Trottenberg Resigns: Streetsblog’s Report Card on Her Long Tenure

polly incomplete2

Incomplete!

That’s the overall grade that Streetsblog gives Polly Trottenberg for her seven years as the leader of the Department of Transportation and her oversight of the mayor’s signature Vision Zero program, whose goal was to eliminate road deaths (in a city with hundreds of them per year) by 2024.

That “incomplete” is a favorable grade, however, given the man for whom Trottenberg labored; as mayor, Bill de Blasio had lofty goals that were far too often grounded by the force of the city’s political gravity.

It’s the singular comment we heard over and over on Monday in the wake of the New York Times exclusive about Trottenberg’s resignation. “The mayor lacks vision.” “The mayor won’t fight for his own initiatives, even when they show success.” “The mayor micromanages.” “The mayor’s too unfocused.” “The mayor won’t even get on a bike.” Etc.

But frustration with the city’s 109th mayor are only a part of the story of Trottenberg’s leadership at DOT.

“In 2014, she took over a city DOT that was primed for innovation, but she ran it like the preceding seven years of rapid, livable streets transformation never happened,” said former Streetsblog Editor Aaron Naparstek. “Her agency was slow, reactive, bureaucratic, and thin-skinned.”

Or, as one other activist put it, “Vision Zero was a huge mandate, but she did not push the envelope as far as she could. Think about it this way: what if Mike Bloomberg had appointed Polly Trottenberg instead of Janette Sadik-Khan? What would the city look like? Probably like it did under [Giuliani-era DOT Commissioner] Iris Weinshall … but with better talking points.” (Ouch.)

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So let’s break down her tenure overseeing the $1-billion agency in all the major subject areas:

Vision Zero

From a livable streets perspective, any discussion of Trottenberg’s tenure begins and ends with her administration of Vision Zero, which she and Mayor de Blasio announced with great fanfare days into his tenure in 2014.

When she took office, roughly 250 people died on the roadways of New York City. Road fatalities dropped to a low of 205 in 2018, but were up to 220 last year and are ahead of that pace for this year — an alarming trend.

It would be easy to give Trottenberg a failing grade for her implementation of Vision Zero, given that Helsinki, Finland, and Oslo, Norway, did manage to get to zero last year. But the grade is incomplete, not the least of which is because the city still has four years to achieve its goal — one that will now be left to her successors.

Under Trottenberg, the city built roughly 84 miles of protected bike lanes, but has also been satisfied with hundreds of miles of less-safe painted lanes or shared routes. Trottenberg recently told Streetsblog, for example, that she feels comfortable in painted lanes, though less-skilled cyclists definitely disagreed.

In addition to the bike lanes, Trottenberg presided over many street safety improvements, including, but not limited to:

The key elements of Vision Zero are engineering, education and enforcement, only two of which Trottenberg controls. On the engineering front, scores of roadways have been redesigned, often with safety in mind, and she did lower the speed limit from 30 to 25. And she led the fight for a dramatic expansion of the city’s camera enforcement program, which issues tenfold more tickets than the NYPD’s entire 38,000-person force.

She also got cars out of Central and Prospect parks (though why it was so difficult t get cars out of two of the world’s signature greenspaces is completely beyond our comprehension).

At the same time, the city has failed to take roadways away from car drivers. Major projects like the transformation of Times Square under Mayor Bloomberg have not been repeated, though smaller plazas have been carved out. And DOT has been part of the city’s abject failure to crack down on placard abuse.

The shortcomings of Vision Zero do fall on the mayor, who, as Streetsblog reported consistently in those early days, failed to carve out a significant budget commitment to the program. And even today, when the COVID pandemic hit, de Blasio’s instinct was to cut DOT programs, including his own Green Wave plan, which he announced only months earlier during a particularly bloody period for cyclists. Trottenberg was left to make the most of it.

Taking a broad overview, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris also shared the feeling that Trottenberg deserves an incomplete.

“Her grade is mixed on Vision Zero,” Harris said. “She has led some incredible initiatives, but at the same time, these projects failed to ladder up to a larger vision. To the very end of her tenure, she was fighting trench warfare over every single project instead of creating transformational plans for New York City.”

As a result, Harris said, whole communities don’t have the life-saving bike infrastructure and roadway designs that Trottenberg has proven, time and again, work.

