Journey to the Center of the Street

n the morning of January 1st 2010, a few minutes after Michael Bloomberg held his right hand high and took the oath of office for a third term as Mayor of New York City, one of his staffers walked over to the countdown clock hanging in the bullpen and reset it. 1,461: That’s how many days remained for the Mayor to make his mark on the city he had already run for the better part of a decade.

Of course, every ending is a beginning, so every countdown clock also counts up to something. In this case, it’s what folks around the Reclaim office have been calling New York City After Bloomberg, or simply, NYC A.B. We’re about 400 days away.

What that will mean for New York depends, in part, on who will inhabit Gracie Mansion next, and who will run the City Council, and how the maddeningly complicated power dynamics between a handful of people, places and interest groups play out. That’s all a bit tricky to predict. But one thing is for sure: New York City is going to change after Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure is over, and that could be a very good thing for biking, walking and transit.

n certain political circles, the story of both Mayor Bloomberg’s successes and failures boils down to money. His wealth, the thinking goes, has elevated him above the push and pull of politics in the five boroughs, and that has freed him from conventional thinking and consensus building, for better and worse.

There is, certainly, some truth to that. Whether it’s the Mayor’s fights against smoking, soda and trans-fats; his mega-development projects; his efforts to change the city’s education system; or a livable streets agenda that has seen the construction of 18 pedestrian plazas, 310 miles of bike lanes, six slow-speed zones (with another seven on the way), reoccurring car-free events at 20 locations around the city and countless other low-cost tweaks to the streetscape, it’s hard to imagine another mayor so consistently making so many unconventional—and often controversial—decisions.

“That’s one of the benefits of having a billionaire mayor,” George Artz, a veteran communications consultant and former NY Post political columnist told Reclaim in an interview that appears on page 10 of this issue. “Because of [Mayor Bloomberg’s] resources, he is insulated from a lot of the normal pressures put on City Hall.”

Of course, his successor, no matter who it is, won’t be so fortunate. And they’ll have the added pressure of drawing distinctions between their term and the Mayor’s. That could spell disaster for some of Bloomberg’s initiatives, but for livable streets improvements like plazas and bike lanes, it’ll likely mean a second wind.

t’s important to remember—despite the occasional dust-up in the press—just how well liked and heavily used bike lanes and pedestrian plazas are. Every poll done on their popularity has found a significant amount of support, and those numbers are only growing. In July of last year, 59 percent of New Yorkers said that bike lanes “are good because it’s greener and healthier for people to ride,” according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Polls done in May and March of last year found 56 and 54 percent support, respectively. Most recently, a poll by the New York Times found that 66 percent of New Yorkers said bike lanes were a good idea, while only 27 percent found them objectionable.

“There has been a kind of ‘Field of Dreams’ effect,” Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director Paul Steely White said. “Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan made some bold choices based on best practices from around the world and the input of advocates in New York, and they built these amazing spaces for cyclists and pedestrians. Now people are flocking to them in huge numbers.”

The Times Square Alliance, which oversees the pedestrian plaza at the crossroads of the world, recorded an 89 percent increase in pedestrian traffic in the past decade, with a one-day high of 328,000 walkers passing through the area in a 24-hour period. “The high pedestrian traffic, facilitated by the Broadway pedestrian plazas, has continued to make the district an ideal place for retailers to set up shop and for advertisers to spread their message,” the group said in a statement.

And cycling citywide has more than doubled in the past five years, with an eight percent increase between 2010 and 2011, the last years for which statistics are available. Add to that a 10,000-bicycle bike share fleet that will open in the spring of 2013, and the number of New Yorkers who care about livable streets and are willing to speak up for that issue in the era after Bloomberg is something any savvy politician, particularly one who isn’t as insulated from public opinion as the current mayor, will have to take very, very seriously.

But what about the haters? The powerful special interest groups? The wealthy business owners and their deep pockets? The outer borough politicians who despise cycling and can’t wait until Mayor Bloomberg’s gone so they can, as the now-irrelevant Anthony Weiner once put it, “tear out the [expletive] bike lanes?” It turns out that rumors of their malevolence are greatly exaggerated.

cross the city, in a broad swath of communities, through an array of industries, and among a diverse roster of interest groups, livable streets have powerful supporters that have been playing the political game since long before Mayor Bloomberg took office. They believe that the city’s political landscape—and its people-friendly streetscape—ought to move forward together for many years after Mayor Bloomberg leaves office.

Congressman Joseph Crowley, who is also the Chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, told Reclaim, “Livable streets is not just a fad, it’s an investment in public health, the environment, building stronger communities and creating a sustainable economy.”

The Congressman, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 after serving in the State Assembly since 1987, has seen 25 years of leadership changes in the city. After all of that experience, he’s sure that livable streets are a smart way forward: “The fact is, more and more New Yorkers are living where they work and working where they live,” he said. “We need to make smart investments now that improves the quality of life for residents, all while boosting civic engagement, encouraging growth and moving people from point A to point B. These investments are about creating the New York City of the future—a city that works for us all.”

That opinion isn’t just reserved for one of the most powerful Democrats in Queens. It’s shared among academics, business leaders and political insiders too.

Mitchell Moss, the Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University and a regular in the pages of the Times, the Daily News and the Post, thinks that transportation is the defining issue of the decade.

“Under Bloomberg, we have created new uses of the streets and that has created conflict,” he said. “But that’s a good thing. Forty years ago, the conflict was race, 30 years ago it was about crime, 20 years ago it was schools, and now it’s about streets and sidewalks. Now it’s about getting from A to B without bumping into someone else who’s in motion. It rarely feels like it, but congestion and competition are signs of success. People are out. They’re active. They’re seeing one of the city’s great assets.”

Kathryn Wylde, the President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, agrees that livable streets are a key to the city’s future, explaining, “For the past five years, the Partnership and PwC have published a ‘Cities of Opportunity’ analysis and ranking of the competitive strengths of 27 great world cities on six continents. Three years ago, we added ‘livability’ to categories such as economic clout, cost and technological readiness to the criteria by which employers and investors judge cities as a place they want to locate. It had become clear that the quality of life, including diversity in modes of transportation, had become a key factor in how attractive a city is to talented people and, by extension, to their employers. Thanks to the aggressive investment of the Bloomberg administration in a variety of highly visible quality of life improvements, including bike lanes and pedestrian amenities, New York City has seen its stature as a ‘livable’ city grow, contributing to its first place rank in our 2012 report.”

o does all of that support mean the livable streets agenda will move forward unchallenged? Of course not. The successes of the last few years aren’t guaranteed, but they are far more likely to continue than not.

The past five years brought very real and very popular changes to the streets that are supported by a majority of New Yorkers and a sizable chunk of some of the most influential groups in the city. Bike lanes, better buses and safer sidewalks are politically popular, economically savvy, progressive and increasingly a hallmark of New York City. Certainly, Mayor Bloomberg’s billions helped make that possible: it took a lot to get the ball rolling. But now, it’s got an energy all its own, and it’s going to keep moving, spreading safer streets, better business districts and more egalitarian transit that serves New Yorkers well. Sure, there’ll be some skirmishes along the way—the past five years haven’t been without incident—but a city’s momentum is now moving with livable streets. That’s something not even a billionaire mayor and a city full of special interests could turn around, no matter how many days they have in office.