Remember when the Department of Transportation seemed so conservative and car-oriented, when it looked like Mike Primeggia was going to be ramming one-way conversions down the throats of New Yorkers forever? Remember when that all changed? It was when our Mayor realized that it was important to make our city safer and take a lead against carbon emissions, that it might help him win re-election if he could make that part of his agenda going up against a hidebound political operative. So he found a no-nonsense manager who cared about these issues, put her in charge of the DOT, and backed her up. Things changed, a lot more quickly than anyone expected.
Remember when the City Council and the community boards seemed so conservative and car-oriented, when it looked like they would fight every bus and bike lane to the death forever? Remember when that started to change? It was when Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog started putting the word out, covering elections, getting advocates for safer streets and better transportation to apply for community boards. It was when those same advocates formed StreetsPAC to fund candidates who would fight for subways and road diets, and the Riders Alliance to pressure them.
This is what democracy looks like, to borrow a phrase from the protestors. This is information sharing, organizing, holding elected officials accountable. This is getting everyone involved in the political process.
Now, remember when all that hit a brick wall, just like this school bus with fifteen kids hit a brick wall in my neighborhood the other day? Remember the missing piece in all this street safety? Remember when we tried to change the NYPD?
Who refuses to ticket speeding and reckless drivers? Who refuses to patrol for failure to yield to pedestrians? Who shows no interest in getting cars off the sidewalk? Who has blocked the expansion of Summer Streets? Who fills the sidewalks and bike lanes around every police station with their cars? Who looks the other way when the FDNY does the same thing? The NYPD.
More tragically, that same identification with drivers leads the NYPD to prematurely blame victims of traffic violence and exonerate perpetrators. It leads them to ignore evidence that could bring a conviction, and to drag their feet on investigations. It leads them to entrap cyclists and rough up pedestrians.
(And yes, not all cops, by any means. While some rank-and-file cops may be particular assholes to pedestrians, that's probably less true for the NYPD than for any other police department. The problem is more with the orders and priorities that the rank and file get from the top brass.)
Technically the NYPD is a city agency, and I assume that Bloomberg had the legal right to do with it what he did with the DOT: replace Ray Kelly with someone who gave a shit about pedestrians and back that person up until he saw real change. But he’s done similar shakeups at the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of Education, and I figure he just didn’t have the capital to take on the NYPD. You know what? That’s okay. Much as I want my kid to be safe from unlicensed drivers, I know change doesn’t always happen overnight.
So then we get de Blasio, who’s shown a real windshield perspective in the past, and he brings Bratton back. But de Blasio adopts Vision Zero, and his wife and children are black, so he pushes against the NYPD. And we start to see some changes, like at the 78th Precinct in Prospect Heights. I even dared to hope that the outrage over Eric Garner’s death, coming at a time when the city is renegotiating its contract with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, might bring about a shakeup that would put some brass with Vision Zero in charge.
This is why I’m writing about the NYPD tonight. Because some nutcase killed a couple of hardworking cops the other day, and now Pat Lynch and his friends are trying to use that double murder to attack the Mayor and the movement for more police accountability. It’s clearly a power game, to make de Blasio and his allies weak, win greater concessions from the city in the new contract, and maybe get a little personal power for Lynch, Giuliani, Kerik and so on. And it can have grave consequences for Vision Zero.
Imagine that Pat Lynch’s hateful, divisive tactics are effective. The Mayor backs off any plans for reform he might have had. The NYPD cracks down on the protestors, and the Mayor does nothing to stop them. He continues to make noises about Vision Zero, but nothing happens. In 2018, newly elected Mayor Lynch puts Kerik back in charge and abandons Vision Zero, calling it a noble but misguided crusade.
Imagine, on the other hand, that the Mayor’s allies prevail. De Blasio wins a new contract, with concessions that include no parking for police officers’ private cars. He brings in Eric Adams to replace Bratton and institute reforms to protect and serve the have-nots in New York City. Prominent among those reforms is Vision Zero. Commissioner Adams expands investigations of all crashes that result in serious injury to pedestrians and cyclists, and punishes officers who declare “no criminality suspected” to the media. The NYPD joins the DOT, the City Council and many Community Boards in becoming allies in the fight to protect pedestrians. Once the NYPD cooperates, the District Attorneys come on board too.
That’s one of the many things at stake here. If you think it’s just about race, or just about unions, or just about cigarettes, think again.