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Transit God Corey Johnson Parrots Arthur Schwartz’s Bad Faith Busway Language

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, seen here calling for a dozen more meetings for NIMBYs to yell about bus lanes. Photo: John McCarten

Is this what breaking the car culture looks like? That would be a big no.

Would-be Vision Zero god Corey Johnson revealed himself as just another golden calf on Monday morning, defending opponents of the city's pro-transit 14th Street busway, citing "community concerns" about side-street traffic rather than offering full-throated advocacy for the 27,000 daily M14 riders stuck on slow crosstown buses.

Johnson made the comment as part of a longer discussion on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show about a lawsuit that has temporarily slammed the brakes on the city's plan to convert 14th Street into a car-free "busway." Opponents of the transit improvement say it will send hundreds of cars onto residential side streets — a fact the DOT acknowledges. But instead of calling for greater restrictions on cars, he channeled his inner community board member.

"I am concerned that some of the side streets will turn into parking lots," Johnson told Lehrer.

The Speaker's insistence on putting wealthy property owners above long-suffering transit riders was discordant with his insistence that he wants to "break the car culture" in New York City.

But the busway has long been Johnson's Waterloo. Initially, he lent his lukewarm support when the plan was created as part of the mitigation for the complete shutdown of the L train. But when the MTA changed its repair plan — eliminating the need for a complete shutdown of the line — Johnson resorted to questioning why the busway was needed.

Transit riders' gain could indeed mean short-term pain for the Village and Chelsea residents represented by lawyer Arthur Schwartz in the busway suit. Schwartz, citing the DOT's own studies, argued in court that West 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th streets would become inundated with cars if 14th Street is no longer available to drivers. Schwartz's argument is not only self-serving — he lives on W. 12th Street and owns a car — but it is hypocritical for a self-professed progressive: if he truly fears an inundation of cars on his residential street, why did he oppose bike lanes on W. 12th and 13th streets and why has he refused to endorse car-reduction strategies such as higher on-street parking fees or road redesigns that would reduce incentives for drivers to use his and his neighbors' blocks as through streets?

Johnson, of course, frequently rails against the dominance of the automobile, and on Monday he did distance himself from Schwartz by at least offering some sympathy for M14 bus riders, who are still stuck on buses that take 25 minutes to get across town even on a sleepy summer afternoon. But the Speaker turned his back on those same bus riders by not calling for new measures to reduce cross-town car traffic in the Village — the best solution for turning the M14 SBS into something that moves faster Ratso "I'm Walkin' Here!" Rizzo.

The Speaker's waffling also seems to contradict the case he previously made for his own master plan that would require the DOT to install 150 miles of bus lanes in five years.

"I don't think [Johnson's comment on WNYC] undercuts the argument for a master plan, but it is undercutting the Speaker's claim to be a champion for bus riders, walkers and bikers," TransitCenter's Ben Fried said on Monday. "No matter how good your process is, you're going to have sticks in the mud who fight change, and this particular opponent is especially vicious and harmful. There's really no excuse not to take a firm side in favor of bus riders."

Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance agreed.

"Tens of thousands of people are stuck behind cars on the M14 bus every single day that this busway is not in place," he said. "The busway was a product of years of planning and design by experts at the MTA. And as riders, we are looking for our elected officials to be bold."

Pearlstein declined to condemn Johnson's comments, recalling his "state of the city" address earlier this year that was entirely devoted to proposals that would reduce the hegemony of the automobile and boost cycling, walking and transit use.

"His legislative proposal to do comprehensive planning and up bus lane miles has upped the ante for all politicians," Pearlstein said. "But we are going to continue organizing with riders across the city to win better bus service with plans like the 14th Street busway, which is well-reasoned and carefully articulated."

Families for Safe Streets' Amy Cohen also called on Johnson to show more backbone.

"If every transit or street safety project can be stymied by locals with wealth and access to power, then surely we will never truly make our streets safe. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Speaker Johnson’s own transportation master plan. If the Speaker can not stand up to attacks against the type of transit improvement New York City needs — siding with the privileged over the masses of commuting New York workers, then surely his own master plan is doomed to fail — an outcome that we cannot afford."

"We hope he will marry action to his words and support the redesign of 14th Street to make it safer for everyone."

Thanks to Schwartz's court win last week, the busway remains stalled, possibly until next year. The parties will file new motions by Aug. 26, but there's no indication when the Appellate Division will hear oral arguments and issue a ruling.

— with Gersh Kuntzman

After initial publication of this story, Speaker Johnson issued the following statement:

I want to be clear that I support the pilot program to get bus riders moving across 14th Street. The DOT has agreed to my request to hire a third party firm that will help monitor this pilot and collect and analyze data. This will provide concrete data in real time on what is working and what needs to be adjusted during the pilot. I will also make sure that traffic agents are in the community strictly enforcing all traffic laws to protect pedestrians and cyclists, and ensure this goes as smoothly as possible. When this pilot is over, we will know what worked and what didn’t. We need to use this opportunity to come up with a permanent solution to improve the way people, especially bus riders, get across 14th street. We must do everything we can to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit users in our city.

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