Spring 2005, p.10

In Focus
Raising Expectations
Making New York City's Transportation Personal

The Transportation is not a sexy word. Though it affects just about every other aspect of life—economic development, housing, education, health care, sanitation, crime, quality of life and social justice—most government officials do not make transportation a priority unless there is a crisis. It takes near failure of the system for people to care about MTA funding, and scores of deaths for government officials to consider a street dangerous. Our expectations of our transportation system are sadly low.

The City’s lack of attention to transportation has encouraged New Yorkers to expect little from it. In a recent newspaper article about a study by the Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health linking car and truck emissions to genetic abnormalities and cancer, a mother of an asthmatic child declared that “this is what you get when you live in a city.” Another mother observed that “It’s something you have to live with until you can get out of here.” We have come to expect reckless cab drivers, schools located next to truck routes, bike lanes filled with potholes, polluted air, buses slower than snails, subway delays and streets that routinely claim lives, because we have not been offered a better vision, a can-do vision. We are no longer outraged when a pedestrian is killed by a reckless driver; only that the driver fled from the scene.

Though we rarely hear government officials say it, transportation is an integral part of the way we live and interact with one another, and of our commitment to providing equal opportunity and access to jobs, education, and good health. Transportation Alternatives has been fighting for over 30 years to raise expectations about the way our city moves, does business, lives and breathes.

In this issue of Transportation Alternatives Magazine, we profile one of the ways in which T.A. makes transportation personally relevant: safety. A major part of T.A.’s advocacy has focused on the link between transportation and safety because it is one of the most obviously personal aspects of bad transportation decisions. On issues from schools to big streets to bicycling lanes, T.A. has partnered with local champions and elected officials to raise expectations about what the City can do to make our transportation system a positive element of our neighborhoods. And it is working. Over the last decade, the City Department of Transportation has made small steps towards prioritizing pedestrian and bicyclist safety. In this article, we profile T.A.’s ongoing Safe Routes to Schools campaign as well as our ongoing fight to make bicycling safer—which are raising expectations for how our city’s transportation policy can make New York City a great place to live, work, shop and play.

Safe Routes to Schools has spread from the Bronx into a nationwide movement, raising expectations about children's safety and health in communities as diverse as Corvallis, OR; Tucson, AZ; Morrison, CO; Green Bay, WI; Naperville, IL; Nashville, TN; and Miami, FL.

Safe Routes to Schools has spread from the Bronx into a nationwide movement, raising expectations about children's safety and health in communities as diverse as Corvallis, OR; Tucson, AZ; Morrison, CO; Green Bay, WI; Naperville, IL; Nashville, TN; and Miami, FL.

From Personal Outrage to a Nationwide Movement

The safe routes to school movement is a true success story of how to capture the public imagination by raising expectations about the relationship between safety and transportation. The movement has grown from 38 schools in the Bronx winning changes through help from the Bronx Borough President’s Office to a multi-million dollar federal bill that, if passed, will help parents across the country; Safe Routes to School has turned the personal anguish of fearing for our children’s safety into a country-wide expectation that our transportation system can and must do better for our children.

Creating safe and attractive environments for children to walk to school addresses a variety of problems beyond just safety, including scarce faculty resources, student health and academic achievement. Principals and teachers are frustrated with having to sacrifice school administrator and teacher time that could be spent on providing services and guidance inside the school to running outside to control car traffic during arrival, fire drill and dismissal times. Public health professionals are alarmed at decreasing levels of physical activity and rising rates of obesity. Education professionals are also realizing the benefits of encouraging more walking. A 2002 study by the California State Department of Education found that there is a direct correlation between levels of physical fitness and test scores across a wide range of ages. Physically fit kids are alert and alert kids are higher performers.

In 1997, Transportation Alternatives partnered with the Bronx Borough President’s Office to launch the nation’s first Safe Routes to School program, with funding from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. A coalition of energetic and dedicated parents, principals and elected officials used the program to win significant traffic safety improvements around their schools, and to convince the City DOT to launch a citywide Safe Routes to School program. In 2004, the DOT launched its program with 135 priority schools, which the agency chose based on their crash histories. Since then, the DOT’s consultant has met with the schools and the agency and the consultant has been developing construction plans for the first phase of implementation.

The Safe Routes to School movement could not have happened without parents, principals, and elected officials in the Bronx having the courage to demand better from the city.
The Safe Routes to School movement could not have happened without parents, principals, and elected officials in the Bronx having the courage to demand better from the city.