“People are always saying, ‘Why can’t New York be more like London or Paris’ in terms of safe streets initiatives,” Harris said. “But we don’t need to be London or Paris. We just need to take what we already do in some neighborhoods of New York. What we’re really asking is ‘Why can’t the Bronx be as safe as Manhattan?’

“A mayor and a DOT commissioner should be judged on how many street safety ground-breakings they attend, not the number of vigils for dead pedestrians and cyclists that they are failing to attend,” Harris said.

That said, Trottenberg did ignore community boards on occasion when she insisted on a street safety plan. In 2016, that meant ignoring a Bronx community board on East Tremont Avenue. In 2018, that meant overruling a Queens community board to create a pair of protected bike lanes in Sunnyside. That same year, she overruled a Bronx community board that was hell bent on keeping Morris Park Avenue unsafe.

Grade: Incomplete.

Improving transit

Just as in so many other subjects, Trottenberg excelled, but also didn’t excel enough, advocates said.

Her agency doesn’t run transit — that’s the MTA’s job — but Trottenberg showed a commitment to creating dedicated bus lanes to speed transit. But the pace of change has been glacial. The MTA at one point this year asked DOT to create 60 miles of dedicated bus lanes; the city committed to 20, and didn’t even reach that goal.

And her signature success — the car-free 14th Street busway, which launched in 2019 — has barely been replicated.

“The 14th St busway was when Polly was like Virgil leading Dante through the inferno,” said an erudite Danny Pearlstein, the spokesman for Riders Alliance. “The metaphor is that we saw the L train shutdown looming for years and the MTA did not have the core competency to work through all the things that Polly worked through for them: negotiating with City Council members, community boards and even state officials to create a plan to move hundreds of thousands of people when the L train would be shut down.”

Pearlstein praised Trottenberg for seeing the plan through even after Gov. Cuomo canceled the tunnel shutdown, calling it a “breakthrough.”

So why haven’t we seen any such breakthroughs since? Pearlstein said that Trottenberg is forced to confront a growing problem that well-financed anti-bus and anti-safety NIMBYs are repeatedly taking the city to court to stop basic roadway improvements such as busways.

Harris agreed with Pearlstein’s diagnosis, but said Trottenberg needed to provide the cure.

“Everything is still project-by-project trench warfare,” he said. “There’s pushback over a bike corral in Tribeca, and suddenly there’s no bike corral in Tribeca. Why is there not a 14th Street buswat planned for every major thoroughfare in New York City? Why does she have to continue to make the basic case every single time instead of simply scaling up these improvements? Why does it always fall on advocates to keep reminding the city that something worked.”

Another plus? After saying for years that the agency could only create signal priority for buses at a few intersections a year, the DOT had a breakthrough in engineering this year that allowed the agency to expand the program rapidly this year, Pearlstein said (and Streetsblog covered).

Grade: B

Taking on her engineers

Advocates have consistently criticized Trottenberg for her failure to take control of the agency’s engineers, who not only oversees the spans, but large capital plans. Here, Trottenberg’s record is poor:

  • In 2016, the city announced it would study how to fix the congested cycling and pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge, which was later presented as some massive engineering challenge. We’re still waiting.
  • Cycling is booming over the Queensboro Bridge, too. DOT has stalled and stalled over making more space for east- and westbound pedestrians and cyclists, who currently share a single lane of the 10-lane bridge.
  • Trottenberg’s engineers are behind a foolish waste of money at the 79nd Rotunda, a $200-million plan that prioritizes cars over everything else, including cyclist safety.
  • Lest we forget, Trottenberg’s engineers came up with a plan for fixing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that was so bad that she and the mayor had to abandon it — and now there doesn’t seem to be a plan at all. (She also rejected our suggestion that she close the highway, a car sewer, once and for all, which hurt.)

“She doesn’t tell her technical staff to go back to the drawing board when they do something dumb,” said Jon Orcutt, a former DOT official with the previous administration. “And she doesn’t go in and order them to figure out the engineering for stuff she should be passionate about, like the Brooklyn Bridge, which should be done already.”

Grade: D

The COVID response

Trottenberg deserves high praise for how her agency took the lead on the open restaurants program, clearing the way for eateries to reopen in curbside and sidewalk spaces with very little bureaucratic requirements. It was a clear success (indeed, she pat herself a bit on the back in the Times piece, saying, “In normal times, it would have taken New York City five years to figure out how to do that”).

