What’s the Matter With NYC Community Boards

albert
Andrew Albert has led the Community Board 7 transportation committee since many New Yorkers were in diapers.

It’s 2014. For at least 50 years, it’s been apparent that wider streets don’t make congestion go away. For about a decade, the work of UCLA professor Donald Shoup has popularized the notion that parking prices are key to the efficient operation of commercial streets, and London has shown the English-speaking world how to cut down on traffic by charging for road space. And for the last seven years, new protected bike lane designs have proven effective at preventing deaths and injuries on New York City streets.

If you lead the transportation committee of a New York City community board and a local TV news crew wants you to validate the view that a bike lane has screwed up traffic, maybe some of this thinking should seep into your comments. Maybe you should point out that the bike lane has made people safer, and it makes no sense to blame congestion on a street design when poor curb management and free roads pretty much guarantee gridlock at peak hours.

Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal have failed to replace community board members who’ve stifled change for a generation.

But that’s not how Andrew Albert, the co-chair of Manhattan Community Board 7’s transportation committee, responded when ABC 7 went fishing for quotes to pin traffic congestion on protected bike lanes. “There’s frequent gridlock here,” Albert said in front of the cameras. “If there’s a truck making a delivery on either side of the avenue, you’re sometimes down to one or two moving lanes.” Clearly, if the bike lane went away, no delivery trucks would be blocked by cars at the curb and traffic could flow as God intended.

In his committee chairmanship at CB 7, which represents the Upper West Side, Albert is a gatekeeper for any street reform in a district that’s home to more than 200,000 people. His performance for ABC 7 is an extension of how he’s used this obscure, unelected perch to delay and block proposals like protected bike lanes and a car-free Central Park since the 1990s.

Albert embodies how the community board system can be hijacked by a small number of people to stonewall changes that have broad community support. No matter how many signatures are collected in favor of a street redesign, no matter how many people crowd into the room to show they want change, Albert is a reliable vote against reallocating space from cars. When public support for a project is too overwhelming for him to obstruct, he resorts to gaming the procedure.

Albert, like other community board lifers who prevent streets from being redesigned, is an appointee. After he’d served a few years, let alone a few decades, it would have been appropriate for elected officials to hand his transportation committee responsibilities to someone else. Someone who stays current with best practices in street design and transportation policy. Someone whose views are consistent with citywide policy goals that call for a swift reduction in traffic violence. But a long line of City Council members and borough presidents have let him remain.

Current Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a bike commuter who has made no effort to expand bike lanes in her district, isn’t exactly shaking things up at Community Board 7, which she herself chaired for a time. And Borough President Gale Brewer has said that instead of removing community board members like Albert, who’ve served far longer than any NYC elected is allowed to serve, she’ll focus on adding new members. This policy does little to ensure the turnover of powerful positions like committee chairmanships.

There are people like Albert on every community board who’ve held office for a generation, don’t know the first thing about how modern streets are designed and managed, and are out of step with the neighborhoods they purportedly represent. Without reforming how community boards are trained and composed, giving them final say over street safety projects, as DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg is inclined to do, will quickly put the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero goals out of reach.

  • Mark Walker

    As an Upper West Sider since 1975 — longer than Andrew Albert has been on the CB — I would like to say he does not represent my views and I want him replaced. As a voter, I am disappointed that Brewer and Rosenthal continue to empower Albert. As a TV news viewer, I can’t help noticing that ABC7’s coverage of street safety issues is markedly inferior to PIX11’s. Both are supported by car advertising, and neither is immune from windshield perspective, but PIX11 has evolved in recent years with good work by Arthur Chi’en and, yes, Greg Mocker. ABC7 management should be ashamed.

  • Though I immensely enjoy these “Ben Fried gets REAL” posts, it’s worth noting this as the item that is the real story here:

    CB committee chair appointees who have extreme longevity are usually political appointees + political insiders. It’s been my experience observing these boards that some people have connections or roles in the establishment (usually through some Democratic party connections) that would enable these individuals to manipulate their way to positions of status, and stir up a real shitshow if they were to be displaced. There would be serious recriminations if an elected went against the establishment in these cases… as a matter of fact, usually the elected official earned their office because of the supportive political work of a few scheming committee chairs in their district.

    It’s totally plausible that a honest elected official, with a billion issues being flown directly into their face, might accept collegial support from a person without knowing their side interest is promoting regressive transportation policy. But there are lives at stake and that now has to end.

