Trottenberg Op-Ed Exclusive: Riding the ‘Green Wave’ — and the Choppy Waters Ahead

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg penned an o-ed for Streetsblog. Photo: City Council/Emil Cohen
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg penned an o-ed for Streetsblog. Photo: City Council/Emil Cohen

With Vision Zero facing setbacks this year — including a rising death toll and three recent lawsuits challenging the city’s authority to do basic work to reduce the carnage of the automobile — Streetsblog reached out to Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who graciously agreed to pen us an op-ed. What follows are her thoughts on the challenges — and the possibilities — ahead. (The opinions she expresses below are hers, of course, and not necessarily Streetsblog’s).

As any regular Streetsblog reader knows, it has been a terrible year on New York City roadways.  All of us at the Department of Transportation, many who are regular cyclists and charged with keeping New Yorkers safe on our streets, feel tremendous grief for the lives cut short. It is especially difficult to face such a terrible year after five heartening years of declining fatalities on city streets under Vision Zero.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

Almost two weeks ago, we began to productively channel some of that emotion with Mayor de Blasio’s release of the Green Wave, an aggressive multi-agency plan to create better conditions for cyclists.

Central to the city’s plan is the vision to create a better-connected protected bike lane network throughout New York City. Almost on cue, last week brought a surprise legal battle in State Supreme Court over the new Central Park West protected bike lane that DOT is currently installing. It was the third time this year that DOT has faced litigation against our roadway safety, dedicated bus lane and protected bike lane projects, resulting in two temporary restraining orders, a very troubling trend.

Proponents of street safety should, of course, cheer our near-term victory on Central Park West, where the judge did deny a restraining order, and allowed DOT to move forward with a protected bike lane that had clear safety benefits and broad community support. But the lawsuit is not yet over: we are back in court on August 20.

This summer has given us new insight into three of the most challenging lessons as we undertake the Green Wave:

1) Vision Zero is a long-term goal: While New York City has seen roadway fatalities drop by almost a third under Vision Zero over five years, progress is not always linear, as we have seen this year. Other cities and countries that embraced Vision Zero have also faced setbacks. Sweden adopted Vision Zero over 20 years ago, saw a surge in fatalities in the late 1990s, but now boasts the lowest traffic fatality rate in the world. Meanwhile, London, among the safest of major Vision Zero cities, has seen a surge in fatalities similar to NYC’s this year — including eight people died in just five days last month.

There will be setbacks, but we must persist in Vision Zero and not succumb to pessimism that may in fact undermine our work. Especially this year, those arguments discourage cycling — and could strengthen the hand of opponents of life-saving street-safety improvements, giving them fodder to question the more than billion dollars this mayor and City Council have invested to create them.

2) New York City, litigation capital of the world? As protected bike lane projects move into new communities throughout the five boroughs, we will also likely need to be prepared for more legal battles.

The city lawyers who emerged successful in Manhattan State Supreme Court last week did an expert job tackling a meritless case, but litigation always brings risks. Complaints about the deliberate speed of our bike, bus and Vision Zero projects are common, but last week we learned that in a courtroom there is absolutely no substitute for a thoughtful and thorough defense based on the work of our world-class planners and engineers. It also helps when the data are undergirded by hard-fought and significant community support, which leads us to…

3) Community Boards – Helpful in Process and Politics: Justice Lynn Kotler noted last week that the Central Park West protected bike lane had been thoroughly reviewed and approved by Manhattan Community Board 7, which she noted was the proper forum to raise such opposition.

Our next focus is on 10 Priority Bicycle Districts in Brooklyn and Queens, where car-ownership and serious cycling crash rates are far higher than on the Upper West Side. We at DOT are under no illusions that the community board approval process in these districts will be as easy.

Nevertheless, I argue strongly that the active engagement of community boards and local elected officials under the de Blasio Administration has been key to the dramatic increase in the pace of PBL production. Over the last three years, we have averaged over 20 miles of protected bike lanes, about four times the Bloomberg Administration average.

Community boards, albeit imperfect, do often serve as proxies for elected officials and their communities. Our neighbors go to these boards to be heard, especially around local transportation issues — and we always gain insight from their deliberations.  We are proud to have garnered support for bike lane projects in the great majority of cases where we sought the recommendation of the local community board. And when our engagement does not result in a productive outcome, Mayor de Blasio has authorized the DOT to move ahead with life-saving projects multiple times.

Watching advocates and the city come together last week in common cause around Central Park West was inspiring — and we hope it is the shape of things to come. To make the Green Wave work and increase protected bike lane production by 50 percent in the next two years, we will need our allies to be even more engaged and involved at the community level to meet our ambitious goals, especially in places where cycling is less accepted.

Combining diligent planning and analysis with the hard work of organizing in these new and diverse neighborhoods, we can bring more and safer bike infrastructure to communities throughout the five boroughs that so need it.

