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
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.

  • GuestBx

    Are all the bus lanes painted, all dilenations painted, SBS machines installed, camera gantries, signage?

    If yes are drivers responding to them? And can’t the MTA just go ahead with the other SBS features like off-board payment?

  • Voter

    “I am concerned that some of the side streets will turn into parking lots.”

    Can StreetsPAC or TransAlt get on the phone with Corey Johnson and explain induced demand to him? Yes, DOT’s own studies show some traffic being diverted to side streets, but a lot of traffic will simply vanish. People will simply not drive or take other modes. That’s the whole point. So while there may be a short period of disruption, eventually things will reach a pleasant equilibrium. This is shortsighted. Plus, ironically, the longer this drags out the more likely it is to hurt Johnson’s mayoral run. Get the busway in now and people will soon see how great it is and demand more.

  • Andrew

    Off-board payment is already in place.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    If he opposes improving transit why does the headline call him “Transit God”?

  • vnm

    He gave a really impressive speech a few months ago where it seemed like he “got it,” and then this happened.

  • BKbusrider

    In what world does a master plan address every.single.street. achieve the modal shift goals and get implemented within the timeframe he’s called for? This work is done through big showcase projects like this, congestion pricing, Times Square, etc.

    If he’s serious about breaking car culture he HAS to back this. If he doesn’t he’s either delusional or full of shit. Either way, he isn’t fit for a higher office.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Ydanis 2.0

  • It doesn’t and the speaker is really wrong if he thinks selfish NIMBYs like Arthur Schwartz would somehow come around with changes to their streets if only there was some sort of master plan. There is no amount of planning or process in the universe that will make people who love the status quo happy. None! The only thing you can do is create a new status quo that activates latent support – the kind of people who had no idea better things were possible until they see them.

  • KeNYC2030

    With his “parking lot” comment, it’s clear that Johnson doesn’t comprehend the most basic tenet of vanquishing the car culture — if you remove the street, they will disappear. Case after case around the world demonstrates this. If he doesn’t grasp this — or doesn’t want to grasp it for political reasons — don’t expect any meaningful change if he becomes mayor.

  • Andrew

    Yes, DOT’s own studies show some traffic being diverted to side streets, but a lot of traffic will simply vanish.

    DOT’s studies on this do not account for diversions to other modes. (See the last paragraph on page 10 of http://web.mta.info/sandy/pdf/20180222CrosstownTrafficAnalysis_.pdf .) That’s fine if the aim is to predict worst-case results under uncertain diversion rates, but it becomes a problem when the reader either doesn’t realize this or willfully ignores it.

  • Voter

    Yes. Under Polly Trottenberg, DOT has been notoriously bad at helping people understand induced demand. She and the department frequently act as if auto traffic is and will always be fixed at current levels.

  • vnm

    I think he grasps it intellectually but doesn’t want to grasp it for political reasons.

  • JarekFA

    Johnson’s follow-up statement is so fucking disingenuous. Why again are we hiring a 3rd party firm to monitor this? It’s literally a core function of the department of transportation. And if he actually cared about the concerns he identifies (safety of peds/bikes, mobility of peds/bike/bus riders), then he’d be all-in on a master plan for the village that decreases motor vehicle capacity further and implements non-through streets.

    Like — if anything Bloomberg had demonstrated is the benefits of aggressively pushing for things, even if, or especially if, it causes a strong back-lash from a vocal minority (that policy-wise is wrong).

    Say to Arthur Schwartz — ya know what, it might be a parking lot, so let’s not make 12th and 13th street through streets. All it takes is one time for a driver to realize that that “short-cut” won’t work and then they’ll take differing routes. This shit is rocket science. Like everyone listens to the experts on climate change and vaccines but whenever it’s traffic management, every Tom, Dick and Harry think they’re some sort of expert whose “gut intuition” should be trusted.

  • Reader

    “Johnson’s follow-up statement is so fucking disingenuous. Why again are we hiring a 3rd party firm to monitor this?”

    Calling in a third party firm to monitor data is a good way of calling NIMBYs’ bluff, as merchants of doubt like Schwartz have learned from the tobacco industry and climate change denialists that sowing distrust of institutions helps block progress. Not that it’s great to spend more taxpayer money fighting Schwartz, but if a third party firm confirms DOT’s data, great! One less arrow in Schwartz’ multimillion-dollar quiver.

  • LES Stitches

    I stopped riding the M14 buses years ago. For one they are over saturated with M14D’s, but I realized after a while that I could walk faster than these buses drive. M14 buses are the most horrible mass transit option in Manhattan.

  • crazytrainmatt

    “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty but the pig likes it.”

  • kevd

    if only there were some way to improve them…….

  • kevd

    “everyone listens to the experts on climate change and vaccines”
    I’m pretty sure not everyone does

  • Joe R.

    We’re sadly living in a time when anecdata and feelings matter more than the testimony of people who have worked decades in a field. Look at global warming. You still have idiots who chime in that a blizzard in winter is proof there’s no such thing as global warming. And then you have all the people saying they’re almost hit multiple times a day by bikes derailing a lot of these safe streets projects.

  • com63

    DoT should call their bluff and take away all parking on 12th and 13th. It would be two travel lanes and a bike lane.

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