May/June 1999, p.3

Is T.A. Too Mean?

“Time is neutral; waiting never produced inevitable progress.”

— The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this issue, Jackson Wandres, the Department of City Planning’s former bike planner, suggests that T.A. might treat transportation bureaucrats too harshly. It’s true that sympathetic transportation bureaucrats are in the frustrating position of trying to help cyclists and pedestrians without support from their bosses and then facing criticism from the public that they are trying to help. This frustration is no doubt why in the last year, the City has lost about two-thirds of its bike/ped planning staff, including both Wandres and senior pedestrian planner Scott Wise from its planning agency, and Michael King, DOT’s top traffic calming expert, as well as five other seasoned bike/ped professionals from both agencies. But the problem is not T.A. The problem is backward city policies that plainly put motor vehicle travel first.

If American history shows anything, it is that positive social changes do not happen without struggle, heat and action. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not sit down with the local sheriff for a few martinis at the local country club and win civil rights for African-Americans with reasoned argument. King and many other courageous people staged demonstrations intended to provoke a response. They were beaten, jailed, harassed, spied on and for many years viewed by the governing elite everywhere as troublemakers. Many was the time that reputedly sympathetic politicians, John F. Kennedy chief among them, wished that King would just go away because he forced them into politically awkward decisions.

King and the civil rights leaders were not kidding when they demanded an end to segregationist, racist and other immoral governmental policies. Shouldn’t we in the movement for environmentally sensible transportation be just as serious? If we aren’t aggressively pursuing benefits for cyclists and walkers, than what are we doing? Shouldn’t our passions be stirred by the continuing horror of conditions so poor that over 200 cyclists and pedestrians are killed each year and 15,000 struck by automobiles in our city alone? Should we quietly protest the fact that fewer than one in five motorists who kill a cyclist or pedestrian are even given so much as a traffic ticket, despite detailed analysis showing that they are to blame in three-fourths of the deaths? Should we speak softly when 0.5% of transportation spending in NYC is for cyclists and pedestrians who make up 19% of travel?

Unlike the sheriffs faced by King, the officials T.A. deals with are fairly friendly. But when it comes to winning a better world for cyclists and pedestrians by persuading these officials to alter their automobile-oriented policies through rational argument and empirical evidence, we fare as well as King would have arguing moral philosophy with Bull Conner. Decision-makers here ignore the overwhelming evidence which shows that favoring cars leads to more cars and they seem oblivious to the traffic and quality of life disaster they have helped create. They ignore the proven success of traffic calming and pricing bridges and parking to reduce automobile travel, and they resist helping bicyclists and pedestrians.

Surely Dr. King would rather have won what he did by citing New Testament verse rather than facing a fire hose. Likewise, it would be great if T.A. could sit down with the DOT Commissioner for a fine meal, say nice things to him and get a network of new bike routes installed. Maybe that’s the way it works in Portland or Copenhagen. But this is New York.

John Kaehny
Executive Director