What Planet Is DOT Living On?

Last week, Henry Melcher at the Architect’s Newspaper ran a thoughtful piece about the state of NYC DOT’s bike program that got buried almost immediately by comments from Bill Bratton and Mayor de Blasio about the Times Square plazas.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo. Photo: Stephen Miller
DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo. Photo: Stephen Miller

Melcher asked why DOT so often passes up the chance to add bike lanes in its street safety projects. He elicited this response from DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo:

Russo explained that while certain road diets may exclude bike lanes, they can be the first step in convincing skeptical communities that precarious streets can become complete streets. “We have to get people from A to C,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean every single street has to have a bike lane initially or when you do a project.” In the Vision Zero era, he continued, redesigning a dangerous intersection might initially get priority over a bike lane. The idea is that once a street is made safer for all users (cyclists included), the DOT can go back to a community board with a more substantial focus on cyclist safety.

At a press conference where Russo announced safety improvements at an Atlantic Avenue intersection earlier this week, Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller questioned this line of thinking. In the exchange, Russo repeatedly asserted that DOT is doing everything it feasibly can to make streets safer for biking given the local politics of community boards and City Council members.

Before I get to the specifics of what was said, it’s important to keep in mind that Ryan Russo has been instrumental to the street design renaissance that began at DOT with the appointment of commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in 2007. He played a leading role in introducing protected bike lanes to New York City streets and in major projects like the Times Square plazas. After Bill de Blasio was elected and put Polly Trottenberg in charge of DOT, advocates saw Russo’s elevation to deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management — a post second only to the commissioner — as an important sign that the agency would retain its capacity to make change happen.

And when it wants to, DOT remains perfectly capable of putting out great street redesigns — the changes this month on Queens Boulevard are proof of that. But there’s a huge gap between the de Blasio administration’s ambitious Vision Zero goals and DOT’s tentative decisions about bike infrastructure. Getting the agency to, for instance, propose a protected bike lane for Amsterdam Avenue — a major void in the bike network with a high injury rate — has been like pulling teeth, despite ample support from local electeds. There’s a political calculus behind these DOT decisions, and as deputy commissioner Russo is more responsible than ever for formulating it.

At the presser earlier this week, Russo defended the DOT’s recent track record on bike lane installation, with new protected bike lane mileage reaching a level in 2015 not seen since 2010. “I think we’ve upped our game in terms of our process and I think we’re getting in fewer, less high-profile controversies,” he said. “I think the big picture is that the approach we’re taking is yielding bike network enhancements in a networked fashion.”

In this view, the benchmark for DOT is its past performance, not the present opportunity to redesign streets for greater safety. But the critique of DOT isn’t that the agency is doing less than it used to, it’s that DOT could be doing more today. The endless foot-dragging over Amsterdam Avenue, the lack of bike lanes in the redesigns of West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, the hesitance to move forward with the protected bike lane on 111th Street despite strong support from Council Member Julissa Ferreras – these are all opportunities that were either passed up or delayed.

It seems like the nasty Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit of 2010, which personally targeted Russo and (thanks to a cohort of NIMBYs that included his former boss at DOT, Iris Weinshall, and her husband, Chuck Schumer) pulverized the agency in the press for nearly a year, continues to leave its mark. Russo clearly views the agency’s avoidance of local dust-ups as a sign of success. “Six years of successful traffic calming projects that we don’t need a single organizer from [Transportation Alternatives],” he said Monday. “Lives saved. Projects churned out. All over the city.”

There are certainly limits to how many feathers DOT can ruffle while retaining the capability to effect change. But there are also fights worth fighting. Former DOT boss Sadik-Khan has a saying: “When you push the status quo, the status quo pushes right back.” If DOT needs advocates and organizers to get involved in pushing a project through, that’s a sign the agency is making meaningful change.

When Stephen suggested on Monday that DOT could have proposed bike lanes as part of the West End Avenue road diet, Russo said the local politics wouldn’t have allowed it. “You’re kidding yourself,” he said. “You’re living on another planet.”

Needless to say, I don’t agree that DOT is merely practicing the art of the possible. The agency is leaving opportunities on the table. Consider:

  • De Blasio has laid out an explicit policy goal to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024. The more DOT holds back with its street redesigns, the more it makes the mayor’s promise feel empty and disingenuous.
  • More sitting members of the City Council than ever before — first-term members like Mark Levine and Ritchie Torres, and veterans like Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and Julissa Ferreras — understand the importance of street design and support reallocating space from cars to other modes.
  • Community board crankiness is not an accurate reflection of popular sentiment. Polls going back to 2011 — the peak of the bikelash — show substantial majorities of New York voters support bike lanes.
  • The anti-PPW juggernaut is gone. These days, the public advocate is calling on DOT to be more aggressive with bike lane implementation. And nothing has stirred the retrograde elements of the NYC press corps into frothing anti-bike lunacy since Dorothy Rabinowitz said the word “begrimed.”

When DOT does choose to spend some political capital, it’s not spending it wisely. The two-phase strategy to street redesign — first a road diet project, then a bike lane project — makes no sense if the community board is going to throw a fit about the first phase. That’s what’s happening with Riverside Drive and Manhattan Community Board 9. If DOT moves ahead with the road diet now and comes back a few years later with a bike lane proposal, the agency will have gone through two fights instead of one, leaving cyclists exposed to a more dangerous design for a long time in between.

Maybe the biggest risk with DOT’s current strategy is that the agency is squandering the grassroots enthusiasm and support that it built up for years. One of the downsides to formulating street redesigns around the premise that they can’t stir up cranks is that those designs also won’t be very exciting to the people who are ready to mobilize for safer streets. New York will be a lot better off if these people are fighting to make sure DOT’s designs are implemented, instead of fighting DOT to make sure the agency proposes good designs.

