7 percent since 2008. After the implementation of the Times Square plaza, average taxi speeds in West Midtown increased 7 percent.

De Blasio identified as a motorist in his response, but never talked about what it’s like to walk through Times Square. White encouraged de Blasio to walk, bike, and ride the bus more, to “really understand how the majority of New Yorkers get around.” He added that TA is closely watching who de Blasio might pick to head DOT. “I don’t think there’s a lot of tolerance for waffling,” White said. “De Blasio needs to decide what kind of mayor he’s going to be.”

When Streetsblog asked the de Blasio campaign how last night’s plaza position squares with Vision Zero, spokesperson Dan Levitan replied: “He didn’t say he would tear out them out.” De Blasio didn’t say he would keep them, either.

StreetsPAC, which endorsed de Blasio in the primary, released a statement in response to his debate performance:

New Yorkers have rendered a verdict on Times Square and the more than 50 pedestrian plazas created during the past five years, and that verdict is that they’re overwhelmingly popular. These plazas comprise 20-plus acres of new public space, and they’re enjoyed not only by tourists in Midtown, but by everyday New Yorkers in outer-borough neighborhoods like Corona and New Lots. The evidence is irrefutable that traffic flows more efficiently through Times Square today, and if business were as good in the rest of New York City as it is in Times Square, City Hall would be struggling to figure out how to spend the entirety of the budget surplus. Bill de Blasio was clear in his responses to StreetsPAC’s mayoral questionnaire about his support for the plaza program and the further pedestrianization of street space in New York City, so it appears to us that he misspoke in the heat of a debate in response to a loaded question. We’re confident that a de Blasio administration will not only complete the permanent buildout of the Times Square pedestrian plaza, but will continue to make New York City’s streets safer for, and more accommodating to, pedestrians in keeping with his stated policy initiatives.

Anyone hoping for a better answer from Joe Lhota, who was asked a nearly-identical question in an August primary debate also hosted by WCBS, was left wanting. “I too am of a split mind,” he said last night, suggesting that the plazas be opened to car traffic during rush hours. (Rush hours, incidentally, are when pedestrian volumes are highest.) Claiming that tables and chairs in the plazas “are being used mostly by tourists,” Lhota said that “we need to get traffic moving around this island.”

“Most of the pedestrians in Times Square,” White rebutted, “are New York City commuters going from A to B.”

The candidates were in agreement more often than not on a range of other transportation-related issues last night:

  • The debate began with a question about the recent motorcycle-SUV assault case. Neither Lhota nor de Blasio used the opportunity to talk about traffic violence more broadly, instead saying NYPD must crack down on motorcycle gangs. “They think they can break the law and they can slow down traffic and in fact cause potential real danger to motorists and others,” de Blasio said. Lhota said that legislation in the State Senate restricting gatherings of motorcyclists to no more than six at a time could be “a possible answer.”
  • Lhota, saying tolls are too high, repeated his desire for city control of the MTA’s bridges and tunnels. Currently, MTA bridge and tunnel toll revenue helps subsidize the authority’s subway and bus service; Lhota said Albany should pick up the slack for the revenue that would be lost. De Blasio expressed skepticism about the city taking on the financial responsibility of maintaining the crossings.
  • Lhota said Boro Taxis make sense for upper Manhattan but not the outer boroughs, where livery street hails should be legalized. De Blasio, who has raised $250,000 from the taxi industry, promised to “start over” on the Boro Taxi plan. De Blasio said there should be more street hails, but didn’t explain how he would facilitate them. Both candidates said TLC hasn’t worked closely enough with the taxi industry.
  • Both Lhota and de Blasio spoke positively of Mayor Bloomberg’s “Seaport City” concept for real estate development on newly-created land in the East River near the South Street Seaport. The massive real estate project, a mirror image of Battery Park City on the west side, is one of the mayor’s storm resiliency proposals.
  • The candidates also agreed on removing horse carriages from Central Park. “Horses don’t belong in the middle of the busiest city in the world,” de Blasio said. Lhota said the carriages could be motor-powered, and de Blasio suggested electric antique replica automobiles. So much for a car-free Central Park?

There is one more debate, scheduled for Tuesday, before the election a week later.

