It’s More Than “Cheap Symbolism” When the Mayor Rides Transit

De Blasio dismisses the importance of getting out of his SUV. But if the mayor doesn't regularly experience what it's like to get around without a car, he won't feel on a visceral level why improving transit, biking, and walking is so important.

De Blasio on a rare subway trip in early 2014. Photo: Rob Bennett/NYC Mayor's Office
De Blasio on a rare subway trip in early 2014. Photo: Rob Bennett/NYC Mayor's Office

On his weekly “Ask the Mayor” radio appearance this morning, Mayor de Blasio called on New Yorkers to take responsibility for climate change in light of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.

“We have to take disproportionate action, for our own good,” de Blasio said. “Let’s be leaders here, let’s show we can go even farther [than our goals].”

The mayor reiterated his administration’s commitment to reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and said, “the policies of this city are going to lead to addressing climate change in a much more aggressive way that it’s ever been addressed in the history of New York City.”

But when Charles Komanoff called in and asked whether de Blasio would “lead by example” and change his own travel habits, including his daily motorcade from the Upper East Side to the Park Slope Y, the mayor called it “cheap symbolism.”

“Whether I go to the gym does not affect the policies that affect millions of people,” de Blasio said.

This misses the major reason why a mayor should make an effort to experience the transit system. It’s not that his motorcade increases emissions, or even that it sends the wrong message. It’s that the way de Blasio gets around shapes how he views the city. And those views are inevitably going to influence his policies.

If he’s getting chauffeured in an SUV everywhere he goes, there’s no way the mayor can viscerally understand what the three-quarters of New Yorkers who don’t commute by car experience on a daily basis.

De Blasio insisted that his schedule requires him to be driven places, and that he “[uses] the subway when it makes sense to use the subway.” But documented instances of de Blasio riding the subway are few and far between. And he certainly doesn’t have first-hand experience riding overcrowded buses stuck on the city’s congested streets, nor does he bike in the city’s often-obstructed bike lanes.

From de Blasio’s perspective in the backseat, bus lanes aren’t doing anything to make his trips quicker. The mayor may know on an intellectual level that they are beneficial. But on a gut level, when you’re in a car, priority treatments for buses and bikes feel like they are getting in the way.

Through the levers of parking policy and the allocation of street space for transit, biking, and walking, de Blasio could substantially lower transportation emissions in NYC. More efficient streets are also essential for accommodating population growth, which delivers huge environmental benefits itself in a city like New York, where per capita emissions are so low.

But in discussing climate policy with Brian Lehrer, de Blasio focused almost exclusively on his administration’s push to retrofit buildings — the source of 68 percent of citywide emissions — for environmental efficiency. Besides a quick reference to the city’s efforts to electrify its own vehicle fleets, he made no mention of transportation, which accounts for more than quarter of the city’s emissions, mostly from motor vehicles.

“I do stay in touch with what people are going through,” the mayor insisted today, “and I knew it for years and years because for years and years I never even had any car.”

A first-hand refresher on the current state of the transit system is in order. A mayor who gets out and rides the bus — even just every now and then — would be less inclined to issue thousands of parking placards and more enthusiastic about carving out street space for transit.

  • Nice going, Komanoff!

  • J

    Classic limousine liberal response from De Blasio. Maybe we need a new term for such out of touch perspectives. Maybe “SUV progressive”? Or “Chauffeured enviro”?

  • Reader

    “Whether I go to the gym does not affect the policies that affect millions of people.”

    Man, this is so wrong. What a politician does in his personal life absolutely affects his policies and their chances for success. Remember when he was caught speeding by Marcia Kramer when Vision Zero was just starting? He used the same “But I’m the mayor” justification then and it didn’t work.

    I so wish there was a better choice for about a million reasons.

  • Siskel & Ebert

    If there wasn’t already a movie called “Clueless,” it would be a fitting title for the de Blasio documentary.

  • JudenChino

    The mayor may know on an intellectual level that they are beneficial. But on a gut level, when you’re in a car, priority treatments for buses and bikes feel like they are getting in the way.

    This 1000x. He doesn’t actually experience the pain of “just missing” your train, which, on the weekends, means up to 20 minutes. He doesn’t know what it feels like to be on a bus that literally crawls and is blocked by placard abuse and double parked cars.

    We should absolutely have dedicated busways. Not this, 6 hours/day bus lanes. We should absolutely have a Peoplesway on 14th street. But since he internalizes the necessity and supremacy of Private Vehicle transport, it’s unfathomable to him that you could shut down a major crosstown route like that without inviting chaos (as opposed to the chaos when the WillyB/Delancey is pure gridlock for 8 hours/day, the same with 14th street once the L shuts down).

    He’s a shitty politician. He’s a shitty mayor. He does this because he’s a coward, not because he has to. He only expends political capital for his donors and primarily those that are RE developers. He’s not clever. He’s shit. We need an Urbanist mayor. Not this feckless coward.

