NYC’s Next Transportation Commissioner Is Polly Trottenberg

Photo: Brookings

Bill de Blasio has appointed US DOT Under Secretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg to lead the New York City Department of Transportation. Trottenberg is a veteran federal policy maker, whose resume includes stints working for New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the 1998 federal transportation bill and for Senator Chuck Schumer.

At the Obama DOT, she’s been an architect of TIGER, the grant program that’s helped fill funding gaps for many multi-modal projects. She was also a proponent of giving official recognition to the progressive street design guidelines produced by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which until recently was led by outgoing NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Trottenberg’s policy credentials are top-notch, and advocates including Transportation Alternatives and the Straphangers Campaign greeted news of her appointment enthusiastically. The big question is how her deep experience at the federal level will translate to the rough and tumble of redesigning NYC streets.

There was one off-note at the presser today, when Trottenberg said DOT would be “more collaborative with local communities” on pedestrian plazas. (Could any DOT program be more collaborative than the plaza program?) But in most respects the message from the de Blasio team was one of continued progress on transit, bicycling, and walking.

In a statement, the de Blasio transition emphasized Trottenberg’s mandate to implement a robust Bus Rapid Transit network and improve street safety:

Polly Trottenberg, current Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, will serve as the Transportation Commissioner, executing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.

“One life lost on our streets is too many. We are committed to the maxim that safety — for everyone who uses the roads, including pedestrians and cyclists — is our top priority,” said incoming Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. “From improving our roads, bridges and waterways to better serve our citizens and businesses, to connecting New Yorkers to jobs and opportunities through improved high-speed bus service, to expanding biking across the five boroughs, we can have a transportation system that is safe, efficient and accessible to all.”

When Trottenberg was first appointed to a top post alongside Ray LaHood at US DOT, advocates took it as a sign that the Obama administration was serious about transportation reform after all, since the LaHood pick was inscrutable on its own. In New York, her knowledge of the federal bureaucracy and funding landscape should be valuable (for starters, maybe she can place a phone call to fix this problem). But running an implementation agency like NYC DOT, which boils down in large part to the allocation of space, is a very different job than working the levers of federal policy, which is mainly about the allocation of money.

De Blasio has set ambitious goals for streets and transportation policy. Achieving them will be tough, and important decisions will inevitably come down to not just the DOT commissioner, but also deputy mayors and de Blasio himself. An early sign that his administration intends to stick to its transportation targets will be if the talented people who’ve risen through the ranks at NYC DOT during Sadik-Khan’s tenure stick with the agency under Trottenberg.

While this marks the end of Sadik-Khan’s remarkable leadership of NYC DOT, it hopefully represents a continuation of the spirit of innovation and determination that she brought to the job. Check here tomorrow morning for Streetsblog’s thoughts on Sadik-Khan’s legacy and accomplishments.

  • Joe

    All that sounds good and all, but if she fails to support, maintain, and protect the Prospect Park West bike lane from her ex-boss and the car-happy bigwigs, she will mark herself as an enemy of the safe streets community…no matter what else she does.

  • At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that there’s no going back on PPW.

  • Nick

    Sounds like she’s as eccentric as Sadik-Khan but maybe a little more open to reason. I drive and ride a bike on Staten Island. The bike lanes here are used by no one! But the installation of pedestrian count-down signals on Hylan Blvd was a great idea. Every borough has different transportation requirements.

  • Joe

    Hope you’re right. Her being an ex-Schumer staffer makes me nervous.

  • Teresa Toro

    Joe, as a Schumer staffer she was serving the transportation needs of NY State. She did a lot of advocacy for the state and helped bring back a lot of federal money – and NYC needs big bucks for continuing infrastructure improvements here. Give her a chance.

  • Brooklyn D

    She seems smart enough to understand her very real role in maintenance and operation of the Transp. infrastructure. “fix it first” is a great slogan but still locks in the capitally intensive deferred maintenance model. How about “maintain it first”…like paint the steel, clean the drains and suck the debris out of bridge deck expansion joints.

