The Health Commissioner Used a Pollution-Spewing, Global Warming-Exacerbating, Asthma-Contributing Vehicle to Get to An Event Today

Here's why you should care.

What's wrong with this picture?
What's wrong with this picture?

Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi, whose agency has long said that pollution from cars contribute to tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year, was driven from his home in Jackson Heights to an event in Times Square on Wednesday — and Mayor de Blasio is OK with it.

The brouhaha began on Wednesday morning, when Chokshi joined the mayor’s 9:15 a.m. virtual press briefing from inside a car (Chokshi is usually at his Manhattan office for the morning press briefing, which typically take place at 10 a.m.).

Chokshi lives in Queens, but was scheduled to attend a vaccination promotion with SOMOS Community Care and Marvel, the superhero people, at 11:30 a.m. in Times Square. To be in position for both the mayor’s call and the later event, he could have taken the 7 train from Jackson Heights to Times Square, but he would have had to do so well earlier than the 9:15 a.m. call (and found a place from which to take the call) because doing so after the call would have made him late to the event, by any travel means.

The car was not moving during the mayor’s press event; but it raised some major issues about the city’s top doc — whose agency boasts of both its mission “to protect and promote the health of 8 million New Yorkers” and its concern about the central role that car exhaust plays in thousands of premature and preventable deaths.

So we asked him about it:

Streetsblog: Commissioner, you’re clearly being driven to Times Square for the event, so we’d like to know what kind of car that is and why you were driving when you know that transportation emissions now comprise the single biggest share of American greenhouse gas emissions. And obviously pollution from cars, as your own Health Department has reported, causes more than 3,000 deaths, 2,000 hospital admissions for lung and heart conditions, and approximately 6,000 emergency department visits for asthma in children and adults?

Mayor de Blasio, who has long fielded questions about the negative imagery of his former routine of being driven from Gracie Mansion to a Park Slope YMCA to exercise, interrupted to first speak about his administration’s “big structural changes” and “massive investments” to “fight climate change” and “get more and more people into mass transit.”

New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi ... in a car.
New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi … in a car.

But he also issued a flat-out defense of the important public officials whose important work requires them to drive or be driven in city-issued cars.

Mayor: As for a specific commissioner who is literally playing a life and death role in the city, having to get where he needs to get, and sometimes having to be live on a Zoom from a car, I think using a car is sometimes the realistic option, obviously. And I know he cares about all of the health implications, but I want to be clear. I think Dr. Chokshi approaches his work with great intelligence and integrity, and we need him. And sometimes that means he needs to be in a car.

Chokshi took a slightly different tone.

Chokshi: All I can say is that I’m grateful that [Streetsblog is] highlighting the links between the environment, transit, and health, which I also strongly believe in. Personally, you know, as a proud resident of Jackson Heights, I’m grateful that we have the public transit system that New York City has with the 7, the E, the F, the R all serving my neighborhood, which I take as frequently as I can. And this morning, I’ve got to get somewhere and I’m in a compact hybrid. So, you know, sometimes we’ve got to do what we have to do to serve the people of New York.

After Chokshi’s answer, several people raised concern about a commissioner of a health agency adding exhaust to an already polluted city, where the deleterious effect of automobile driving is felt disproportionately in communities of color and low-income communities:

A city government insider texted a Streetsblog reporter that Chokshi is, if anything, a minuscule part of the larger problem of excessive driving. And, indeed, Chokshi is well respected in his field, and has been receiving kudos for his work during the Covid pandemic:

But Streetsblog was concerned about air quality and driving, so we asked the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene a series of questions about Chokshi’s driving. In the interest of transparency, here were the questions we asked:

1. What kind of car, exactly, was he in?
2. Can you provide the commissioner’s daily schedule between Jan. 1 and the most recent date you have?
3. Can you provide his mode of transportation for the events on said schedule?
4. If it is easier, can you simply tell us how often he is driven — in any vehicle — to events and how often he takes public transit?

The agency declined to comment. [We will update this story if it does.]

Given the magnitude of the challenges facing the city as it recovers from Covid, questions about how the health commissioner gets around town might seem small. But Mayor de Blasio often talks about how personal decisions can make a large impact on the city’s efforts to reduce the effect of car exhaust on climate change and public health. And, indeed, governments around the world (including New York City) are racing to set ambitious goals for cutting carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, driving is on the rise in New York, with total car travel back to pre-pandemic norms — Crain’s recently reported that the city has added more than 538,000 newly registered vehicles this year, a 34-percent increase — even as transit use is down 50 percent.

The de Blasio administration has presided over a large increase in the number of city officials who are given full use of a city-owned car, which jumped from 2,499 during the final year of the Bloomberg administration to 3,411 in 2019, an increase of more than 35 percent, the New York Post reported. At various times in the de Blasio era, the city’s entire vehicle fleet has grown rapidly, as Streetsblog reported. By July, 2020, there were 30,502 total vehicles in the city fleet, 65 percent of which are classified as “alternative fuel” vehicles [PDF]. The city burned 26,756,419 gallons of fuel in fiscal year 2020. In all, the city spent $328 million to fuel, repair and purchase vehicles in that fiscal year, not counting roughly $58 million on fleet personnel and non-personnel expenditures, according to the mayor’s management report.

Also, the NYPD has been on an SUV-buying binge during the same era:

Source: Department of Citywide Administrative Services
Source: Department of Citywide Administrative Services

The challenge in this era of catastrophic climate change is not just for all governments to change behavior, but also for residents, as this report from The Climate Institute explains.

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