  • Anonymous

    Horses don’t kill pedestrians. You want to talk about things that don’t belong in the busiest city in the world? It’s single-occupancy vehicles.

  • Taxpayer

    Neither the premise that the Times Square plaza is just for tourists lounging about or New Yorkers getting from A to B is correct. It’s for everything and everyone in between. I have a standing weekly meeting with clients based in an office building overlooking Times Square. Instead of sitting in a stuffy conference room, we get coffee and sit outside in the plaza. It’s perfect.

    If they bothered to walk around, the mayoral candidates would be quite surprised that there are people who actually work in Times Square. The office buildings there aren’t just for show. They’re filled with real, taxpaying New Yorkers, the majority of whom who arrive to their jobs via subways and on foot.

  • Bolwerk

    This can’t even be “pro-motorist.” The Times Square change made traffic less confusing and faster. It was a win for motorists too. Motorists who against the Times Square plaza are trying to injure themselves to spite New York’s pedestrian population.

    But what is with people like White ignoring the subway? On the list of “how New Yorkers get around,” it might be #1 and it’s certainly key to what makes everything else work. De Blasio doesn’t care about the subway either, and doesn’t even pretend to be pro-subway expansion.

  • Anonymous

    The only problem I have with the horses is their “emissions”.

  • Ian Turner

    What the hell does “potential real danger” even mean?

  • Junius

    As someone who used to commute (by foot) from Hell’s Kitchen to Midtown East every day, I can attest to the fact that the Times Square plaza made my commute much quicker, easier, and more enjoyable.

  • Mark Walker

    I just got a call from the de Blasio campaign — a live person, not a robocall. I didn’t have time to rehearse my speech but this is what I came up with: “I’m not voting for him. I don’t like what he’s saying about transportation issues. And I’m shocked that he’s not in favor of the pedestrian improvements in Times Square, which are an overwhelmingly positive thing.” Best I could come up with on short notice.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Mr. DeBlasio:
    Since you have a nice strong lead, let’s see some leadership. Announcing “Vision Zero” was a nice stroke of leadership a few months back. Now, what are your proposals to that end?

    Ben Kintisch
    PS I want the streets safe enough for my baby!

  • Alex

    I agree single occupancy vehicles don’t belong in one of the busiest cities in the world. They’re should be a midtown congestion fee added to single occupancy cars entering the city. Pedestrians and cyclists should be given priority since we occupy theeast amount of space.

  • Bronxite

    Both these guys are clueless…I’ll miss Bloomberg.

  • Steve O’Neill

    I’m not sure there’s an easy way to count vehicle occupants for an SOV congestion charge scenario. Especially because NYC will need to do it with E-ZPass and/or license plate camera technology.

    Just do congestion pricing. HOVs get an automatic discount per person, since they can share the cost.

  • Bolwerk

    One or two fleeting good points aside, mostly the fault of JSK, Bloomberg is practically the definition of aloof cluelessness.

  • Anonymous

    Whatever else is behind de Blasio’s move to meh-dom on livable streets, it’s a terrible political calculation. It gets him nothing in the short term–he doesn’t need the votes–and in the long run it gives people grounds to fight whatever good policies he might propose.

    Want to move up in the political world? Maybe even thinking about a presidential run? Bring down the number of people killed on New York City streets to something close to zero. That’ll show you can do something people thought was impossible.

    Want to be a footnote? Undo or undermine years of smart design and policymaking.

  • Anonymous

    Of course he said this, because he’s a blatant panderer.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I get the feeling that if every one of us had a long conversation with Bill DeBlasio, we would find that he agreed with all of us on almost everything, even in cases where we disagree with each other!

    Whereas if people were to find out what I thought about everything, they would find lots of things that, even if they were perhaps true, were not what they wanted to hear.

    I find DeBlasio a little irritating for this reason. So do some of you.

    Then again, he’s about to be elected Mayor and was endorsed by StreetsPAC. Whereas this site had a computer program added by Mr. Naperstek to discourage me from posting, or at least posting on certain topics, even though I agree with it two-thirds and likely more of the time.

    I’ll leave all of you to decide what that means.

