Spring 2001, p.3

Nobler Visions

I am proud to be a bureaucrat. I am a career civil servant working to make sure the government works for the people. It's our job to make sure the public gets the most from its tax dollars." Who said this?:

(a) Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis.
(b) Fictional character in a good government textbook.
(c) Iris Weinshall, new Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT).

The answer is (c). Commissioner Weinshall really did say this at the onset of a March meeting with Transportation Alternatives. This is inspiring language at a time when the word "bureaucrat" is used as an insult, and "civil servants" are often imperious and high handed. The DOT has suffered badly from a revolving door of five commissioners in seven years. T.A. cares about the DOT's health and effectiveness because the agency plays a central role in determining how motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians are treated.

The last four DOT commissioners spent their tenures scrambling to figure out how to master their agency. Because of this, the DOT had no leader settled enough to rein in the traffic engineers. These talented technicians regularly make political judgments which profoundly effect the character and health of the city. Since the engineers put the movement of motor vehicles first, pedestrians and cyclists have suffered.
After the commissioner's initial civic lesson, she took T.A. to task for our many jabs at the DOT. During her first few weeks in office, T.A. criticized DOT in the media for the absence of markings on the Brooklyn Bridge, and pedestrian deaths on Queens Boulevard. The commissioner felt this unfair, given her recent arrival, and used salty and humorous language to drive home this and other points. T.A. emphasized that pushing and prodding government agencies, as well as thanking them for a job well done, is part of our job. For example, DOT recently earned our praise for increasing pedestrian crossing times on Queens Boulevard, installing pedestrian improvements at Herald and Times Square, and re-opening the Manhattan Bridge bicycle/pedestrian path.

Ultimately, the meeting proved fruitful. The commissioner gained a better understanding of what T.A. does and why we do it. In turn, T.A. learned more about the commissioner's perspectives and goals. With a new spirit of cooperation, T.A. and DOT have worked together more in the last two months than in the previous two years.

Commissioner Weinshall is not a transportation expert. But she is a quick study and strong manager. She knows how information should flow, and who should be making policy judgments for the agency - the commissioner. The bad news is that Weinshall, and her excellent top staff, will likely be swept out of office when the new mayor takes office in January. Clearly, new mayors deserve their own team of loyal commissioners, but the next administration would be wise to keep Commissioner Weinshall. She has the skills and gumption to rejuvenate the DOT, and advance T.A.'s sensible transportation goals.

John Kaehny
Executive Director