Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pedestrian lives matter

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.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Never trust a transit advocate

I’ve been fighting for better transit for over twenty years now, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is this: never trust a transit advocate.


I’m not saying that we’re all liars, or irresponsible, or anything like that. I’m saying that you don’t automatically know what it means when you hear that someone’s a transit advocate.

This is why I have my goals right up on top of the blog, and I keep coming back to them over and over. I’m not for transit, right or wrong. I don’t think transit is always right. Transit is a tool to get people out of their cars, bringing with them all the benefits of not driving (less pollution and carnage, more efficiency and better social life). Transit is also a tool to help make access to resources more fair. It’s not the only tool to accomplish either of those things, and it doesn’t automatically accomplish either of them, and I am happy to toss it aside if it looks like the wrong tool for the job. In general, though, it’s a good tool.

For other people, transit is not about any of these things, or all of these things. For one person, transit may be about pollution or efficiency, but not about carnage or social interaction. For another, it may be about social justice or charity, but not about pollution or carnage. For some it may be about questionable values like "mobility" or "cost effectiveness." For some it may be about bringing in consulting dollars, and for some it may be all about their own damn egos.

Here’s the thing: you can’t tell. You don’t know, just because someone is billed as a transit advocate, whether they are going to support the same projects you do. You don’t know that they’re not going to surprise you with some (edgy! counterintuitive!) stance against one of your favorite projects. You don’t know, and that’s why you shouldn’t trust them ... us.

Here are two "transit advocates" that you shouldn’t always trust – and why. The first is a group calling themselves "BRT for NYC." It’s run by our friend Joan Byron, who loves to propose half-baked "bus rapid transit" corridors, but is AWOL when it’s time to fight for them. She’s gotten together with habitual BRT proponents Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, snagged endorsements from the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance, and convinced the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation to put hundreds of thousands of Standard Oil dollars behind this agenda.

When shouldn’t you trust "BRT for NYC"? When their agenda is not about improving buses - or they would have some mention of citywide proof-of-payment or bus lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge or a 24-hour XBL. When it’s not about better transit or fair access to jobs for NYC - or there would be something in favor of the Utica Avenue subway and the Rockaway Beach Branch. When it’s not about getting dangerous cars out of NYC neighborhoods. When it’s all about taking a single model – center-running busways in large stroads – developed in cheap-labor, authoritarian countries like Brazil and Colombia for cities that didn’t have subways, and corralling government and transit-activist time and money trying to shoehorn it into expensive-labor, NIMBY-happy New York, over and over again, no matter how many times it fails.

The second transit advocate you shouldn’t always trust is the "Queens Public Transit Committee." Committee member Brendan Reed just co-authored an op-ed in the Queens Chronicle with Allan Rosen. Rosen worked as a bus planner for the MTA years ago and came up with what he says is a visionary plan to make the buses in southern Brooklyn much more efficient. The MTA didn’t appreciate his genius, so he took to forums and then blogging to get his ideas out. He has a small but dedicated following among the city’s transit advocates, especially those like the "Queens Public Transit Committee" who promote subways and the kind of government-monopoly bus service the city has been rolling out for the past eighty years.

When shouldn’t you trust the "Queens Public Transit Committee"? When their agenda is not about improving buses, but about avoiding any inconvenience to drivers. When they oppose incremental transit improvements while holding out for the particular improvement they want.

What this means is that you shouldn’t trust what either group says about bus service on Woodhaven Boulevard. Yes, Woodhaven is a big, nasty stroad running through areas without good subway service. Yes, dedicated bus lanes would calm the boulevard and help people get places. Yes, those lanes would inconvenience some drivers.

But no, Joan Byron, dedicated bus lanes will not magically solve all the problems of people who live in the area. They will not beautify the boulevard by their mere terra-cotta-painted presence. They are no substitute for reactivated train service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

And no, Allan Rosen, inconveniencing drivers is not a reason to reject a transit plan. Congestion does not put pedestrians at greater risk. The existence of dedicated bus lanes on Woodhaven will not magically drain the support for reactivated train service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

The thing is that it’s easy to tell when to trust these guys or not. They say it right there. "BRT for NYC" has it in their name: they’re only interested in helping transit if it’s the right kind of transit. Allan Rosen and Brendan Reed say it in their op-ed: "questions posed by the Queens Public Transit Committee in early 2014 requesting a comparison of the positives and negatives for all users of the roadway, not only bus riders."

You can’t always go by the name. Someone may have "transit" in their name, and not always be in favor of transit. You have to look at their goals, and their arguments. And honestly, I'm creeped out by the level of obsession that both Byron and Rosen have demonstrated over the years, Byron for "BRT" and Rosen for the perfect bus map. I'm not convinced that either of them care about much beyond themselves and their personal white whales.

I’ve got "transit" in my name. Should you trust me? No! Read my agenda; it's right up at the top of this blog. I’m in favor of both dedicated bus lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard and reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch, because they would both help to make access fairer and get people out of their cars. Hell, I'd be in favor of the Tappan Zee Bridge if I thought it would do that. Are those your goals too?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Where is the roads and bridges settlement?

It was a big con game, and many of the biggest con artists believed their own hype. "It can never go down!" they cried. They delivered something valuable to people who couldn't afford it, told them it was even more valuable, took a hefty cut for themselves, and left their victims on the hook for billions. But the government has been slow to make them pay.

In part that's because many of those responsible are in government, and many others in government are their friends. In part it's because most of the government regulators were asleep on the job. But mostly it's because so many in the public were asleep too. A lot of them still don't think anybody did anything wrong.


I'm talking about the housing bubble, yes, but not the mortgage fraud. You see, it's hard to tell how much of the bubble came from hype about loans that pay their own interest, and how much came from empty promises of roads and bridges that pay their own maintenance.

Tales of endlessly rising demand for housing and fantasies of endlessly rising demand for driving fed off each other: the new housing pumped up traffic measurements, prompting governments to build and widen roads and bridges, and the new roads and bridges pumped up housing prices, prompting developers to build more housing. In 2008 it all crashed, and if the stimulus hadn't been so focused on "roads and bridges" a lot of it would have stayed crashed.

There's a little good news on the mortgage front: this year the state has brought in over five billion dollars in settlements with several large banks. But when will we see a similar settlement for the road-and-bridge fraud? When will the government sue the people who got us to pay hundreds of millions for these projects that left us on the hook for decades of maintenance?