Nearly a year later, parents and elected officials are wondering where the improvements are, and are impatient for the DOT to expand the program. In fact, T.A. has been contacted by approximately 100 schools from around the city that would like to be included in the DOT’s Safe Routes to School program. The City Council has even introduced a bill (Resolution 766) calling upon the DOT to expand the program to all public elementary schools. Meanwhile, the Safe Routes to School movement has spread across the nation. Programs now exist in over 18 states, some funded by Departments of Transportation, others fund-ed by Departments of Health. The national transportation bill (not yet passed) currently contains $850 million over five years for Safe Routes programs in the House version, while the Senate version contains $70 mil-lion per year over five or six years. The New York City DOT has already applied for $3.6 million in federal funding to implement its recommended Safe Routes to Schools measures. In addition, Congresspeople Nadler, Velázquez, and Wiener have earmarked $3.5 million in federal funding for the program, and other city and state-level elected officials have expressed interest in giving funding to the program.

Appropriately, just as the Bronx began the Safe Routes to School movement, the Bronx is behind the major push to get the DOT moving. Last fall, T.A. began working with the Community Collaborative to Improve Bronx Schools. The group is an impressive, diverse coalition of parents and community groups that have joined forces to improve the education of Bronx kids. Parents from Bronx schools and ACORN, Citizens Advice Bureau, Highbridge Community Life Center, Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, New Settlement Apartments, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy and the United Federation of Teachers worked together to win a landmark multi-million dollar “Lead Teacher” program in 2003 to help train new teachers. Spurred on by their success, the coalition launched a comprehensive school safety campaign in 2004 with the support of the school district superintendents. They are asking first for safety improvements on the streets outside the school, and will then move on to improving safety inside the school.

T.A. has helped the coalition refine its traffic safety platform to include realistic preventative measures that are easy and cheap to implement. The platform calls for the installation of 15 mph zones using traffic calming around schools on residential and smaller streets, and traffic safety measures that reduce pedestrian crashes by 50% by 2010 (compared to 2004) while maintaining or increasing walking levels on big streets. The coalition kicked off the campaign with a 200 person, standing room only rally in mid-March where it launched a drive to collect 50,000 petition signatures in support of the campaign. The coalition had already gathered 30,000 signatures by mid-April. In late March and again in late April, the group met with Bronx Borough Commissioner, Joseph Palmieri. After the second meeting, a group of 20 parents personally delivered an invitation to meet with the group to Commissioner Weinshall’s office in Downtown Manhattan. At press time, the coalition was in negotiations with the DOT. Meanwhile, the coalition has also been actively courting the support of local elected officials, and has won sign-on from Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, City Councilmembers Helen Foster and Anabel Palma, State Assemblymembers Michael Benjamin and Aurelia Greene and State Senators José Serrano and Ruben Diaz, Sr. as well as UFT President Randy Weingarten.

The Bronx coalition’s school safety campaign is an important step towards strengthening the DOT’s Safe Routes to School pro-gram, and is a beacon of hope for the many schools that want the DOT to help them make the streets around their school safe. The Bronx coalition is raising expectations of what the City should do for their children, bringing best practices from around the world to our city. London is rapidly installing slow speed zones throughout the city; the city’s research shows that 20 mph zones reduce the number of child pedestrians killed or seriously injured by 61%. In the Bronx, and elsewhere in New York City, slow speed zones on smaller streets and traffic safety measures on large streets would be strong measures to prevent crashes. The DOT has, on occasion, made safety improvements in locations after a crash has occurred. But most parents have higher expectations of the City now: they want prevention, not spot improvements after their child is injured or killed. Bronx parents are working together to turn what has frequently been a personal effort into use the tragic loss of a child to win after-the-fact traffic safety improvements, to a joint effort to insist that the DOT prevent future crashes.

New York City should be proud to be the cradle of the Safe Routes to School movement in the United States. But the City DOT’s deafening silence—no press conference, no information sent to schools, no out-reach to elected officials—is a sad indication that the DOT has set its own expectations of the program so low that it is not worth mentioning. The DOT has a tremendous opportunity to lead the nation. New Yorkers’ expectations have risen, elected officials’ expectations have risen and the rest of the nations’ expectations have risen. It remains to be seen whether the DOT’s expectations of itself have risen.

T.A. has long worked to raise expectations about what better bicycling can mean for breaking down our fiercely territorial approach to street use to the benefit of all New Yorkers.

T.A. has long worked to raise expectations about what better bicycling can mean for breaking down our fiercely territorial approach to street use to the benefit of all New Yorkers.

Demanding Respect and Inspiring Hope

At a rally in mid-April, T.A. awarded faux Olympic medals to bicyclists for “Bicycling Bravery.” Our public commendation of a few of the 113,000 people who choose to bicycle every day followed months of anti-bicycling press generated by the police crackdown on Critical Mass rides. Though New Yorkers rarely recognize their contribution, bicyclists keep us honest about our use of our streets. Like canaries, dead or injured bicyclists usually mean that there is a toxic environment—in this case, the street. And a toxic street environment drives away residents, business and pedestrians; it compromises our quality of life and jeopardizes our safety and health. Still, New Yorkers are only beginning to make the connection between safety for bicyclists and improved safety, quality of life and health for all New Yorkers. A December 2004 editorial in the New York Sun observed that, “Because of the way they ride, the way they act, and whom they choose to represent them, bicycle riders currently reside about three notches below cockroaches in the minds of New York City residents.”

