The Sit Down: Talking Traffic with Public Advocate-elect Letitia James

Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker

How did you get involved in politics?
I was, and continue to be, a public defender. In the early ‘90s, a local politician saw me at a trial and was impressed. He invited me to apply for a position in his office—staff counsel. I worked with him for nine years and got more and more involved in New York’s political world, but I also continued to represent individuals on a pro bono basis. I would argue with myself about how one makes a difference in the life of a community, a city and a society—whether that’s best done through legal or legislative means. I continue to struggle with that. As Public Advocate, I can merge my legal skills with my legislative experience. It’s a perfect marriage.

In your years in the City Council, you always stood up for safe and sustainable streets. Where does that conviction come from?
Seniors. It’s primarily from the seniors I visit with. They’re my neighbors, and I’ll talk to them about the challenges related to living in a place and a society where everything is fast. I hear about how often their needs are ignored. Something is wrong if older New Yorkers can’t cross the street in their own neighborhood.

Is there a street improvement around the city that you particularly appreciate?
Carlton Avenue between Park and Myrtle. That was my first median. Almost seven years ago. The street was far too wide. Cars would speed and people didn’t have time to get across, so we built a median to break up traffic. Now there are trees and plantings and it organizes the traffic and gives people a safe space and looks good. When I proposed it, everyone said, “You’re going to take away parking spaces and cause congestion and bedlam in the streets.” None of that has occurred. In fact people have thanked me. There’s senior housing on that block. They rest at that median. Of course, one street isn’t enough. The difficulty of navigating streets in New York continues to be a challenge. I witness it out of my window at home and outside of my office. We have yet to calm the streets on Lafayette Avenue and on South Elliot and on Hanson. We can do more. We need to continue the ongoing spirited conversations with DOT about what we can do more of to bring relief to cyclists, seniors and others.

Is there a transportation-related piece of legislation you passed or worked on in the Council that you’re particularly proud of?
Working with Brad Lander and Steve Levine to bring attention to the lack of investigation on traffic fatalities. We have yet to pass that into law, but we’ve had several hearings, and we’re still fighting for infrastructure in the DOT or the NYPD that would systematically engage in more full and complete investigations of cyclists and pedestrian fatalities throughout the city. Hopefully, the next DOT or NYPD commissioner will make it a priority.

What will be your top priorities as Public Advocate?
My number one priority is working to solve the crisis in affordable housing. My number two is education. In terms of transportation-related priorities, I’ll focus on creating a unit in the DOT or PD to investigate crashes and severe accidents. I’ll also work to maintain and expand the Citi Bike program, which according to an internal poll in my office was a huge—capital H-U-G-E—success in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

Something is wrong if older New Yorkers can’t cross the street in their own neighborhood.

Are you a Citi Bike member?
Yes! But truthfully, the campaign put a real dent in my bike time. I need to get back on it.

Bill de Blasio recently announced a Vision Zero agenda for New York City—essentially a plan to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero in ten years. What do you think has to happen to make that goal achievable?
It will take strong direction from the top; from the Mayor’s office and also from the DOT and NYPD commissioners. They’ll all have to prioritize street safety. There’s also a political reality. He is going to have to continue the Bloomberg platform moving forward in terms of PlaNYC. The question then becomes to what extent does he embrace that platform?

What do you think T.A. needs to do to keep winning livable streets improvements around the five boroughs?
Expand your offices. Put satellite offices in all five boroughs; branch out. This fight can’t be limited to Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. We need to have a discussion in Brownsville and Bed-Stuy. Why should the bike map stop on Bedford Avenue? Why are we not exploring the far reaches? Why are we not expanding buses and mass transit into Staten Island, eastern Queens and the Bronx?

Is there something you want to say to T.A.’s 100,000-person activist network?
Raise your bikes high. Put your bikes up. You’ve made your mark. We’ve heard your cry. And you are now part of the fabric of New York City. You won the streets.