  • I don’t want to continue to dig into the idea that more time proportionally should be spent hitting Cuomo for MTA failures, but I will say this:

    What makes anyone here think de Blasio’s “windshield perspective” will be cured by a week on the train? Maybe for a reasonable person, yes! BDB is insanely stubborn and would probably “witness” our commutes for a week and then jump right back into the SUV. All indications are that, after becoming extremely familiar with the way traffic and transit works in densely-populated neighborhoods in the subway network, he still believes that the most transportation-“oppressed” city resident is the one driving him/herself to work into Manhattan during weekday business hours.

    He didn’t move here yesterday. He’s clearly been on the subway a bunch of times. If he hasn’t learned by now, it’s sadly an embedded part of his worldview. His only grace is that he seems uninspired to go full-NIMBY on the city’s sustainable transportation elements; there’s no indication he’s tried to trip up any grassroots effort to improve transit or automobile alternatives.

    We should expect better anyway, and his private grousing about plaza squares is more than a little irritating. It will be a relief to elect a more useful ally. Someday.

  • JudenChino

    What I find most irritating (aside from the obvious), is that, what it says about how he uses his time.

    I bike to most of my destinations, because it’s usually the most time efficient (I can afford to take cars whenever I want, it’s just that they get stuck in traffic). I have a full time job. I have a son. I try to have a social life as well. Everything I do requires planning and considering of how it can be done in the most time effective manner. Because if not, then Son misses nap and life sucks. Or it’s not worth it to make that trip since I could be at place x/y/z for 15 minutes at most etc . . .

    I have to be economical with my time. I have to make conservative estimates. I have to leave a cushion. etc . . . And this motherfucker, by dint of his flashing light motorcade, has the chuztpah, to start his day in Park Slope, when he lives on the UES and works at City Hall?!?!!? I mean, WTF. That’s what pisses me off. I am never able to make a CB meeting because it’s either (i) I’m working or (ii) I’d rather tuck my son in to bed. I have to make sacrifices. Yet, as a pure luxury, he gets wisked off to my neighborhood, and has his SUVs sit idle blocking my 9th street bike lane, solely because he can.

    When he was a CM, he and I used to have the exact same commute. But he wouldn’t take the R (which goes straight to City Hall from his house). He sure as fuck wouldn’t bike (25 minute ride, every day). He’d drive Dante to Brooklyn Tech (which goes straight to Fulton from the G train) and then drive to City Hall. Like why is he so special that the rules don’t apply? Yah, he’s the mayor now. But it’s an awful drive. Just congestion upon congestion. And his trip was 100% a trip that didn’t need to be done by car.

  • Noah Berland

    Too busy? I seem to remember Bloomberg riding the subway nearly every day, he did get driven to the express stop, but still, he managed to get around.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Mayor DeBlasio needs to understand the value of symbolism, cheap or otherwise.

    An elected executive position is three jobs — management (of city government), policy (for city government), and leadership (of the general public, by word and deed).

    We also have a “tale of three cities,” the executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs. You either want to have the same deal as the serfs and no more, and share their fate, or you join those working the system for a better deal at their expense.

    I don’t want to over-criticize DeBlasio here, or expect some kind of perfection. And doing things for show is doing things for show. But anyone with any power has to be very careful not to become separated from the people they allegedly serve.

  • Michael Palutke


  • Reader

    Part of the reason de Blasio is too busy is because he goes to a gym 12 miles from his house.

  • Facebook User

    Mayor DeBlasio works very hard to keep up with the city. It’s a great city, millions of people live and visit here. It’s not a easy job to do, I give them credit handling a huge city like NYC. travel and transportation is very important, I heard that city has been working on an alternatif traffic solutions.

  • Not to mention supporting the Move NY congestion pricing plan which would slash traffic and raise $1.5B per year for transit – a proposal the mayor has been lukewarm on, at best.

  • dpecs

    What’s crazy is that he gives up relatively nothing for this “cheap symbolism,” which does matter. If he wants to have a political career after 2021 (and maybe he doesn’t, who knows!), he needs to realize that optics are important.

  • djx

    All this. ALL THIS.

  • Maggie

    It is so frustrating to see this hypocrisy from the mayor, and the absolutely asshat level of contempt from his press secretary (?) for every New Yorker who chooses not to be part of the chauffeured SUV problem. De Blasio ran, and won a stunning victory, on a “tale of two cities” platform. Now he can’t be bothered to spend a week on a bike, or a week on the bus, to understand the city that millions of his constituents live with? He really is going to defend a 12 mile daily SUV ride to the gym?! When you run on a tale of two cities and NYC faces existential threats from climate change, the bar for de Blasio is higher than, well, Mike Bloomberg took a private jet, so de Blasio can let all the serfs on the bus or fighting for safe bike infrastructure eat cake.

  • Vooch

    it’s actually faster ( and healthier ) for the Mayor to Citibike from Gracie Mansion using 2nd Ave PBL to City Hall

    versus the Mayor Convoy to Brooklyn & Exercise at Gym then convoy to City Hall.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. If he biked to work he wouldn’t even need to go to the gym for exercise. If he must go to a gym, why the F can’t he go to a gym close to Gracie Mansion instead of one in Brooklyn?


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