The Sit Down: DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg at the Vision Zero launch event.
Image Courtesy NYC DOT

First off: Congratulations Commissioner Trottenberg. What was it like to get the call from the Mayor’s team? How did that process unfold?
Thank you. It was a thrill and an honor. The process happened quite quickly. Certainly it was a job I was interested in, and I was lucky enough to have some great supporters, the folks from the advocate community among them. And I knew First Deputy [Tony] Shorris from the Port Authority, and I was lucky enough to know my three predecessors in this job, Janette, Iris and Lee Sander, so I got to meet with Tony a few days before Inauguration Day, then spoke with the Mayor shortly after. And my appointment was announced on New Year’s Eve. It really was a whirlwind couple of weeks.

It seems like you’ve hit the ground running. Obviously, the Vision Zero announcement presents an enormous task for your agency. Has that been exciting? Overwhelming at times?
We’ve had a couple things going on. A new administration starting up, particularly after 12 years of the old one. A lot of new personalities, a lot of people learning the ropes. And, yes, the Vision Zero announcement. I wasn’t even officially the Commissioner when I stood with the Mayor and Commissioner Bratton for the announcement that we’d produce a report in one month. Two weeks later, I was up here, and the team was already working on the Vision Zero report. We’ve all been very excited. It’s going to be one of the signature priorities not just for NYC DOT but, I think, for the whole de Blasio Administration.

On top of that, we’ve had a little snow; seven storms, nearly five feet of snow, and that has been a baptism by fire in terms of operational challenges. Certainly, Sanitation takes the lead, but DOT’s crews help with snow removal, keeping the bridges and bike lanes safe, and then all the pothole work that follows a winter like this. And I have to say, the men and women who do all of that work have been amazing. They are a dedicated group of public servants, and this has been a hard winter for them, so I want to thank them, and I hope all New Yorkers will do the same when they have a chance.

One of the things we hear from Visions Zero naysayers is ‘Where will the money come from?’ What’s your response?
I’ve been hearing that as well, and it’s a fair concern. People are looking to us to provide more detail on exactly what the dollars are going to look like and where they’ll come from. And I’d say to them, look, we got the report out in a month. That’s pretty quick. Some of the Commissioners for our partner agencies are still just arriving. And as I said at the Vision Zero hearing, the Mayor has asked all of us involved to take a look at what we’re doing and to see where we can step it up with additional resources, and then have a discussion about what additional resources are needed. We’ll be putting out more detail on that as the budget process unfolds. It’s a complicated process. City Hall has reassured us that if more resources are needed, they’re going to be there.

You went to college in the city, at Barnard. Where you interested in transportation and planning then?
I really was, actually. I grew up in Pelham, in Westchester, just north of New York, but then lived for a time in Boston, and started to get interested in subways and trains at an early age. When I went to Barnard, it was the darker days. The subway was in disrepair, there was a lot of crime and graffiti, a lot of breakdowns. It was wonderful to see what happened between when I went to college in New York in the 1980s and what started to happen in the 1990s when I worked for the Port Authority: the renaissance that happened. The subways drove that renaissance. Both improving the infrastructure and what Commissioner Bratton did, first when he was Transit Chief and then as Police Commissioner with the “Broken Windows” approach and really tackling disorder and that leading to dramatic improvements in street safety and crime reduction in New York. One thing it really drives home for me is that improvements in transportation are key parts of a city’s success.

Speaking of Broken Windows, there has been a big push from T.A. recently, as well as from the City and the DOT, to improve data analysis, particularly around traffic safety. Will that continue to be an important task for DOT in the coming years?
Yes. Absolutely. I think NYC DOT has become an increasingly data-driven agency. We have some of the nation’s—if not the world’s—best transportation engineers and people who really crunch the data, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. One of the issues that has come up since the Vision Zero rollout is working with the NYPD and the Department of Health to make sure our data is harmonized. We need a consistent methodology in tracking crashes in terms of location, characterizing what happened and documenting the extent of injury. That’s an issue we’ve made progress on, but more needs to be done.

City Hall has reassured us that if more resources are needed, they’re going to be there.

Is what is happening right now on New York City’s streets shaping what’s happening in the rest of the country?
Yes. It will in the future, and it already is. I can tell you from my time at U.S. DOT that seeing what cities like New York, Chicago and D.C. are doing on street redesign, transportation safety, Complete Streets and bicycling has caught the eyes of federal policy makers. When I was at U.S. DOT, I did everything I could to support those efforts. It is absolutely true that when you travel the country, activist groups like T.A. are where the excitement and the political energy is. Why, on the national level, wouldn’t we want to pay attention to the most energized part of the transportation stakeholder community?