Trottenberg is the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, the workplace that won this past May’s TransAlt Bike-to-Work Challenge for most miles biked. An earlier version of this story had the wrong number of fatalities in London. Streetsblog has corrected the number.

  • “Community boards, albeit imperfect, do often serve as proxies for elected officials and their communities.”

    This is backwards. Elected officials serve as proxies for their constituents. That’s why they face reelection. I understand the need to create the evidence trail for litigation, but this insistence on defending the Community Board process, which is more harmful than good, is going to be the Green Wave’s doom unless DOT stops kowtowing to every single CB meeting that features driver complaints.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The whole community board thing — a body to actually “represent the people” was really a judgement on NYC’s traditionally croniest, special-interest-backed, perpetual incumbent “elected officials.”

    At the local level, however, since we have had term limits that judgement is no longer fair. The City Council has had enough open seats, which create real elections, that it really does “represent the people.”

  • jhalfz

    This is more than bike lanes, dude. We got cars parked on the sidewalk, cars parked in bike lanes, cars rocketing down Bedford at 55 MPH, cars pushing aggregate VMT higher and higher and higher, and a mayor who wets his pants every time Citibike wants to install spatially efficient bike parking at the cost of a free car parking spot.

  • JL

    Thank you Ms. Trottenberg for engaging us here. As a long time UWS resident, I appreciate the change in landscape for people on bicycles. I am reminded how things were very recently everytime I ride to the Eastside. I hope you and the DOT are successful in your continued efforts to change the cityscape.

    Re: 8 deaths in one week in London. Only one was riding a non-motorized bicycle. The article states that it’s their third bicyclist fatality this year.

    Which brings me to a recent observation of the vehicles using the bike lanes. I’m seeing bigger/heavier almost motorcycle like machines zipping in and out of slower traffic. It reminds of the escalation of vehicular size to SUVs and F150s on much of America’s motorways. I’m guessing its somewhat easy to set up stings and stop the users at places like the Hudson Greenway? I would not mind them so much if the paths themselves were wider like from 59th to 69th on the Hudson path, but most of the city’s 2 way bike infra is akin to the Chelsea Piers area.

    Lastly, the 12th/13th Street crosstown lanes are fantastic. It would be great to have a pair like these every 10 blocks in Manhattan. The Prince Street *connector” between Mbridge and the Hudson path is harrowingly substandard. Dare we dream of an elevated glass covered (AC) path right down the middle of Canal Street? It’s less than 2 miles long.

    BTW, the CPW PBL is spacious but not “protected” yet(?). The 66th street markings needs reworking as northbound cars use the bikelane as a turning lane to the CP transverse.

    Thank you to the advocacy groups for putting human faces to the lives being lost to traffic violence as everyone becomes more and more distracted when moving through the city.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    There are far too many cases where cycling routes win the politics and still end up substandard:

    https://patch.com/new-york/upper-west-side-nyc/s/gsv0o/watch-patch-takes-death-defying-ride-on-nycs-clogged-bike-lanes

  • meelar2

    Exactly. It’s not community boards who are pushing for inadequate bike lanes that are “protected” by flexiposts spaced every 25 feet. DoT needs to take responsibility for delivering real, quality infrastructure.

  • r

    It’s also not community boards that are delaying maintenance of existing bike lanes, which fade into nothing and aren’t replaced quickly after re-paving projects. Keeping the existing bicycle lane network up to a rideable, usable quality has not improved under this administration.

  • Plus, how is it a “new insight” that New York City is the “litigation capital of the world”? The city was sued repeatedly over the placement of Citi Bike stations in 2013, both before and after the system launched. Has the commissioner ever heard of Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit? We won all these battles a long time ago.

    Perhaps the fact that this is a new insight to the commissioner explains why we’re six years into Vision Zero and only just now getting a plan for a complete bike lane network.

  • Vooch

    Good News that the DOT Comish is at least trying. Thank you.

    Bad New is the DOT Comish does not have a complete streets vision like JSK did.

    Nowhere in this reasonable article does the DOT Comish reveal a understanding of complete streets. Compare and Constrast anything JSK wrote or said during her tenure – JSK was always pounding on the complete streets vision, over and over again.

    It would behove the current DOT Comish to revist a few of JSK writings to see what a powerful and inspiring visionary JSK was.

  • Sinclair

    For those pointing out the inadequately installed bike lanes, I’d like to direct Streetblogs towards an article about the director of the NYC Bike Program:

    https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/essex/montclair/2019/03/15/could-montclair-have-its-own-bicycle-and-greenway-program/2378149002/

    If you read the article, from March 2019, you’ll see that the director has an “install first, think later,” policy towards major infrastructure projects which is simply and outstandingly negligent.

