Summer 2003, p.3

Publisher's Letter: Danger Signs

City Councilman James Davis

City Councilman James Davis

April 3, 1962-July 23, 2003

Champion of a Car-Free Prospect Park

Friend of Transportation Alternatives

Stuck to our office bulletin board is a fading newspaper picture of "The Metrocard Mayor," Mike Bloomberg riding the subway his first week in office. Usually, news clips are buried under a new tidal wave of flyers, meeting announcements and postcards after a few days. But this fraying sign of promise and potential still survives.

Along with the novelty of a mayor riding the subway, Mike Bloomberg brought to City Hall a well thought out transportation plan and the desire to toll the East River bridges. Some of the Mayor's progressive transportation thinking has made it to the streets. The Mayor's top aides have championed a round Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, new sections of which will open in August. The City has also mounted aggressive lobbying efforts for more red light cameras and federal transportation funding and staffed a strong transportation office in Lower Manhattan. It has also taken on the tough task of taming trucks.

Unfortunately, no one at City Hall seems to be asking the key transportation questions of where the City wants to be in a year, two years, ten years, etc. Upon taking office, Bloomberg dissolved the Mayor's Office of Transportation, the place where transportation policy and politics met and a key conduit for conveying the perspectives of transportation watchdog groups like T.A., the Straphangers Campaign, Tri-State Transportation Campaign and RPA (among others) to the Mayor and his top staff. This void has been aggravated by the DOT's failure to hire a much-needed Deputy Commissioner for Planning.

As a result, many of the Mayor's best transportation ideas have languished. Other great cities have launched bold new transportation initiatives. London has its celebrated congestion pricing program, but it has also made huge advances in providing better bus service through creating dedicated bus lanes and using signal timing changes and other techniques that fall under the rubric of "bus rapid transit." It has also created major new pedestrian areas, including at Trafalgar Square. The mayor of Paris has created a massive cycling network from scratch, much of it bike lanes protected by low curbs. He has also converted Paris' equivalent of the FDR into an enormously popular beach for much of each summer. Back in the USA, Los Angeles is achieving big gains in bus service and ridership using bus rapid transit. Lastly, Chicago has launched an innovative package of bicycling encouragement programs and network of new lanes and paths that, when completed, will rival anything in Europe.

NYC isn't matching these impressive initiatives with its own. In fact, in some ways it is going backwards. Recently, City officials told the public that there would be no safety improvements at the extremely dangerous Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge path. A few weeks later, other City representatives dismayed Downtown Brooklyn civic and community groups by telling them that the five-year, $1.2 million Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project would result in no reduction in traffic on neighborhood streets and no pedestrian safety improvements until 2010, if at all.
NYC can and should be doing better than this. As the 9/11 catastrophe made clear, transportation is central to the city's economy, quality of life and very feel. Mayor Bloomberg needs to have someone thinking about the big picture-which doesn't just mean mega-projects. It means thinking about how the city treats cyclists and pedestrians and what the role of the car is. It means looking at innovations elsewhere and figuring out how to use them here. For instance, the leader behind Transport for London's bus success is now a consultant. He could be brought in to jump start the "surface subway" bus rapid transit candidate Bloomberg proposed for First and Second Avenues. Likewise, the head of Chicago DOT's bike program could be brought in to explain to officials here what they are doing.

Mayor Bloomberg made billions as an innovator and manager, someone who took good ideas and put them into practice. He needs to take his genius for innovation and give the city's transportation thinking a big push. Because, when it comes to moving people, cars, trucks and bicyclists in ways that make the city more livable and competitive, NYC is lagging the world, not leading it. Let's go Mayor Mike, this is a race we need to win.

John Kaehny
Executive Director