  • Larry, no one at Streetsblog has discouraged you from commenting. I value your comments and am frequently edified by them. A few years ago I banned the phrase “generation greed” because, as I’m pretty sure I explained via email, you were making it the theme of just about every single comment, and there were a lot of them. Other readers were writing in saying it had become overbearing. The intent was just to nudge the conversation in a more varied direction.

  • and it looks like I enacted the ban before we moved over to Disqus, so it hasn’t even been in effect for years.

  • Bolwerk

    I favored de Blasio over the other major candidates, mostly for reasons that have nothing to do with issues discussed here, but it’s true. He doesn’t really have an obvious ideology. The authoritarians all think he’s a librul or socialist or something, and everyone else just fills the empty vessel with whatever they want.

    Even Quinn had an ideology. It was truculent, but at least we knew what its contours. On safe streets and transit, de Blasio can go any which way and it’s a safe bet he will, and I have some concern that might be true with most issues.

  • Andrew

    ”Would you take out the tables and chairs from Times Square and Herald Square and reopen Broadway?”

    Is this a typo? Broadway is open now. Is Dubois proposing that it be closed again, as it was until a few years ago?

  • Anonymous

    SMH. Who the fuck doesn’t like the redesign? Does Clarence need to run some b-roll of the shit show it was pre-redesign? Yah, let’s funnel all the cars and trucks through a convoluted 3X intersection in the densest part of midtown.

    It’s bad enough the GOP is beholded to the Tea Party? Why can’t we get a mayor who isn’t beholden to . . . . ? I don’t even know. It’s not even the “wind shield perspective.” Freakin rents are as high as 57th and 5th for crying out loud!

    “Ny’ers” like to say how much they hate times square because of all the tourists and crowds (who’s down for olive garden!). But, c’mon. I really do question his judgment if he feels like he needs to qualify himself on Times Square. Bloody hell.

    Is he just trolling streetspac or somethin?

  • Mike

    I can’t say that I’m surprised. He’s never really believed in or cared about our issues and he’s too far ahead to care what we think. The best we can hope for is that he appoints a half-decent DOT commissioner and gives that person enough leeway to keep things moving forward.

  • Leona Helmsley

    Even if Times Square WAS the exclusive domain of tourists, which it clearly is not, shouldn’t the major-party candidates
    for Mayor of New York City be rolling out the red carpet to the 50
    million-plus people who inject $40 BILLION into our economy every year? Wake up, dummies!

  • Rich Miller

    If our future Mayor wants traffic to move more smoothly in Manhattan so that he feels better as a motorist, then he should support congestion pricing and not livable street measures that make the streets safer for everyone.

  • I’ll add that, while I think Larry is a great poster overall, I was put off by the concept of “generation greed” because it villified a concept that deserves emulating. I believe strongly that public employees should have strong unions (as should everyone else; but the focus of that little catch-phrase was on public employees).

    Contracts which take care of public employees in old age are good things; that is what the people who make this City great deserve. We should never cast aspersions at a workforce that was organised enough to achieve that; rather, we should be inspired to follow that good example. As unionisation ebbs, it is terrible to look with contempt at people who did things the right way.

    Anyway, all that said, Larry is right about most of his analysis of things, including about the pandering of de Blasio.

  • I have the feeling that it isn’t a political calculation. The political calculation was when he masqueraded as a livable streets proponent in order to gain the Streetspac endorsement. Now that he figures that he’s wrapped things up, he can say what he really thinks.

  • Sadik-Khan is not a fleeting good point of the Bloomberg administration; she’s a central figure and a huge positive. Bloomberg appointed her, and defended her from attacks on the parts of other agencies. Absolutely everything good that she did is, in the end, attributable to Bloomberg.

    There are plenty of good reasons to dislike Bloomberg: his destruction of the Board of Education; stop-and-frisk; his contempt for public housing residents. But the fact is that he improved the quality of life enormously in this City by means of the bike lanes and the pedestrian plazas.

  • Actually, the problem is that they are treated cruelly. While I personally love hot weather, I know that the horses are not supposed to be working on those days. I don’t know what the cutoff point is supposed to be, but I know that I have seen them out there on days of 85 degrees and higher.