  • streetsy

    Seems like not a great thing that the director of NYC DOT’s Bike Program doesn’t live in the city! If all he’s doing is commuting from Penn Station or a ferry terminal to his job and not riding his kids around the city or doing daily errands by bike, there’s no way he’ll be able to understand all-ages-and-abilities cycling infrastructure. Not good.

  • streetsy

    Nor does she mention car reduction. Without that, all the bike lanes in the world won’t make cycling in the city pleasant for anyone but the fearless and the fit.

  • A thousand times this. That she doesn’t equate safer infrastructure with car reduction is a problem.

  • HamTech87

    We need to brand this asap as the “Congestion Pricing Dividend” and all NYC-DOT work should be focused on capitalizing on it. Starting with space on bridges like Brooklyn and Queensboro.

  • HamTech87

    While I’m delighted that DOT will be increasing production of Protected Bike Lanes, I’m not sure misapplying the term “Green Wave” is a good idea. Isn’t it supposed to be for traffic signal timing prioritizing bicycles? http://www.copenhagenize.com/2014/08/the-green-waves-of-copenhagen.html

  • @jhalfz – Every point is 100% true, aside from the word “dude.”

  • Mike

    I agree. Anyone with decision making ability within the city government should be required to live within the city. People are much more likely to make wise decisions if it affects their personal life too.

    I also like how he mentioned in the interview how important and fulfilling it was to his upbringing that he grew up in a city, and then proceeded to move his kids to the Jersey suburbs and buy a minivan.

  • Komanoff

    @JL, good catch that only one of the eight London deaths in five days that Trottenberg ID’d as cycling fatalities was to a person riding a bicycle. (Though my reading of the Evening Standard article she linked to is that it was the third 2019 fatality to a *female* riding a bicycle, so presumably the London cycling fatality total is greater than three.)

  • qrt145

    Green wave just means synchronizing the green lights to favor traffic with a certain speed and direction. This is usually for cars, but it is of course possible to set up a green wave to favor bicycle speeds.

  • HamTech87

    Let’s not forget that CBs were created when the actual structure of city government was not properly representative. It was the Board of Estimate that ruled the city until 1989, not the City Council. Once a representative City Council was created, the unelected CBs should have been disbanded or had their scope severely restricted.

    For better representation for voters, there are options more in keeping with representative government:
    (1) Make Community Board members elected instead of appointed; or
    (2) Expand the number of council seats so each council member represents a smaller number of voters.

    More on the BOEstimate and CB histories here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_Board_of_Estimate
    http://www.nyc.gov/html/qnscb1/html/explained/explained_history.shtml

  • Bad New[s] is the DOT Comish does not have a complete streets vision like JSK did.

    The important thing is that Trottenberg does not have the boss that Sadik-Khan did.

    Sadik-Khan is nothing short of a genius; as you mention, she is a visionary. So we cannot expect that anyone else in the job of DOT commissioner will ever rise to that lofty standard. But Sadik-Khan also had a mayor who empowered her to realise her vision, and who vigorously backed her in the face of virulent criticism from all corners (including from then-Public Advocate de Blasio).

    By contrast, Trottenberg works under a mayor whose commitment to safe streets pales in comparison to that of his predecessor. An appointee is not an independent actor who can unilaterally make policy and who can go beyond the mandate given to her by the mayor. (Well, unless it’s the police commissioner.) So every flaw or limitation in Trottenberg’s messaging must be blamed not on her but on the constraints that are imposed upon her by de Blasio.

  • I think it’s fine. No different than a traffic improvement plan called “Green Light for Midtown” or something like that. Nobody really pays attention to what these things are called anyway. They just want to see results on the ground.

    Plus, this particular Green Wave plan includes pilot green wave signal projects which is great.

  • Vooch

    Fredinand,

    True oh so true. BUT – I will counter that JSK created a powerful and compelling story first. Only afterwards did Bloomberg back her up.

    I will also agree that Bloomberg had backbone and a steady hand which served New Yorkers very well when it came to the backlash against JSK.

    Unlike BdB.

    Sad !

  • petercow

    In fact, quite the opposite. “Level of service” is what she sees as “Job 1”.

  • petercow

    Notice how she worries about creating a paper trail to protect against litigation about removing parking spaces, but not about a paper trail that shows they deliberately endanger the lives of bicyclists and pedestrians by compromising in the name of parking.

    Funny, that.

  • Wilfried84

    Except Community Board elections would end up like school board or judicial elections. Nobody knows who the candidates are, nobody votes, and the seats are almost never contested, at lest in the case of judges.

    Community Boards as they are don’t work, and are not representative, but I don’t what sort of local forum would work.

  • MatthewEH

    “Over the last three years, we have averaged over 20 miles of protected bike lanes, about four times the Bloomberg Administration average.”

