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.

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