Here's what changed during my ten immensely rewarding years producing stories for Streetsblog - and what's still on the to-do list.
I’ve been struggling with how to summarize my ten-year run at Streetsblog, which I officially wrapped up this month. So much has changed since founding editor Aaron Naparstek gave me my first assignment on January 10, 2008 — I covered a congestion pricing forum featuring classic Streetsblog foil and globally renowned laptop owner Anthony Weiner — it’s hard to encapsulate.
Instead of describing things through the lens of physical alterations to city streets (there are too many to choose from, each made possible by a vast constellation of city officials, advocates, and volunteers), I want to look at how the political and media landscape for New York City transportation policy has changed since 2008.
Streetsblog has always been out in front on the problem of cars in cities — arguing for the reduction of urban motoring to a degree that you won’t see anywhere else in the local press. That’s what makes it Streetsblog. But ten years ago, we were much more of an outlier. Our message hasn’t changed much since then — the rest of the media landscape has.
The editors and reporters here were never apologetic about our stance, but in the early years we had to send emails pleading with other media outlets to take our perspective seriously. To us, it was a newsworthy event whenever a major publication ran a piece endorsing the idea that cities should claw back street space that had been ceded to cars. A sizable share of the Streetsblog posts from this era were devoted to swatting away the attacks on bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and transitways that proliferated in the tabloids and the evening newscasts.
The overall caliber of New York City transportation coverage is much higher now than it was then. I don’t claim any credit whatsoever for the excellent work of other reporters. But Streetsblog made it increasingly untenable for anyone with a citywide platform to publish vapid takes about street redesigns and retain broad public respect. (It helped that DOT’s projects worked as advertised, and that the haters eventually descended into self-parody.) Streetsblog isn’t a lone voice anymore. Steve Cuozzo is the one wandering the wilderness, shouting about the damned bike lanes.
Circa 2010, the city’s political institutions were mostly stuck in the same rut as the local press. The City Council transportation committee functioned primarily as a forum to air gripes about the hassles of parking on the street. City legislation of the era included bills to extend a five-minute “grace period” to motorists who overstay the allotted time at metered parking, to eliminate the use of stickers to shame alt-side parking violators, and to codify red tape for street projects that reduce parking or motor vehicle lanes.
Streetsblog relentlessly called attention to the gulf between the city’s massive need for better transit and safer bicycling and walking, and the obsession of the political class with the New York City parking experience in all its petty minutiae. Politicians couldn’t pander to motorist resentment without triggering a stinging Streetsblog post calling them out. If you read Streetsblog, you got a clear view of just how disconnected your elected (and unelected) representatives were from the daily experience of New York’s car-free majority.
Streetsblog didn’t create the public appetite for streets where walking, biking, and transit take precedence over cars — that was already abundant in New York. What our coverage generated was a heightened and more sophisticated political awareness of how to achieve those ends, including what and who stood in the way. This awareness was essential for the emergence of an explicitly political organization like StreetsPAC and a rising cohort within the City Council (and, increasingly, Albany) that’s much better attuned to the basics of sound transportation policy than their predecessors.
New York today is poised for tremendous transportation breakthroughs. But as much progress as we’ve made, the mayor and the governor haven’t caught up to the rest of the city.
Despite Mayor de Blasio’s occasional displays of moral leadership on street safety, he’s so feckless on transportation policy in general that he’s allowed marginal initiatives like ferries and the half-baked BQX streetcar to dominate his agenda. While London and Paris achieve significant reductions in car travel and impressive shifts toward transit and cycling, New York slides deeper into traffic dysfunction under de Blasio, a mayor who’ll go on about climate action and creating a fairer city one day and issue 50,000 parking placards the next.
Governor Cuomo can’t claim any sort of high ground. More consumed with score-settling and grandiose infrastructure monuments than with keeping the New York City transit system — the foundation of the state’s wellbeing — in good working condition, his two terms have been a catastrophe of steadily declining service for subway and bus riders. After finally acknowledging the transit crisis more than a year ago, Cuomo has yet to produce tangible improvements.
New York City’s movement for transportation reform also has to contend with the agency more impervious to change than any other institution Streetsblog covers: NYPD. Police still set traffic enforcement policy based on their own biases instead of data. They harass cyclists, use bike tickets as a pretext to stop black people, and hit delivery workers with debilitating penalties.
On duty or off, they drive and park in areas that are supposed to be car-free under the law, undermining the government and the residents they purportedly serve. The most heavily obstructed sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus lanes in the city are inevitably the ones closest to police precincts.
Undergirding this dysfunction is a corrupt system of “professional courtesy,” perpetuated by both rank-and-file officers and top commanders, which treats immunity from traffic laws as its primary currency. Parking placards and palmcards shield police and their friends from any accountability behind the wheel. Through their unions, police oppose traffic enforcement cameras that have prevented dozens if not hundreds of deaths.
If any police officials feel misgivings about the department’s indifference to and impunity from traffic laws, they’re invisible from the outside. The entire NYPD, from the commissioner’s office on down, is suffused with a culture of secrecy that keeps everything from disciplinary records to crash reports to useful data on traffic summonses hidden from public view.
So Gersh has his work cut out for him as he takes over here. I know he’s game, and that he’ll relentlessly punch away at every barrier that blocks New York from being a great city for walking, biking, and transit. What I’ve learned at Streetsblog is that when your aim is on target and you punch long enough, you’ll break through.
For more than ten years I got to coordinate and lead Streetsblog’s campaign to free cities from the danger, waste, inequity, and social isolation imposed by cars. I’m incredibly proud of the work I produced with Mark Gorton, Clarence Eckerson, Aaron Naparstek, Brad Aaron, Sarah Goodyear, Angie Schmitt, David Meyer, Stephen Miller, Noah Kazis, Tanya Snyder, and many other writers in service of that mission. And I’m profoundly grateful for the support from everyone who contributed to Streetsblog as advisers, financial backers, tipsters, and social media co-conspirators. From now on, I’ll be following along with you as a reader and a donor to this essential enterprise.
Ben Fried started as a Streetsblog reporter in 2008 and led the site as editor-in-chief from 2010 to 2018. You can still follow him on Twitter at @benfried.