But lest we forget Trottenberg’s disastrous performance at a City Council hearing early in the pandemic, when she sat there, like a hostage in a proof-of-life video from a war-torn land, agreeing with then-NYPD Transportation Bureau Chief Mike Pilecki that open streets could not be created without so much police manpower that there would be no way for the program to happen.

Only after that hearing, when the City Council threatened legislation and advocates chimed in through Streetsblog, did the mayor create a robust, vibrant open streets plan. That said, Trottenberg’s administration of that program has been lackluster; neighborhoods that have fully staffed spreadsheets of volunteers to man and erect gates to keep out cars have great open streets programs, while other communities have lost their open streets.

Naparstek gave Trottenberg high praise for getting out of the way, but also for lack of a broader vision.

“Look what happened when DOT set up some simple ground rules for outdoor restaurant seating and open streets and then just got out of the way: More than 10,000 on-street parking spots became restaurant seats almost instantaneously,” he said. “It mostly just required DOT letting it happen.

“But what Polly never seemed to understand is that we don’t need to wait for a global pandemic to make these kinds of changes,” he added. “We don’t need to wait until New Yorkers are killed by drivers to make these changes. We can do these things now, proactively, before people, neighborhoods, and businesses are harmed. The demand for livable streets is huge. I’m not sure Polly got that.”

And when the pandemic did strike, Harris agreed that the city had no overarching plan for the very predictable side effect of COVID: transit use would plummet, bike use would soar, and people would buy lots more cars. Only after prodding from Streetsblog, the mayor created a “surface transportation” advisory panel … and then ignored it.

“We never heard back from DOT and city regarding our ideas,” said Harris, who was on the panel. “It says something about the city’s priorities.

Grade: A-

Citi Bike

In the mayor’s first term, the DOT expanded Citi Bike, following a plan that had been created in the prior administration. Since then, the rollout has been slowed. Indeed, last summer, Lyft and the city finally announced an expansion that would, by 2023, bring Citi Bike to roughly half of the city. But insiders say that Lyft was prepared a full year earlier to announce that plan, but de Blasio stalled.

The city has never put public money into the program, which has slowed its expansion and limited the number of electric bikes, which are a game-changing commute technology that the mayor has not embraced.

Grade: C

Teamwork

Teachers often wrote “Works and plays well with others” on the report cards of students who cooperate well and are good classroom citizens. Trottenberg was certainly that — but her failure to get the NYPD to reorient itself and its officers to Vision Zero stands as a glaring failure of the de Blasio administration.

And she was silent as the NYPD waged a class (and ethnically biased) war on delivery workers, who are among the lowest-paid, worst-treated workers in the city.

Charles Komanoff, a leading activist with a deep memory saw her failure to convince the NYPD of the importance of Vision Zero is Trottenberg’s defining legacy.

“The NYPD’s callous and ass-backwards crackdowns on cyclists after each cyclist fatality caused by a motorist or a reckless trucker should have impelled her to tell the mayor that windshield-driven policing was going to kill his vaunted street-safety program,” Komanoff said. “Certainly, skyrocketing cyclist deaths in 2018 would have clinched that point. Neil Young had this advice for the irresolute: ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away.'”

“She has long hid behind law enforcement, but the NYPD is never going to do its job and keep bike and bus lanes clear, so you have to design for that,” Orcutt said. “Why is there no citywide conversation on that? Even the best of the best bike lanes are susceptible to drivers parking on them. There is no acknowledgement of that. To me that’s a big failing. At a time when bike fatalities and overall fatalities are going up, where is the real public conversation around that. Right now, it’s all coming from the City Council.”

Talk to enough advocates and you hear the same story over and over again — about getting “the call” from Trottenberg.

“She will call you up every once in a while and say, ‘Why don’t you appreciate all the things I’m doing? Don’t you realize how much I push the mayor on this stuff,'” one advocate said (though others shared a similar version). “And I know I would say, ‘We don’t need excuses. We need them to do that work. And, besides, it’s not our job to praise you. It’s our job to push you.'”

To balance that portrait, Trottenberg always testified before the City Council when asked and did so truthfully and honestly.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Commissioner Trottenberg,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Streetsblog in a statement. “She’s a total professional. … Her departure is a loss for the mayor at a time when the city is facing severe challenges. Whoever takes her place will have some big shoes to fill.”

