Who’s in Charge of Streets at City Hall?

A few things we learned today about how important decisions regarding streets and public space get formulated in the de Blasio administration:

Letting Bill Bratton’s instincts guide New York City street policy is a bad move. Photo: Mayor’s Office/Flickr
  • The whole flap over removing the Times Square plazas was the result of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton acting freelance. Bratton told the Wall Street Journal he planned his plaza outburst to the word (“to smoke people out”) but didn’t tell de Blasio ahead of time. The mayor proceeded to improvise. To date, he still hasn’t publicly ruled out the possibility of scrapping the plazas.
  • De Blasio defers to Bratton a lot.
  • City Hall’s Times Square task force still hasn’t met, nearly a month after de Blasio announced he would convene a group to figure out how to handle the costumed hustlers and desnudas. Several members of the task force were hastily invited to join the day Bratton made his surprise remarks, NBC 4 reports, and as recently as last week, “several task force members expressed concerns about whether the task force was real,” though a meeting is now on track for Thursday. The administration says it will have a plan two weeks later.

It’s entirely possible, even likely, that the issue will eventually get resolved without messing up all the recent progress that’s made Times Square a better place for people. Just about all the political actors except Bratton think yanking out the plazas is preposterous, and the always-sensible Times Square Alliance has been filling the void left by the yet-to-convene task force.

But a minor problem like hustlers in Times Square never should have metastasized into a much larger debate casting doubt on one of the city’s most prominent public space transformations. It shouldn’t have festered for as long as it has.

With de Blasio letting Bratton turn a street issue as straightforward as the Times Square plazas — a clear improvement for public safety, economic performance, and traffic congestion in Midtown — into a sloppy PR mess, what hope is there for a more complex, citywide effort like Vision Zero?

There’s clearly a conflict between Bratton’s instincts and the idea that New York’s streets should be safe and enjoyable places to walk and bike. If the mayor doesn’t step in and set his police commissioner straight, no one will.

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