  • vnm

    I don’t know if this is relevant or irrelevant, but Andrew Albert has also been chairman of the New York City Transit Riders Council for 26 years and on the MTA board for 12 years.

    http://web.mta.info/mta/leadership/albert.htm

  • ddartley

    Someone (JSK? Someone way before her?) said something like “there are 8 million people in NYC and 8 million traffic engineers.” They were wrong. Effectively, there’s something along the lines of 59 of them. Trottenberg’s point that “the philosophy of working with neighborhoods is a sound one” is okay, but unfortunately she mistakes Community Boards for neighborhoods.

  • Ian Turner

    And the Lincoln Center BID board. This guy is really well connected.

  • Kate

    CB12 has the same problem… Jim Berlin and his gang — Entrenched nay-sayers stifling improvements to areas to preserve free parking…(for those who are able to stay at home all day and move their cars around).

  • SteveVaccaro

    Ben: More writing for you! Less editing!

  • Tyson White

    I bike down the entire Columbus Ave bike lane from 110th every morning during rush hour, and it’s hardly ever congested. The only congestion I see on Columbus is at 67th down to 65th – a couple of blocks AFTER the bike lane ends.

    Don’t believe me? Come see for yourself!

  • Reader

    CB6 in Brooklyn has less of this problem, but examples of one or two people having undue influence on the community-driven process do pop up now and then.

    Daniel Kummer nixed a bike corral that was requested by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative to serve their office on Columbia Street. The corral would have had spots for 8 bikes, had been approved overwhelmingly by the transportation committee, and was supported by a petition signed by local community members and neighboring business owners. But Kummer drove down there one day, saw a couple of empty U racks across the street on Columbia Street and single-handedly deemed the bike corral unnecessary. Democracy!

    The 4th Avenue safety improvements were initially nixed, in part, because the DOT said that one day, perhaps, maybe, the project would possibly, if they came back and ask, include bike corrals. This despite the fact that the project had been through more than a year of community planning workshops and, before that, the work of Forth on Fourth, a local community group.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2013/06/14/on-fourth-avenue-brooklyn-cb-6-prioritizes-left-turns-over-peoples-lives/

  • Larry Littlefield

    The same thing that is wrong with the state legislature. Perpetual incumbency by Generation Greed political types. Albert may be merely behind the changing times. The legislature is actively destructive.

    People form their opinions in their late teens and 20s. Few are curious and open minded enough to change them later. Give me credit — I didn’t think bicycle transportation could work either, until business casual and the all powerful bike lobby made it work for me.

    If you look at the big picture, the state legislature is the real problem. And they are de facto appointed too, in special elections no one pays attention to.

    The community boards were created pre-term limits, when the City Council was like the state legislature and it was decided that someone else was needed to actually “represent the community.” As a result of term limits, and a more representative Council, I believe the community boards are no longer needed.

  • johnmassengale

    I don’t doubt that Andrew Albert is behind the times, but so is the idea that we should build more over-engineered arterials in Manhattan with design speeds all over our new speed limit.

  • BBnet3000

    He’s right about trucks blocking lanes. That’s why hes going to support converting street parking into loading zones on commercial corridors.

    Right?

  • Lisa Sladkus

    We shouldn’t forget our friend Scott Stringer. He embraced the CB7 transpo chairs and called people names when they tried to point out how dangerous Albert and Zweig are to the people in CB7. This is why I will never support Scott Stringer for public office again AND moved out of CB7.

  • Gib Veconi

    Elected officials have no (official) role in choosing community board committee chairs. The BP appoints the board members; the board chair chooses committee chairs.

  • Paul H

    Just a note from DC where our CB-equivalent, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, are elected and represent areas of a dozen square blocks or so. They are far from perfect but at least there is some connection to the idea that the “representative” members represent people.

  • sammy davis jr jr

    The Columbus Ave bike lane was a very wise decision by the DOT. I am hoping for a repeat performance on Amsterdam Ave soon!

  • CB6

    Not particularly germane. The elected officials need to be held responsible for the performance of out-of-touch and regressive CB members like Andrew Albert.

  • Gib Veconi

    I am simply pointing out that if Mr. Albert is sacked, neither the Manhattan BP nor the local City Council member will have any control over his replacement as transpo committee chair, so that person may or not be more progressive.

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Tomorrow, NYC DOT is expected to present a plan for a protected bike lane and pedestrian islands on Amsterdam Avenue to the Community Board 7 transportation committee. It’s been a long time coming: Locals have pressed for a redesign of the dangerous, high-speed conditions on Amsterdam for many years, with the community board passing three resolutions […]