De Blasio’s No Leader on Transportation and Climate

The mayor's climate policy lacks courage and avoids necessary but politically difficult changes to shift trips from cars to transit and bikes.

Photo: Mayor's Office
Photo: Mayor's Office

Mayor de Blasio wants to be seen as a leader on climate change, rallying the nation’s cities as a countervailing force to the Trump administration and its denialism. But de Blasio’s strategy on climate policy lacks an essential quality of leadership: courage. The mayor is pursuing an easy political path toward lower emissions, avoiding the tough fights on transportation policy that will ultimately be necessary to achieve the city’s climate goals.

Last week de Blasio announced a push to cap emissions from buildings over 25,000 square feet and force improvements to more than 14,000 buildings that account for nearly a quarter of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to City Hall.

Buildings are the single largest source of carbon pollution in NYC, and any climate plan has to address them. But de Blasio’s splashy announcement in advance of Climate Week rehashed mandates that city officials have been discussing for years. In fact, several City Council members, including speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, took the mayor to task for not going far enough with his clean buildings plan.

The mayor’s climate pronouncements also never address the second-largest source of carbon pollution in NYC — transportation, which accounts for one-fourth of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In an ironic twist, however, last week’s City Hall press release said the push for clean buildings would be “equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road.” As Doug Gordon noted on Twitter, the de Blasio administration is tacitly admitting that cutting car traffic is good for the climate without taking tangible policy steps to deliver significant reductions in transportation emissions.

According to a 2016 report from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, NYC has to achieve a nearly 10-fold increase in cycling mode share and attract more riders to buses.

While the administration carves out a few miles of street space for bike lanes and bus lanes each year, it doesn’t add up to the bold action that meeting those targets will require. Traffic is on the rise, bicycling has plateaued, and bus service continues to lose ground to for-hire vehicles. All these trends need to start moving in a different direction, fast — and there’s no way to do that without grinding through some political conflict.

Bike commute mode-share in NYC has been stuck at 1.2 percent for three years running. To get more people on bikes, the city will have to pick up the pace on installing protected bikeways — the kind that claim car lanes and parking spaces.

New Yorkers also continue to abandon bus service. The mayor can speed up bus travel by directing DOT to install more and better bus lanes and implement transit signal priority at more intersections. Though TSP technology is in place across the city, DOT only plans to install it for 10 additional lines by the end of 2020. City Council members are pressuring DOT to accelerate its schedule, something that’s not actually a tough political lift and should be a no-brainer for the mayor.

Finally, de Blasio needs to get on board with toll reform. Though the Move NY plan would affect a relatively small number of trips to, from, and within the Central Business District, that shift will significantly reduce the city’s worst traffic bottlenecks. And that will open up street space, enabling the city to accelerate the bus and bike improvements needed to meet the mayor’s mode-share goals.

“The governor has finally expressed support for congestion pricing,” wrote Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool in a Sunday Daily News op-ed. “But there is still no sign that Mayor de Blasio — whose issue du jour seems to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions — has any plan to leverage that support.”

  • sbauman

    Though the Move NY plan would affect a relatively small number of trips to, from, and within the Central Business District, that shift will significantly reduce the city’s worst traffic bottlenecks.

    What’s the evidence? Cordon counts and vehicle speeds within the CBD have both been going down in tandem.

  • Larry Littlefield

    To be fair, the central problem DeBlasio faces is this. The demands by the government from the citizens keep going up — taxes, fees, tolls, organic recycling, no plastic bags, etc. Even though they are already among the highest here in NYC.

    And his backers keep pushing to reduce what the government provides in return.

    On something like congestion pricing, talking the talk when he and his don’t walk the walk would make him an easy target in the ongoing competition between the political/union class and the executive/financial class to bamboozle and take more from the serfs.

  • redbike

    | What’s the evidence?

    Evidence??? Wait, are you saying that random back-&-forths with folks on the interwebs isn’t a sound basis for forming public policy?

    Adding to that random back-&-forth, even with no incontrovertible numbers related to cordon counts or vehicle speeds, (de)congestion pricing is IMHO justified as a funding source for both bridge maintenance and public transit.

  • sbauman

    even with no incontrovertible numbers related to cordon counts or vehicle speeds, (de)congestion pricing is IMHO justified as a funding source for both bridge maintenance and public transit.

    Traffic congestion in the CBD and financing public transit are two separate issues. The result of trying to achieve both aims with a cordon toll will be failing to reduce congestion and trying an inefficient means to finance public transit. Each issue can be handled attacked separately.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The governor has finally expressed support for congestion pricing,” wrote Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool in a Sunday Daily News op-ed. “But there is still no sign that Mayor de Blasio — whose issue du jour seems to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions — has any plan to leverage that support.”

    I’m prepared to believe that the Mayor and Governor had a deal to each introduce proposals the other opposed, so they can pretend they are in favor of increasing funding for the subways without actually doing so. In the tradition of the one-house bill in Albany.

  • Isaac B

    Is it my imagination, or are “walk” intervals getting shorter on NYC traffic lights?

  • bolwerk

    Did anyone ever think he was?

  • bolwerk

    Meh, it’s more the “private” sector driving up the costs of survival in New York. The major contributing problem with the cost of surviving in New York is not tolls and taxes, but high rents.

    As far as government waste goes, most of the people who complain about it won’t attack its more egregious sources: over-policing, unnecessary bureaucracy, redundant labor, badly thought out regulations, deference to the status quo, etc.. I don’t see a big problem with, say, the size our education budget, but consider where it goes. Why is so much of it administrative? Almost everyone with a teacher credential should be teaching, or in most cases their credential is useless.

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