  • Reader

    There would be no more surefire way of expanding the bike lane network and motivating an entire new class of advocates than by threatening to remove the PPW bike lane. It’s here to stay.

    It’s more a question of what big projects are next.

  • Bolwerk

    PPW is probably effectively out of her hands, and in de Blasio’s. If de Blasio doesn’t want this fight, barring the incredibly low chance the NBBL people have at prevailing in court, PPW stays.

    What does backing off PPW do, besides satisfy the closest thing NYC has to GOP acolytes? It even alienates “moderate” QoL Bloomberg supporters who like bike lanes but would be willing to break with Bloomberg on his policing policies. No good comes from it, even if de Blasio is against PPW, which I don’t think he is.

  • blah

    could have been worse, but what does a career federal policy wonk know about big city streets?

  • Bolwerk

    Quite likely a lot. I don’t see why federal civil service experience precludes doing well with local service, but her job was helping dole out grants for mostly street-level projects in urban areas.

  • IrvinDawid

    I wonder why she took the position – going from #3 at USDOT to a big city position in transportation – isn’t it usually the other way around? Maybe this is more about where Obama’s appointees go from here than about NYC?

  • Mark Walker

    A non-Weinshall, thank heaven. Not a political hack. Kudos to Blaz, despite my misgivings about him. Reason for hope?

  • Larry Littlefield

    The question is, what about money? Infrastructure maintenance is the sort of thing that an ambitious politician can defund long enough to pursue other goals. And infrastructure had not been well funded with cash (as opposed to debt) as it is.

    Perhaps here goal as an ex-federal official will be to beg for more federal money. Perhaps the federal government will be blamed for what happens if she doesn’t get it.

    In general, the budget is the policy. Livable streets is an exception, because other than money it is one key resource local governments get to allocate — public space. But that allocation won’t stick without the money. It will fade away like the Grand Street bike lane.

  • Bolwerk

    What about money? Most of the improvements de Blasio is calling for are almost free. Lanes are available for buses, bike lanes, and sidewalk extensions – only small capital expenditures needed to re-appropriate them. About a third of the bus fleet turns over every five years, meaning plenty of room to buy more articulated buses in his first term as part of normal replacement. If BRT is done correctly it reduces (or certainly doesn’t increase) the overall levels of vehicles and labor already in place now.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Paint is cheap, but painters aren’t. As I said, bike lanes are fading away as it is. So are other pavement markings.

  • Bolwerk

    Unless the lanes are intended to be temporary, paint is the wrong tool for the job anyway.

  • stairbob

    Has anyone been by PPW yet today, just to make sure it’s still there?

  • Larry Littlefield

    I ride it several times every week.

    The way to remove it is for DeBlasio to “settle” the NBBL lawsuit, tell the big lie that the legal system made him do it, and remove the lane.

  • Joe R.

    And what does he gain by doing this other than to appease a minority of cranks, many of whom will likely die of old age before the next election?

  • Guest

    Breaking News: Anthony Weiner spotted on a Citi Bike headed southbound along the PPW bike lane carrying a can of black paint.

    “How bout those effin’ bike lanes now Bloomie!” 😀

    I think it’s safe to say NYC will continue to embrace the bicycle and related infrastructure. This goes beyond NYC. It’s indicative of world class status. Most importantly, it makes sense here.

  • Joe R.

    Totally agree here with your last paragraph. I’ve said as much to those who think we’ll be going backwards under de Blasio. Every other major city in the world is taking bicycles seriously. Given that, I highly doubt NYC will do any differently. If anything, this being NYC, we’ll try to one-up everyone else. The nice thing about bike infrastructure is you build lots of it much cheaper than you can build any other type of transportation infrastructure.

  • John Dough

    “New York’s loss is America’s gain.”

  • Sadik-Kahn was obnoxious.

  • Jack Jackson

    Comrade DiBlasio appoints Comrade Trottenburg.

