StreetsBlog | August 19, 2009
By Ben Fried
A crowd of about 75 Brooklynites turned out for the Transportation Alternatives City Council candidate debate last night, despite the muggy mid-August heat and un-air-conditioned PS 321 auditorium. They were treated to a substantive discussion of transportation policy that went deeper than "bike lanes: good or bad."
The race to succeed Bill de Blasio in the 39th District is crowded, with seven candidates participating in the debate (an eighth, Democrat John Heyer, was a no-show). After last night, it's clear that a strong livable streets candidate won't emerge from the Republican primary. GOP candidates Joe Nardiello and George Smith voiced support for bike infrastructure but neither could articulate a coherent strategy for curbing auto use and mitigating traffic. (Nardiello on congestion pricing: "Penalties are not the solution.")
The other five debaters -- Democrats Brad Lander, Gary Reilly, Josh Skaller, and Bob Zuckerman, and Green Party candidate Dave Pechefsky -- generally agreed that the city should reduce driving and foster walking, biking, and transit. How, and to what extent? I'll try to give a sense of their positions and ideas as concisely as possible.
Among this group, Zuckerman seemed the most gun-shy about getting people out of their cars. When asked to identify the district's most pressing transportation need, "I would use the word congestion," he said. His main strategy: Residential parking permits, proposing a borough-wide permit zone for on-street parking, with a $100 annual fee. As a hypothetical revenue-raiser, that's nothing to sneeze at. As a feasible proposition for busting congestion, I'm not so sure.
In general, RPP was a common proposal, while more effective and politically risky strategies to manage parking received fewer mentions. Lander and Reilly both lauded the DOT's PARK Smart pilot in Park Slope -- which charges higher rates for on-street spaces during peak hours -- and suggested ramping it up. Thankfully, no one from the Dem/Green contingent proposed building additional parking structures to ease congestion. (Skaller: "I do agree with the basic notion that if you create parking, more cars will come. So the solution must lie elsewhere.")
Reilly was the only candidate to identify the city's off-street parking requirements as a major cause of traffic and congestion. "We need to eliminate that archaic part of the zoning law that requires car parking," he said. Pechefsky picked up on a different aspect of the city's off-street parking boom. "Riding down Ninth Street is an invitation to get hit by someone driving to Lowe’s," he said, referring to the big box home improvement store that sits right by the Gowanus Canal. "We need another economic development model."
The most full-throated endorsement of congestion pricing, meanwhile, came from Lander. "I want to encourage people to stick, long-term, with congestion pricing," he said, noting that RPP would not pack the same punch. "I think we need to be in the forefront of advocating for that to happen. If we want enough money to run transit, and cut congestion and the traffic that runs through our neighborhood, we need congestion pricing." Council members can push for that reform, he said, by helping to build the coalitions necessary to sway Albany legislators.
One of the more pronounced and interesting distinctions between the candidates arose when they were asked about making Prospect Park car-free, an idea that the departing de Blasio has endorsed. Pechefsky and Reilly fell squarely in the "do it now" camp. Lander, Skaller, and Zuckerman urged a gradualist approach, suggesting variations on a strategy of winning over skeptics in Windsor Terrace and Kensington, who fear that a car-free park would send more traffic through their streets. "I think that the perception and the reality are probably two different things," said Skaller. "I think it's a very attainable goal, to have a car-free park. But in order to get there, we need a full buy-in from all communities, and we need to show people that it will work for them."
The area of greatest unanimity was probably traffic enforcement. Several candidates concurred that the enforcement of traffic laws is woefully insufficient and pledged to work with the NYPD to make it a higher priority. Reilly took the additional step of recommending more red light cams, which must be approved by Albany.
As for bikes? Well, woe to the candidate who comes out with an anti-bike message at a TA debate. If these pols follow through on what they said last night, you don't have to worry about the 39th District producing a council member who'll rail against protected lanes and stand in the way of a more robust bike network.