  • BBnet3000

    What happened to De Blasio’s 6% mode choice goal? What is the current mode choice goal anyway? What are we doing to get there? There is no strategy or plan for a comfortable cycling network, just new sharrows on more and more irrelevant routes. Also about half of the Class 2 bike lanes are always blocked and/or have worn off the road. These need a redesign.

    Something needs to change.

  • millerstephen
  • J

    Excellent piece!

    Particularly galling from Russo is this quote: “I think the big picture is that the approach we’re taking is yielding bike network enhancements in a networked fashion.”

    Networked? Is he kidding? The “network” he speaks of is a patchwork of sharrows (pictures of bikes being run over by cars), “bike lanes” (convenient places to double park), double parking lanes (literally space designed for double parking which DOT has the nerve to put on the bike map), and a few disjointed sections protected bike lanes that rarely connect to each other to form any sort of cohesive network.

    If Russo thinks he has developed anything even resembling a large-scale low-stress bike network, he’s living on another planet.

  • Andrew Lassiter

    A wonderfully balanced articulation of how the DOT may be weighing its political capital. They are doing an all right job in improving street safety, but I agree that from this perspective they seem to have the opportunity to do much, much more.

  • Bahij

    Great article. Thank you so much for lifting the curtain and giving us some insight into the DOT’s process. You’re right when you say the DOT is squandering the support of street safety advocates, which is especially frustrating because we need them more than they need us.

  • Alex 3speed

    Can the NYPD ticket cyclists for riding in the “double-parking lanes”? It will be an ultimate Beckett moment when CBs disapprove bike lanes in favor of double parking space.

  • bob88

    Overall, an excellent article, but it’s better to focus pressure on City Hall and the Commissioner, rather than agency staff who ultimately report to these higher-ups.

  • “If your policy changes infrastructure, it will change culture.”

    http://brooklynspoke.com/2015/01/19/culture-policy-breakfast/

  • MFS

    strongly agreed!

  • com63

    Maybe on streets like West End Ave. cyclists should just ride down the middle of the single vehicle lane until they are given a bike lane of their own.

  • It would be a mistake to discount the influence that Ryan wields in this position and the extent to which he directs the agency’s street design program. If anything, I don’t think Streetsblog has devoted enough attention to this very senior-level post since the days when Mike Primeggia had the job.

  • com63

    I agree. Bloomberg was willing to be bold and to not back down easily when challenged. He would back his deputies as well when necessary. DeBlasio seems to not be ready for fights (look at the central park horse thing, the uber situation and lots of other examples). I’m sure Polly and her staff don’t feel like they will have the backing of city hall if a controversy comes up.

  • Mark Walker

    Speaking as a pedestrian, if the sidewalk network were as patchy as the bike network, I’d be fit to kill.

  • BBnet3000

    Is there any way that we can account for the apparent difference in quality of the bike infrastructure being deployed by the Greenways group vs that being deployed by the Bicycle group?

  • BBnet3000

    That’s the safest way to ride anyway in the absence of high quality infrastructure.

  • Joe Enoch

    Love this….

    “And nothing has stirred the retrograde elements of the NYC press corps into frothing anti-bike lunacy since Dorothy Rabinowitz said the word “begrimed.”

  • Larry

    Even more so if there’s a commissioner who doesn’t manage or pay attention

  • Matthias

    That’s a great quote from JSK. If you’re not ruffling any feathers, you’re not pushing hard enough.

  • Alex 3speed

    I ride that stretch regularly to avoid the “intermittent construction” around the boat basin. I have actually seen people riding the center lane on other road diets. The only problem here is the double parked cars and the turning lanes that break up the median. Regardless, if I ride in the double parking lane or the center lane I need to have faith I won’t get rear ended.
    I’ve been passed too close for comfort on a number of occasions. It’s really quite dangerous because the parked cars kill the daylighting and when I’m concentrating on cars behind and to the left of me, it’s hard to react to suddenly appearing people in front and on the right of me, not to mention the door zone. I bike slowly enough that I can usually avoid trouble, but there are some significant hills on West End, and it can be dangerous.
    Talk of A to C is cheap when you’re talking about safety. The people who hate C also hate B, so no battle has been won and an incremental upgrade is going to be a silly thing to go war over. Some paint vs. double parking. Bring it on.

  • BBnet3000

    I’d love to hear him explain how 2nd Ave is networked to the Manhattan Bridge or how Flushing Ave is networked to Prospect Park. Has he ever ridden these basic routes that are within 2-3 miles of his office?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The anti-PPW juggernaut is gone.”

    Is it? Why isn’t that lawsuit over. Why hasn’t the city said “stop stalling — it’s time for a decision?

  • chekpeds

    Ryan Russo is delusional in thinking that the traffic calming projects in the last 6 years have not needed advocates !

    Taking the path of least resistance explains why traffic deaths are not declining. Let’s not do the projects that will save most lives, let’s just do the ones that have no opposition. Zero vision instead of Vision Zero. Meanwhile our families continue to die on the streets..

  • Nathan Rosenquist

    There was a very relevant high-profile death of a child on PPW that shut them all up.

  • Tyson White

    West End is hilly and is strictly residential. It’s not a destination or a viable artery. I kind of agree with Russo that it wouldn’t be easy to put a bike lane there. The efforts should be focused on Amsterdam Ave which is already on the table now. It’s central to the neighborhood, and it’s flat all the way through.

    Amsterdam is a greater priority than West End. If they had put a bike lane on West End, do you think it would be easy to get another one on Amsterdam?

  • Tyson White

    Um, that was before the election, dude

  • BBnet3000

    Yes, and they’ve revised it to doubling the current mode choice, which isn’t going to happen either without any effort.

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