  • Anonymous

    I think you’re probably right. But that’s what worries me: he should still be making political calculations. He’ll almost certainly have a city to run soon. That’s a political activity.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see the surface/ped improvements as so revolutionary. Maybe I’m biased by my expectations from being in other places, but New York’s ped/surface transit tweaks were pretty modest at most. Granted, a few were high profile and even modest improvesments are important, but overall little has actually changed.

    Needless to say, JSK could have gone a lot further. The scariest part is most of the changes are pretty reversible, and de Blasio seems like exactly the kind of person to horse trade away core values.

  • Bolwerk

    If anything, it’s “generation greed” that sold out the union movement. Small-D democratic unions wouldn’t have complex hierarchies designed to give privileges to the oldest members. If anything, they’d nurture new members. Perhaps the last union that does that is the Wobblies. Whatever its shortcomings, there was a robust union movement before the boomers came along.

    Unions are tools that can be used for good or evil. Many of the problems with public sector workers in NYC have less to do with compensation/benefits and more to do with overstaffing and poorly defined work roles, though unions play no small part in keeping those problems unsolved. The LIRR, OTOH, is pretty unusually atrocious across the board.

    I really don’t see any reason to support defined benefits for public sector union workers either. It basically means I get to pay for a benefit for them that I don’t get myself. Either everyone should get a defined benefit from the government, or no one should. I think everyone should, and in the end it saves society and even business a lot of trouble to do it that way, but nobody is fairer than just government workers.

  • Guest

    Could it be possible to get through this conversation without disparaging the huge amount of work that JSK and the DOT have done in a short amount of time. Saying that she could have done more shows a significant lack of understanding of the mountains that the men and women at DOT have climbed on behalf of safer more livable streets. It’s difficult and often thankless and it may not keeping going under the next Commissioner.

  • Bolwerk

    New York is still more of a doormat for automobile users than most large first world cities, and there was never much serious talk from Bloomberg about changing that. There is nothing disparaging to JSK or anyone else about understanding that – it is what it is.

  • Joe R.

    It’s the excesses of unions which are killing them. Even unions are implicitly acknowledging these excesses with tiered plans which give fewer benefits to newer members. Unfortunately, that approach is turning off new members who correctly see it as them having to do all the sacrifice to make up for the extravagances of the past. If the unions wanted to garner more support, then benefit reductions would apply across the board. Indeed, the very premise of unionizing is to treat all workers fairly. It’s patently unfair to give new workers less than older ones. And don’t get me started on silly seniority rules which reward just sticking around instead of performing well. That’s actually the biggest problem with unions for a lot of people, me included. You expect to advance in the world as fast as your abilities allow. Unions are counter to this concept. There are no real rewards for being better at your job. Your pay only increases when you’re there longer.

    I think instead of unions basic worker protections and benefits should be enshrined in law. We should have single payer health care. We should have greater protections against outsourcing jobs. We should have a higher minimum wage in places where the cost of living is higher. We should make sure people have secure retirements. In general we should treat ALL workers like the valuable assets they are by law, not because of a union contract.

    On a another tangent, a large part of the problem is the public ownership of corporations via shareholders. This encourages lack of future planning when all that matters to the CEO is next quarter’s profits. We end up laying off or mistreating workers even if it guts the company in the name of short term profits. Fix this and you go a long way towards making things better for all workers. I’m as disgusted as you seeing the ongoing attacks on the middle class by the wealthy but I’m not seeing unions as the answer. Wall Street is the biggest cause of a lot of today’s problems. Unions can’t fix that.

  • Anonymous

    Lhota is right about 1 thing, DeBlasio wants to take NYC back to the 1970s including its street design. I’ll take the 4th term of the highly competent Bloomberg any day over these clueless hacks. Enjoy NYC now, its all downhill from here.

  • Matthew Bruckner

    A few months after these were installed, I organized and moderated a panel discussion at the NYC Bar Association about the Broadway plazas. Despite “concerns” voiced in the NYPost, among others, I was not able to find any actual people who were willing to come and publicly denounce the plazas. Who seriously thinks that these plazas are a bad idea?

  • I firmly defend seniority rules as the fairest possible approach. The concept of “merit” is valid only in a fantasy world which ignores the all of the biases that are endemic to the culture. In other words: you cannot trust bosses to make objective decisions about raises and promotions, because they are enculturated into the ugly prejudices (be they racial, gender-based, or otherwise ideological) on which the culture runs. Managers can always find a way to play favourites, whether intentionally or unconscously. The idea of the objective evaluation of merit is like the idea of the perfectly rational consumer — it is a pure fiction.