T.A. has worked for many years to help New Yorkers see bicycling as part of the solution to our deadly and noisy streets, primarily through getting the City to build safe and attractive bicycling facilities like bike lanes. Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota who, during his tenure, led massive efforts related to transportation, land use and housing for the poor, pollution abatement and public spaces, has observed about bicycling lanes that “We built symbols of respect, equality and human dignity, not just sidewalks and bike paths.” Well-designed bike lanes have made bicycling more visible, inspiring more people to bicycle; more people bicycling creates safer conditions for all bicyclists, and helps tame drivers and improve overall street quality of life and safety. Well-designed bike lanes can turn a street full of angry pedestrians, frustrated bicyclists and reckless drivers into a street where everyone coexists peacefully.

Misplaced anger at the largely law-abiding everyday bicyclists is a symptom of New Yorkers’ deep personal concern about the quality of life on our streets. Over the last few decades, street life has gone from being something that happened on every inch of asphalt and concrete between buildings to being confined to the sidewalk and limited time in intersections, creating competition for limited space. The space between the sidewalks now tends to be dominated by the moving and storing of cars and trucks. Bicyclists and pedestrians rarely see eye-to-eye because their only interaction is when they come into conflict with each other on sidewalks or at inter-sections. Rather than widening sidewalks and taking away space for driving or parking, New Yorkers have passed laws to clear the sidewalks of vendors, vendor boxes, and even bollards. When something gets in our way, we demand that it be removed or confined to its own, separate space.

T.A. has long worked to raise expectations about what better bicycling can mean for breaking down this fiercely territorial approach to street use—micro-zoning, in effect—to the benefit of all New Yorkers. Though we have yet to convince the City to systematically rebalance our streets to favor walking, mass transit and bicycling over driving, T.A. has won numerous important bicycling facilities throughout the city. Simple bicycling facilities, like bridge paths and bicycling lanes, have helped raise expectations that our neighborhood and main streets can be more than mini-highways, and that encouraging more bicycling by improving bicycling safety is an important step in the renaissance of our neighborhoods.

Transportation Alternatives has fought for expanding the bicycling lane and greenway network while also working for larger changes to both the culture and engineering of our streets and parks to decrease the overall amount of driving and the speed of drivers. Increasing bicyclist access to our streets, bridges and parks has helped spur a significant increase in com-muter and recreational bicycling. The growing popularity of cycling in New York City is creating a larger demand for safe spaces to bicycle. New York City has scores of bicycling clubs throughout the city, all of which hold rides. These numbers are impressive, but most New Yorkers will still say that they are too afraid to try riding on city streets.

The 2004 Mayor’s Accountability Statement, the Mayor noted that his campaign promise to “Move towards a bike friendly and pedestrian friendly environment to foster alternatives to motor vehicles” is “Done.” This is a gross over-statement, especially since the City has yet to make encouraging bicycling through safe and attractive facilities a priority. Like so many things, the devil is in the details. Witness:

East River Bridge Path Truck Moats

The City made the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians through dedicated paths. Bicyclists have been flocking to the bridges ever since the City opened the bicycling paths; the number of daily bicyclists using the East River bridge paths more than doubled from 2000 to 2004.

But the DOT has made it dangerous to get to the paths by failing to calm traffic conditions near the bridge on and off ramps. Between 1995 and 2001, 67 bicyclists were injured and seven were killed in the immediate vicinity of the Brooklyn approaches to the City’s East River bridges. In March, Noah Budnick, T.A.’s staff bicycling advocate, was sent to the hospital with severe head trauma after being involved in a crash near the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge. Noah’s crash was an especially painful reminder that areas where car and truck drivers are (blindly) speeding on and off of bridges are where bicyclists need protection the most. A bridge without access is a bridge to nowhere.

Transportation Alternatives has asked the DOT repeatedly to make access to the bridge paths safe. Dissatisfied with the agency’s response, we have launched a high-profile campaign for “Safe Bridges by 2006” aimed at Mayor Bloomberg. Over 200 people participated in a rally for safe bridge access in mid-April.

Williamsburg Bridge Bumps

In December 2002, the City DOT opened the shiny new bicycling and walking path on the Williamsburg Bridge. The new path replaced the old path’s eighty-three torturous stairs and opened up beautiful views. Transportation Alternatives estimates that 3,000 people walk and bike across the bridge everyday.

