Once a long, long time ago, in a place called New York City, a mayor strove to make Central Park car-free, convert Madison Avenue to a pedestrian street, and build a Second Avenue subway. John Lindsay, mayor from 1966-1973, put these goals at the top of his second term agenda, and he probably would have succeeded if not for the unconstitutional and now defunct Board of Estimates. Lindsay wasn't alone. The city was alive with activism and action-T.A. was founded in 1973.
Lindsay had a deep interest in the physical city despite other pressing concerns. He understood that restraining the automobile is profoundly important to everyday life in the city. Thirty years later, after a long dark age of budget crises, disinvestment, crime and deteriorating public spaces, the city is flush. The subways are almost rebuilt, and the great parks restored-but still diminished-by intrusive car traffic. Yet, in this new Gilded Age, during a moment of what should be profound optimism, the city is utterly failing to deal with the most fundamental problems: poor schools; encroachment on the water supply; garbage; polluted air; traffic clogged streets; inadequate public transit.
Driving-or diminishing-public expectations is the strong-willed Mayor Giuliani. His cramped vision of NYC as a destination for suburban motorists has left these important problems unaddressed and the streets littered with pedestrian barricades and dominated by traffic jams. Ironically, the mayor's successful fight against crime renewed public confidence in public spaces-thus opening the way for car-free parks and a pedestrian-friendly city. These things have not happened. Instead, it appears the mayor's truly great success is his ability to diminish public expectations so much that no one expects him to deal with the big issues, transportation and otherwise. No editorialists note the mayor's failure to fight for a Second Avenue subway or fair transit plan, or take on traffic by considering tolls on East River Bridges and hiking parking fees. That job is left to Transportation Alternatives and our allies. We do actually expect the mayor and the rest of government to address the important issues of the day.