  • Bolwerk

    Hurr! Hurr! We’re gonna end the gubbermint planning! We’re gonna make sure gubbermint only builds highways, no planning involved at all! Just throw that asphalt down, let it dry, and drive on it! Hurr! Hurr! Do away with zoning! Hurr, the free market will just allocate suburban subdivisions, which don’t consume any gubbermint moneys! Hurr!

  • Frank Davis

    I know I’m going to get belted for saying this, but quite frankly, as a native Brooklynite, from Park Slope and a bicyclist, the PPW bike lane is ridiculous. I have sat and watched, mornings and evenings and it’s lack of use, makes it even more annoying.
    To further this, the battle that vehicles have trying to move out of the parking lane causes more accidents and injuries with on coming traffic.
    I agree with bike lanes, but when you have a park that already has and has had bike lanes for over 20 years, what’s the point of marring this .9 mile stretch of a beautiful vista, other than hubris?

  • qrt145

    The vista of the park is more marred by the parked cars than by the bike lane, but people somehow have gotten used to the idea that cars are part of some beautiful natural landscape. That’s what’s crazy.

    The park is for recreation, the bike lane is for transportation; two very different uses. The bike lane is two-way and always open, unlike the park.

    When I’ve been in the neighborhood, I’ve seen lots of people using the bike lane. I’m sure more will use it once it becomes better integrated into a protected bike lane network.

    Your assertion that the new parking arrangement is completely unfounded; I’d rather take the DOT’s statistics than speculation.

  • Frank Davis

    We all have opinions and I’m sorry I disagree with yours. The vista of PPW, not the park per se, is mares by the clumsiness of the parked lane mixing with the through lanes added to that the juxtaposition of the bike lane.
    I’m not speculating, about the parking areangement, stand out there any morning or evening an watch the near misses and bumps. Because they are not reported, does not mean it’s not happening; food for thought

  • Frank Davis

    Like they gave Iris, what a debacle that was.

  • Bolwerk

    Sounds like a good argument for keeping cars further away from the park.

  • dporpentine

    There’s so much to dislike here:
    1) the pseudo-reasonableness and oh so very pseudo-bravery (“Why, I recognize my comment might stir the blood of the littles, but I shall say it anyway”)
    2) the declaration that the parking lane “causes more accidents and injuries” . . . a baseless assertion that is then one comment later turned into “near misses”–which, last I checked, don’t count as accidents or injuries or anything other than . . . exactly what happens on every other street in this car-choked city
    3) the bizarre aesthetic sensibility that could prefer a pointlessly wide raceway (complete with the echoing sounds of engines being gunned across empty lanes) to the quiet, organized riding of bikes, often by entire families
    4) the clear general preference for bike riders to have to ride unprotected, so that they’re the only class of people on New York City streets who have to deal with near misses
    Ah, the glories of reason!

  • Frank Davis

    The blood of the littles? You enjoy your own rhetoric.
    As I mentioned, I live here.

    3) the bizarre aesthetic sensibility that could prefer a pointlessly wide raceway (complete with the echoing sounds of engines being gunned across empty lanes) to the quiet, organized riding of bikes, often by entire families – (Never perceived PPW to be a raceway, not my experience of engines being gunned along PPW, 8th Ave., yes – organized riding of bikes by entire families, in the Park, on weekends, not in the Bike lane)

    4) the clear general preference for bike riders to have to ride unprotected, so that they’re the only class of people on New York City streets who have to deal with near misses. (What’s wrong with riding in the park and why do you feel that bike riders should be any more protected than walkers or runners?
    Ah, the glories of reason!
    Where is your reason?

  • qrt145

    I already explained what’s “wrong with riding in the park”, but here it is again in case you missed it.

    The park is for recreation, the bike lane is for transportation; two very different uses. The bike lane is two-way and always open, unlike the park.

    Would you tell people walking next to a park that they should go and walk inside? What if they are just trying to get somewhere?


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