    Bloomberg didn’t get really serious about building out the bike network until 2007, with the full launch of PlaNYC, hiring JSK as DOT commissioner, and the (failed) press to get congestion pricing enacted.

    Is this average over all of Bloomberg’s terms (2002 – very-end-of-2013), or over the 2007-2013 portion of that? The latter figure is the better thing to benchmark against.

  • thomas040

    But aren’t the community boards just meant to be in an ‘advisory’ position, but actually hold no real power? You could implement stuff anyway, despite community boards objections, which you have.

  • streetsy

    Notice how she only mentions the last three years and then skips back to compare what she’s doing now to the Bloomberg administration average. Kinda convenient to ignore the first three years of the de Blasio administration when the mayor and DOT seemed deathly afraid of building a lot of bike infrastructure.

  • Jacob

    This administration is building way more than under JSK/Bloomberg (see graph), although many have critiqued what is now considered “protected”.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/821b437cb40a5a40ae3f9a34c373fd2b88023cbfb86320eda50296415336b6dd.png

  • JL

    They’ve corrected that line since but the link is still there so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to compare the 3 NYC cyclist to 8 London traffic fatalities. I pay less attention to “regular” traffic crashes because I actually bicycle (most efficient/fun) more than I walk. 8 in a week is not so extraordinary for regular NYC traffic carnage (?), but we are talking about bikelanes and infrastructure here, even though vision “nada” applies to all modes of traffic.

    BTW, I didn’t think the Brits would make a distinction between male/female, CIS/Trans, same/hetero, gender/preference fluid in this political climate, so I when back to read that line again- English (American) not my first language and not being Ivy educated- it still read like 3 total cyclists for 2019. So I did a little googling (the purveyor of all things truth like) and found this in Cycling Weekly.

    https://www.cyclingweekly.com/news/latest-news/london-road-users-urged-take-care-death-cyclist-20s-429675/amp

    So 3(total) is much closer to Zero than 18 if we only count fatal cyclist encounters with vehicles. They’re NOT as bad as us here in NYC if we are comparing numbers and keeping score.

    BUT if Vision Zero is for real – there should be concern that large expansion of CBike and infrastructure networks that are not well thought out could make the numbers significantly large (with large numbers of new fish entering the pool). The blase societal attitude towards phone/device distractions is what scares me the most.

    The GENERAL perception that cycling is still not that safe (for all) will also limit the number of people who’ll buy in, which will further hamper growth. It’s not an easy puzzle to solve for anyone. I hope all these posts are helpful to the decision makers. I agree with limiting the numbers of cars and trucks is a crucial piece of the puzzle of safe streets.

  • jhalfz

    My wife just witnessed an accident where a car driving on the sidewalk attempted to reenter traffic, crushed a motorcycle, and then crashed into a car traveling at speed

  • Larry Littlefield

    I forgot about the Board of Estimate.

    I tend to focus on all the things that I haven’t liked the past 40 years, which is most things in the public realm because I value ordinary people and the common future.

    But here in NYC, we first transferred power from an unelected Board of Estimate to a bunch of hacks on the City Council, and then used term limits and campaign finance reform to transform that City Council to an actually representative body.

    Thereby making the local level the best level of the three levels of government we currently have.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s a problem. I’d make the community boards turn over with every open seat City Council election. With the winner and loser appointing members in proportion to their share of the vote.

  • glennmcan

    Sad that Community Boards are used this way as a proxy. This means we need to put much more effort into Borough wide and Citywide master plans that incorporate a network of Protected Bike Lanes and other safety features that might be litigated at the block or even neighborhood level. Can my Community board single handedly reject the West Side Highway?

  • Vooch

    The expectation would be a acceleration of complete streets, PBLs are but one component for complete streets:

    Daylighting at intersections
    Car Free Zones
    Market Pricing for Curbside Car Storage
    Real Placard Reform
    and so forth…

  • Jacob

    Agreed that much more is needed (especially the items on your list + police reform), and it took the Trottenberg DOT some time to begin making any innovations. However, her DOT is certainly starting to do some new and innovative things. Here’s a brief list of new things that JSK did not do:

    -Congestion Pricing
    -Protected intersections
    -Shared streets
    -Protected Bike Lane master plan
    -Busways

  • Jacob

    Also, wasn’t Green Light for Midtown (a plan to speed car traffic in Midtown) done under JSK? Not exactly sustainable mobility.

  • Wilfried84

    What about regular town hall style meetings held under the auspices of the local City Council member, where agencies and organizations can present and seek feedback on their proposals, but with no formal vote for or against. The Council member or his or her staff can interface with constituents, and he or she can weigh in accordingly (in their capacity as the local elected official, but not necessarily with any formal veto power).

  • snrvlakk

    I simply note that there’s a reason we can’t go for a drive down Westway.

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