Grade: B-

As an MTA Board member

Trottenberg served as one of de Blasio’s four MTA Board members from 2014 until resigning from the unpaid post in 2019. by all accounts, she did a good job.

“New Yorkers owe Polly Trottenberg a sincere debt of gratitude,” said Riders Alliance Executive Director Betsy Plum. “While representing New York City on the MTA board, [she] was also a rare authoritative, independent voice for millions of public transit riders. New York is a safer and fairer city today thanks to her sustained efforts.”

Pearlstein added that she could not actually make change on a board dominated by Gov. Cuomo and inside an agency entirely controlled at the state level, but she “used the bully pulpit well.”

  • In 2017, as Politico exhaustively reported, Trottenberg questioned Gov. Cuomo’s use of a “disaster order” to suspend MTA board oversight of more than $100 million in contracts with private vendors.
  • Trottenberg called out Cuomo’s “enhanced station initiative,” which critics said funded cosmetic improvements. An insider said Trottenberg was frustrated by how the board was rolled over.
  • And she spoke out in frustration after Gov. Cuomo had changed the plan for the L train repairs without consulting the board.

Gov. Cuomo gave her a very weak send-off on Monday, telling Streetsblog, “I don’t have any special memories” of Trottenberg. (Ouch!)

Grade: A

Managing the boss

“A lot of people are going to want to blame the mayor for the shortcomings of Trottenberg’s DOT, but you can’t blame the mayor entirely,” Orcutt said. “Can you point to one thing that she had complete control of, and then ran with it?”

In fairness, government insiders have long said that de Blasio is a micromanager who is impossible to deal with. But Orcutt said that “nine-tenths” of the job of a commissioner is managing that problem.

“The job is gaining the confidence of the mayor so that when people freak out over a few lost parking spaces, the mayor says to himself, ‘As long as this is the usual complaining, I don’t care. Do what you want,'” Orcutt said. “There’s no way to know what that room looked like, but the Times story about the resignation suggested that Polly doesn’t talk to the boss much.”

Orcutt compared that to Sadik-Khan, who was in the mayor’s face all the time, he said.

But there was a difference at City Hall, too: Bloomberg loved the idea of innovation, as long as it could be backed up with data and success. De Blasio is far more cautious.

Yeah, but …

“It’s Polly’s job to push transformational ideas,” Harris said. “And if you don’t have cover from the mayor to do real change, then at least finish the Queens Boulevard bike lane.”

And Komanoff said Trottenberg should have managed her boss better on congestion pricing, which de Blasio opposed for many years, even after that opposition became untenable.

“I’m not saying Polly should have led the charge for congestion pricing, but once public momentum started building for it in 2016, and certainly after Gov. Cuomo announced his 180 on it in 2017, she should have let the mayor know his opposition was misguided,” Komanoff said. “Had she done so, maybe congestion pricing could have been passed a year earlier and the city and state acting as one could have won federal approval.”

Grade: B-

Comments:

  • “If you’re giving Polly Trottenberg an incomplete, you’re really giving the mayor an incomplete,” said Orcutt. “This year proved that so much is possible with very little bureaucracy. So this mayor should cement the legacy in the next 13 months with the playbooks that he got this year. Polly gave him the playbook for fast action on open streets and restaurants. the MTA gave him the playbook on dedicated bus lanes. The Regional Plan Association gave him the playbook on a bike network. He could make 2021 his legacy with solutions right out of the box.”
  • “Polly has done an extraordinary job,” Mayor de Blasio said on Monday. “I remember in the very beginning when she and I talked about Vision Zero, we knew it would be extremely difficult; nothing like this has ever been tried in a large American city, obviously. But we believed. And she did an amazing job, with her team, bringing Vision Zero to life. … This is something for the ages. … So many things, she should be very very proud. It’s been a great run, having her for the time of this entire  administration.”
  • “An advocate, I always want to see people leading on opportunity and possibility, and the freedom that transportation options can give to people,” said Harris. “But the reality is that the invitation has been disingenuous. We are in the midst of a bike boom, but where is the bike lane boom? Where is the bike parking boom? The reality is that people die on our streets, and continue to die on our streets.”

The DOT press office did not make Trottenberg available to Streetsblog for this story.

— with Dave Colon, Julianne Cuba and Eve Kessler

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