KOMANOFF: Trip Logs Can Reveal Candidates’ Intent on Livable Streets

Pete Seeger knew. Collection of Charles Komanoff
Pete Seeger knew. Collection of Charles Komanoff
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Mayoral candidates are vowing to use transit as mayor.

Former top U.S. and NYC housing official Shaun Donovan pledges that as mayor he’ll ride the subway regularly “to keep in touch with the everyday concerns of New Yorkers,” the NY Post reported last week. TV commentator and former NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board chair Maya Wiley told Streetsblog that she “already ride[s] the subway all the time — it’s the fastest way to get around our city and as Mayor of course I will continue to do so.” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said much the same on Twitter, tagging Streetsblog to say, “I already ride the subway regularly, and as mayor I see that as more important than ever.”

Sounds promising. But don’t believe the hype. Follow the trip logs.

Voters need to know how the candidates for mayor (and lesser offices on the ballot next November) already get around town — not in some well-intentioned future but now, in real life.

When it comes to using transit, to the reality of how our next mayor experiences the city, aspiration is no match for participation. Or for perspiration. (Here’s looking admiringly at you, bike-commuting Council Member and mayoral candidate Carlos Menchaca.)

The metric we need is trip logs — daily records for candidate’s trips outside their home. No addresses, no names, no purpose (whether shopping or schmoozing). Just miles traveled, mode used, and minutes and hours expended. Summed daily and aggregated monthly. Starting on New Year’s Day and continuing at least through the primaries on June 22, possibly all the way to the Nov. 2 general election. (Streetsblog has made this proposal to all the mayoral candidates, but only the campaigns of Zach Iscol, Dianne Morales and Isaac Wright have expressed any interest … so far.)

The minutes and hours piece is probably the most important. Especially in transportation, experience is felt through time. Minutes spent standing on train platforms or inside stuttering buses, seconds spent negotiating SUV-blocked crosswalks, minutes clicking the pedals on bicycle commutes, hours on Staten Island commuter buses or interborough subway journeys.

It’s through those minutes that candidates learn how transportation actually works, or doesn’t, for the majority of New Yorkers who, through preference or necessity, mostly travel via transit, bicycles, scooters or other “small wheels” or their shoes and sneakers. It’s during those minutes that the candidates can have unscripted, spontaneous conversations in which voters reveal their hopes and concerns.

D News + Post front pages w deB SUV flap _ cropped _ IMG_3133 _ 3 June 2017

I said much the same in 1999 in a letter to NYC Public Advocate Mark Green, urging him to ride the subways regularly.

“I don’t mean this as an image thing, Mark,” I wrote. “Taking the train will help you share the experiences of average New Yorkers and ground you more firmly in the gritty but rich reality of ordinary people’s lives. By having some of your daily life experience amidst your fellow New Yorkers, you will come not only to know them better but to have more in common with them.”

I never heard back. Green was heavily favored when he ran for mayor in 2001, but barely survived a Democratic primary challenge from Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer before losing the general election to Mike Bloomberg.

Earlier, in 1992, a letter of mine in the upstate newspaper Hudson Valley Green drew the attention of folksinger and Hudson River champion Pete Seeger. The letter urged green upstaters to strive to cut back on driving and elevate their walking and cycling so that the total time they spent in their cars was no greater than their time traveling under their own power.

Collection of Charles Komanoff
Collection of Charles Komanoff

I made time the criterion rather than miles, partly in recognition of the exigencies of rural expanses but also from a conviction that the experiential aspect of active transportation was as consequential as the distance covered. Pete replied with a post card praising my letter and saying he “hoped to live to see the day when bicycles fill NYC streets and taxis run on electricity.”

Nearly 30 years on, even with transit budgets in tatters, the underlying dynamic is the same: NYC streets won’t get fixed unless the people in charge of city government “get out of their chauffeured cars and use the subways and buses in their travels around the city,” as I wrote to Mark Green.

When I hectored Mayor de Blasio on the Brian Lehrer Show in 2017 to “step up your game, lead by example and get out of your SUV armada,” it wasn’t really about his carbon footprint, it was about his failure to lead New Yorkers in winning repairs to the city’s crumbling transit system.

Sadly, the mayor’s chauffeured trips to his Park Slope gym became not just a symbol of his arrogance but a cause of his obliviousness. We can’t afford the same in our next mayor.

Trip logs aren’t transportation agendas, but they may be our clearest indicator of candidates’ connection to streets and transit. They’re not hard to compile. Candidates or their staff could do it with just a stopwatch and a few minutes a day.

Together, let’s get on it, starting Jan. 1 and continuing every day of the campaign.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

De Blasio on a rare subway trip in early 2014. Photo: Rob Bennett/NYC Mayor's Office

It’s More Than “Cheap Symbolism” When the Mayor Rides Transit

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De Blasio dismisses the importance of getting out of his SUV. But if he's getting chauffeured everywhere he goes, there's no way the mayor can viscerally understand what the three-quarters of New Yorkers who don't commute by car experience on a daily basis. If he doesn't regularly experience what it's like to get around without driving, he won't feel on a gut level why improving transit, biking, and walking is so important.