Mayor de Blasio has promised to raise cycling rates to six percent of total mode share. That’s a big number. What can we expect from the DOT to make that number a reality?
In this area, we’re continuing the good work that was done under the last Administration. We’re in the process of looking at a number of bike projects, and we’re already working with community groups. We’re going to continue to build out the bike network, and we’re going to continue to focus on safety. T.A. says this all the time, and it’s true. There is safety in numbers. It’s a virtuous cycle. As you build out more bike lanes and as more people ride and feel safe, the balance on the streets starts to shift and that induces new people to get in the mix, and it makes drivers more aware. We’re going to make a strong push there. The Mayor has tasked us with making big improvements and big increases.

Commissioner Trottenberg addressing the City Council.
Image courtesy of NYC Council

What about the other signature projects from the last administration—like Select Bus Service and pedestrian plazas— will the agency continue to push for those in significant ways?
Yes. As you know, the Mayor committed to building out 20 Select Bus Service routes. We are hard at work on that. I won’t kid you, there are some big challenges there—budgetary challenges, political challenges, working on the ground with communities, a close partnership with the MTA—but that is high on our list of priorities and one that the Mayor is going to follow through on.

As for the plaza program, we’re going to continue that. Plazas enhance safety. They’ve been a popular amenity around the city. And I think we’re excited now to see that increasingly the plaza program is spreading out all over the city. In all the boroughs now, there is a big interest in these programs. We’re working with local groups on the ground to make sure these are supported in the community and that they can continue to be operated well in terms of maintenance and programming, so that they really work for the community.

You served in Washington during one of the most dysfunctional Congresses in history, yet you advanced a very progressive agenda at the U.S. DOT, supporting biking, Complete Streets and better transit. What lessons from that experience are you bringing to New York to work with entrenched interests and the notoriously dysfunctional legislature in Albany?
I think the lessons are obvious ones, but they’re worth repeating. Leadership matters. From President Obama to the two Secretaries I served under, Ray La Hood and Anthony Foxx, they understood that modern transportation is a diverse, multimodal system involving Complete Streets built for all users. That kind of leadership is very important. And we have that in Mayor de Blasio. Clearly, he is someone who gets it. He’s made Vision Zero such a high priority, when there are a lot of other things on his plate. I’m inspired by that.

The other thing is strong, capable partners. Advocates, transportation officials, that’s another piece of the puzzle. We’re clearly going to have that in New York City and in our work up in Albany. We have advocacy groups with a long history of accomplishments in Albany. We do have speed cameras; we do have red light cameras. There’s a track record of success. We certainly have groups who can mobilize. And clearly, the families who have lost loved ones have organized into a coalition that is very powerful. That’s going to be a strong political force. It’s Politics 101, but I feel like we have some of the elements here.

You stayed at the Vision Zero hearing after you testified—which is something few commissioners do—to hear the families of crash victims testify. You also spoke with families on Inauguration Day. That sent a strong message to a lot of people. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
When you’re at the local level, as I am, even in a big city like New York, you are really close to the ground in terms of being with the people who are affected by what you do. There’s nothing more powerful and emotional than hearing from these families. They are a powerful force. I always want to take the time to hear those stories because it’s a powerful reminder that we really need to succeed. They’re counting on us. And we’re counting on them too. We need their help.

What do you think Transportation Alternatives should focus on in the coming months and years?
I wouldn’t deign to tell T.A. what they should do. You guys are pros. You know what to do. DOT needs your help as we go around the city talking to folks and educating and, at times, persuading people. We’re going to look to you to be our partners in our efforts up in Albany. I know you’ll be great partners. We’ll probably all go to Washington sometime too.

Is there something that makes transportation in New York different than anywhere else in the world?
Yes, well, certainly different than anywhere in the country. With U.S. DOT, I traveled to many countries and many cities, and there’s something about New York that’s unique. No city has a mass transportation system like New York: the density, the pedestrian population and the sheer volume of people. It’s a joke I used to have in Washington: the best people in transportation come from New York because they have seen it all—a world-class transit system, an amazing network of bridges and roadways, extraordinary infrastructure, a thriving pedestrian culture and now a cycling culture. It opens your eyes to the real richness of what you can do in transportation.