    Still, of course we ought to have laws that mandate the things that unions fight for — salaries that can provide a good quality of life, freedom from harassment, overtime pay, due process in disputes, safety regulations, pensions, etc. But the road to this goal is through greater unionisation, to the point where these working-class values are considered so universal as to require enshrinement in law.

    And, likewise, the fewer workers that are in unions, the more that working-class values recede from view, and the less likely that they’ll ever be enshrined in law — indeed, the law then becomes a tool to harm workers’ interests, by defining the workplace as a place where the Constitution doesn’t apply, and by erecting barriers to organisation and collective action.

    So the cause of workers’ problems is essentially our lack of class consciousness; we’ve let the “middle class” myth blind us to our common interests as workers, and we have suffered greatly for it. The thieves on Wall Street have used workers’ false consciousness to their advantage, for example by exploiting the fetishisation of home ownership to rip people off.

    I, as a member of a weak and pliable union, have enormous respect and admiration for any union that has been able to retain even part of its power to protect its members’ interests, something which my union cannot do. Unless we bring back large-scale unionisation (which is highly unlikely), we as workers will see our conditions get worse and worse.

  • Bolwerk

    Any authority figure can play favorites, and most do. Big, hierarchical unions encourage that every bit as much as big, hierarchical corporations.

    It’s perfectly fair to care for older workers when they start having health problems in their 50s or 60s, but it’s also fair to nurture young members so they develop their skills. You can’t just have seniority rules where the privileges flow up and the shit flows down. That’s how neo-cons view the world, and it’s not how the TWU should.

  • Joe R.

    You make a valid point about bosses playing favorites under any merit system. That’s why I think whenever possible objective measures, such as competency tests or performance metrics, should be used to determine promotions. That said, job performance can’t be quantized for every job. Indeed, for certain types of jobs, such of police, performance metrics such as the number of summonses or arrests are the last thing you want because it encourages bad policing. In the final analysis, in some instances seniority is the way to go, in others it isn’t. It really depends on the type of employment. Note that I personally don’t care much about promotions compared to getting raises for performing better than average. Again, not all jobs are amenable to this, but those that are should pay better performing workers more, regardless of seniority.

    I firmly think workers need to unite somehow to better their lot. I’m just not sure that traditional labor unions are the best way. A movement like Occupy Wall Street, but with better organization and more specific goals, is what I have in mind. If workers united to the point that few would accept mistreatment or substandard terms of employment, then their lot would improve. The biggest thing we could do in my opinion is to give companies hefty penalties for outsourcing workers. A good start would be to no longer allow them to deduct salaries of overseas workers as a business expense. The problem isn’t just US workers competing with other US workers willing to worker for lower wages or benefits. Rather, it’s US workers competing with overseas workers who often are willing to do the job for 1/10th of what US workers are paid. This unfair competition won’t end until it’s no longer easy for businesses to outsource workers.

    I should note that there is a glimmer of hope here. In some of my trade journals, I’m reading that companies are getting cool to oursourcing because of quality control problems and/or foreign labor disputes. Add in the greater productivity of US workers, and it’s no longer the bargain it once seemed. There are a lot of advantages to having your production and workforce local. There are also advantages to retaining experienced workers. Now that we’re starting to see the worst effects of treating workers like disposable assets the pendulum may start shifting the other way.

    I could write a lot more, including the long term effects of automation, but it’s not really all that relevant so I’ll end here.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Generation Greed isn’t about public employee unions. It is about a set of values that have also affected public employee unions. You see the same values in other decisions as well.

    And younger generations of public employees are among the victims. In the case of the unions, I complained about the “screw the newbie, flee to Florida” cycles. Both parts of it. You may have noticed that since I pointed it out, the “screw the newbie” part has been happening. But it’s really all one decision.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You miss my broader point. People who tell other people what they want to hear do well. People who tell people what they don’t want to hear, by conventional metrics, do not.

    Politicians respond to those stimuli. Do you blame them, or current values among the broader public, or human nature?


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