But the twenty-six two-inch high metal bumps that cover the bridge’s expansion joints pose great dangers to bicyclists. In January 2003, Transportation Alternatives asked the Department of Transportation to remove the bumps. Over the following months, the request was echoed by the United Spinal Association (a disabilities advocacy organization), the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, El Puente, Community Board 3 (Manhattan), Community Board 1 (Brooklyn) and State Senator Martin Malave Dilan.

Despite requests from T.A., disabled activists, local elected officials and community groups, and a continuing flow of appeals from bridge users to the Department of Transportation to replace the bumps with safer alternatives, the agency has decided to “study” the problem further. The agency has yet to promise to remove the bumps or set a timetable to take action.

Deteriorating Bicycling Lanes

Bike lanes are supposed to be safe spaces for cyclists. But throughout the city, bike lanes are pocked with potholes, street cuts and metal plates, and are stripped of stripes and pavement markings. Potholes and plates damage motorists’ cars, but they break cyclists’ bones and can contribute to fatal crashes. These ubiquitous disfigured bike lanes are not safe. The City should survey bike lane conditions every year, evaluating pavement, lane striping, signs and pavement markings, and make repairs as needed. Currently, the Department of City Planning reviews the conditions of new bike lanes, but no city agency examines older lanes for hazards. All City inspectors should review bicycling conditions on bikes, not in cars, where hazards to cyclists are often overlooked.

Mayor Bloomberg and the previous mayors who have authorized the creation of the city’s bicycling lanes, bridge paths and greenways deserve praise for taking the first steps towards creating a safe bicycling city. These new facilities have raised expectations that this city can be a better place for bicycling. But as the above examples show, the DOT is undermining its own good work by forget-ting to pay attention to the details. Encouraging bicycling requires that the engineers who design our streets must think and design from the perspective of a bicyclist. We cannot expect the City DOT’s tiny bicycling team (four out of over 4,000 DOT employees) to be able to design and monitor all bicycling facilities in the city.

When traffic engineers think like bicyclists, everyone benefits. The DOT installed an unprecedented number of bicycling lanes in Downtown Brooklyn as part of its Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming project. The lanes have contributed to an overall decline in car traffic on residential and commercial streets (see page 00). Similarly, when the DOT stuck by the Oriental Boulevard bicycling lanes in Southern Brooklyn despite community opposition, the whole community benefited. The high-quality bike lanes (five-foot lanes with a four- to five-foot buffer) have reduced speeding, increased bicycling and contributed to an overall decrease in motorized traffic on Oriental Boulevard and adjacent streets.

When the DOT creates and maintains safe and attractive bicycling facilities, it breaks down the territorial atmosphere on our streets. In Downtown Brooklyn, residents are eager for more bicycling lanes; even if they have not used them to bicycle, they have embraced the lanes, and the bicyclists (and runners) who use them as integral to their collective efforts to reclaim their neighborhoods from honking, pollution and dangerous drivers. The experience in Downtown Brooklyn suggests that New Yorkers may finally be realizing that a bicycling lane is not just a special favor for another special interest group, but one of many symbols that the City cares about making our streets a quality place to live, work, shop, walk and play for all.

Learning to Expect More

Twenty years ago, many people were writing New York City’s obituary. Today New York is flourishing. With our City’s turnaround has come increasing expectations of our City government to make our city safe and accessible to walking and bicycling New Yorkers.

Still, most New Yorkers expect little from the DOT because the agency promises little and promotes only the least interesting parts of its work, such as potholes and parking regulations. Mayor Bloomberg and the City DOT should be holding regular ribbon cuttings at schools undergoing makeovers as part of its Safe Routes to School program. And the agency should be clamoring to repair and maintain the city’s bicycling network to enhance the livability of our neighborhoods for everyone, and make its Olympic bicycling dream less of a fantasy and more of an everyday reality.

The MetroCard Mayor has striven to show that he takes the importance of the subway system personally. But the average New Yorker spends as much time walking around the city as riding the subway, and we need a Mayor who takes the quality of our street life just as seriously as the quality of our subway, bus and ferry network. In short, we need a mayor with high expectations of the Department of Transportation: One who knows what it is like to walk with a child to school in the Bronx. And one who rewards the 3,000+ people who were injured or killed bicycling in 2004 with the safe bicycling lanes, bridges and greenways that they, and everyone else, deserve.

Throughout the upcoming election season, T.A. will educate candidates for city council and mayor that transportation, as unsexy as it may sound, has the power to deliver significant safety, educational, economic, health, and quality of life benefits to New Yorkers. We speak for the growing numbers of New Yorkers who are beginning to take it personally when the City fails to make the safety and livability of our streets a priority. And there is nothing more formidable than a New Yorker who takes it personally.

Read the latest news on this subject here and here.