KOMANOFF: Where the Streets Have No Mayor

De Blasio’s failure to pedestrianize more than a few dozen blocks shows his true colors.

WJ Farr's map, which was posted to Twitter, shows you everything you need to know.
WJ Farr's map, which was posted to Twitter, shows you everything you need to know.
Charles Komanoff
Charles Komanoff

There’s a reason that the venue that reports on and knits together New York urban transportation advocacy is called Streetsblog. Just about everything transportation-related here and in other cities comes down to who gets to do what on our streets.

And our streets are where Bill de Blasio’s failings as mayor are most exposed to the naked eye. Nearly a week after Gov. Cuomo commanded him to start pedestrianizing streets across all five boroughs so New Yorkers can be outdoors safely, he created a measly 24 blocks off-limits to cars – four blocks per borough and none in Staten Island, for just four days. (And early reports suggest that it is an over-policed mess.)

Sure, city government capacity has been decimated during the crisis. But pedestrianizing a bunch of roads and streets isn’t the Normandy invasion. Sawhorses and cones should be enough, the people will figure out the rest. And if folks in uniforms truly are required, why not bring back the pedestrian managers that NYC DOT and local business improvement districts have contracted in the past to handle crowds at the Marathon and other special events and at and traffic hot spots like the Varick Street approach to the Holland Tunnel?

No, that’s not Mayor de Blasio’s way. How can the person we have put in charge of our city be so blind to the obvious and so slow to act in normal times and crises alike? We livable-streets advocates have spent years pondering de Blasio’s inability to stand up to automobiles. Yes, he’s got the classic “windshield perspective,” which I bemoaned here just this week. Yes, he’s terrified that if he reduces, even in a small way, the freedom to drive anywhere at any time, it will blow up in his face. Yes, he’s bought into the idea that a family hasn’t made it into the middle class if it doesn’t own a car.

But after watching the mayor do nothing this week, I’ve got two new factors to add to the mix.

One, the guy is simply incompetent at making anything happen. Our mayor is a pontificator, not a leader or even an administrator. He’s the urban edition of all hat, no cattle. (The map at the top of this post shows that perfectly.)

The other is that de Blasio knows nada about city streets. He has no idea what streets mean, how they’re used, what they feel like.

Part of it of course is that since becoming mayor more than six years ago, he has almost never used our streets. He just bores through them in his chauffeured SUV.

But even beyond that, Mayor de Blasio knows nothing of the intuitive cooperativeness of New Yorkers in public spaces. The way we make way for each other on sidewalks, in parks, on subway platforms. The other day, New York Times editorial writer Mara Gay wrote a gorgeous op-ed vision that included the line, “One day soon, we will all shove into the same subway car together, cursing under our breath, but crowding closer to make room for one more.” That kind of phrase means as much to de Blasio as solving local highway traffic jams might mean to Donald Trump.

Our mayor evidently has never seen, let alone joined in, the benign dance by which cyclists mutually negotiate the cramped entrances and egresses at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge — a dance that demands so much real-time mental and physical processing that, invariably, some cyclists fail to observe traffic signals, making them sitting ducks for NYPD ticketing stings that even a week ago he defended as necessary for safety.

Yep, I’m like the 10,000th person to bewail the mayor’s utter lack of street allegiance or intelligence. (Number 9,999 would be Doug Gordon, who earlier today called de Blasio “possibly the most anti-urban mayor in America.”) And I’m number 5,000 to put in print that someone with that cluelessness doesn’t belong in Gracie Mansion, or even in Brooklyn, but in some faceless suburb somewhere.

You know that meme that the U.S. almost made it through four years of Trump without plummeting into a cataclysm that would threaten everyone and “not just” migrants, asylum seekers and so many other marginalized people and groups.

Well, New York City got through six years of de Blasio before being plunged into existential crisis. Now, to our lasting detriment, his lack of command is on full display.

Charles Komanoff is an inveterate New Yorker, cyclist, urbanist and expert on transportation and climate. Read all his Streetsblog articles here and follow him on Twitter @komanoff.

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