NYC’s Mayoral Candidates Pitching Changes to the City’s Transportation
New York’s mayoral candidates are passing each other in pitching changes to the city’s transportation, but who will hit the gas on a NYC Transit takeover?
The last time there was an open competition to become mayor of New York, some candidates were openly hostile to the transportation changes the Bloomberg administration put in motion.
At a Gracie Mansion dinner for New York City congressional members in June 2010, then-congressman Anthony Weiner sought out Mayor Michael Bloomberg and reportedly told him he would hold “a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
Other mayoral aspirants shared an aversion to bike lanes. John Liu, then-city comptroller, warned it was a “likely scenario” he would remove some lanes in Brooklyn and Queens if he won. Republican candidate Joe Lhota agreed, saying he could strip out new lanes after Brooklyn bus drivers complained to him about cyclists in Park Slope.
Then-councilman Bill de Blasio promised to look at each project individually and “revise or change” paths as he saw fit. He also referred to himself as a “motorist” at a mayoral debate, and said the “jury is still out” on the effect of pedestrian plazas on slowing traffic. (As mayor, he sought to remove one in Times Square and failed.)
Eight years later, the bikelash appears to be over. A crop of current mayoral contenders issued competing proposals to curb emissions from vehicles and buildings, which included bikes as part of the solution. Several Democratic hopefuls shared visions for vastly reducing car traffic in Manhattan, in a Streetsblog NYC survey. And seven leading candidates attended a virtual forum in March solely dedicated to the future of cycling.
“The fact we had candidates come to a forum on cycling issues, that’s a sign of the times,” Jon Orcutt, advocacy consultant for booster group Bike New York and a former policy director at the city Department of Transportation, said. “We had candidates talking about ripping out Bloomberg’s bike lanes in 2013. There was a lot of angst about it and that has changed.”
The pandemic quietly transformed how New Yorkers think about their streets, too.
The state’s stay-at-home orders spurred New Yorkers to buy more vehicles and keep off the rails. Subway ridership plummeted last spring to less than 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and commuter rail use dropped nearly 95 percent.
But roadways that had been turgid with car and truck traffic gave way to bus-only thoroughfares and vehicle-free plazas. Restaurants prohibited from serving patrons indoors reclaimed parking spaces for airy outdoor patios and enclosed canopies that heated up once the temperature dipped. Cycling became so popular that bike shops across the city sold out of bikes and accessories for months.
Car traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels six months after the state’s March shutdown, but passengers in outer-borough neighborhoods kept taking buses and subways. Bus ridership recovered to 40 percent of its peak before the pandemic, while subway ridership has risen steadily, topping 1.5 million in September and cresting over 1.9 million by mid-March.
New Yorkers don’t want to go back to congested streets and stressful commutes when the pandemic is over. A Siena College Research Institute/Transportation Alternatives poll found that 68 percent of New Yorkers want more protected bike lanes in their neighborhood, 56 percent favored adding bike-share stations on curb spaces, and 56 percent also supported swapping parking spaces for dedicated bus lanes.
“New Yorkers like the fact that the city is becoming safer to walk and bike, and their buses are getting places faster once bus lanes are installed,” Ben Fried, spokesman for advocacy foundation TransitCenter, said. “You might have flare-ups project by project, but these are popular things.”
The mayor of New York has surprisingly limited control of transportation systems within the city.
Highways, rails, ports, and air space are all under the purview of state and federal authorities, but the city can regulate its streets. The most efficient way to move the largest number of people across town remains the humble bus.
“Our number one priority is more bus riders on city streets, and so that’s primarily bus lanes and bus ways,” Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, said. “When the city has historically consigned riders to [the] slowest bus service in the nation, it says to them, ‘your time isn’t valuable,’ but it’s a lifeline for people.”
Mayor de Blasio got an unexpected taste of a dedicated bus-only lane’s success when an October 2019 pilot for the 14th Street Busway showed crosstown commutes were nine minutes faster with a minimal effect on neighborhood traffic. By June 2019, de Blasio declared the corridor would become permanent and more busways were soon on the way.
Now, candidates are exploring where else to install cost-effective routes. Crosstown corridors in Upper Manhattan as well as burgeoning business districts in Jamaica, Flushing, and Downtown Brooklyn could be contenders for redesigns. Advocates also want the city to work with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to consolidate bus stops, and add more shelters and benches, to make taking the bus a more attractive option.
“It’s really ambitious to say you’re going to do 30 miles of bus lanes a year and build a strong network of bus-priority streets,” Fried said. “Each project is not going to be a massive undertaking and that’s part of the appeal.”
Pedestrian and bike safety
For all his talk decrying Bloomberg’s bike and pedestrian projects, Mayor de Blasio pledged to build bike lanes as fast as Bloomberg had and launched his “Vision Zero” traffic safety plan to eliminate pedestrian and cyclist fatalities by 2024.
But reckless drivers have killed more than 1,000 pedestrians and cyclists since de Blasio was inaugurated. The number of traffic deaths rose for the second year in a row last year, even as there were fewer cars and trucks on streets due to the pandemic.
A more drastic approach may be necessary then. Transportation advocates are pressing mayoral candidates to pledge to reclaim one-quarter of the city’s street spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, diners, and bus riders by 2025. So far, six candidates support the idea.
“New York is a great city, but for too long we’ve accepted failure as normal,” Danny Harris, whose advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, wrote the “25 by 25” report, said. “I recently almost got run over by a taxicab, and the passenger shrugged and said, ‘This is New York.’ No, it’s not New York, and we have the power to change it.”
The next mayor will also have a head start on street transformations and bike lanes, after de Blasio signed a transportation “Master Plan” to install 250 miles of protected bike lanes over the next decade.
Still, projects in the de Blasio era have sometimes gotten stymied at the community board level. Last May, the final phase of the Queens Boulevard bike path was put off indefinitely, because Forest Hills residents and Queens Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz asked for a review.
The block-by-block battles over bike routes must be overcome in order to make city streets safe for all New Yorkers, advocates insist.
“If you want to do piecemeal plans, where parochial interests knock us back years, there’s going to be consequences,” Transportation Alternatives spokesman Cory Epstein said. “We should think of streets, as we recover, as an asset. There shouldn’t be trench warfare for every minor change that improves people’s lives.”
The type of bike lane is important, too. Roadways separated by an uninterrupted physical barrier, as opposed to shared or painted lanes, significantly lower fatalities in places that installed them, researchers have found. Building such a protected lane sounds simple, but it can take years to complete because it involves coordination among multiple city agencies.
“We need all of the city government to get on board,” Bike New York’s Orcutt said. “It’s very splintered across institutions of city government. There’s no controlling brain; it’s just tentacles squirming around.”
Taxis and Uber
Ride-share companies have bedeviled City Hall as soon as they started crossing the Brooklyn Bridge a decade ago.
The de Blasio administration tried to cap the number of for-hire vehicles on the road in 2015. Uber launched an extensive lobbying campaign and foiled the plan.
Three years later, as the number of cars rose from 66,000 to more than 100,000 in 2018, de Blasio succeeded. Then, he sought to restrict the amount of time ride-hail vehicles cruise without passengers, although a judge blocked the plan in December 2019.
Ride-share companies have since taken a backseat policywise to taxi drivers, whose debts have ballooned after taking sometimes predatory loans to pay for their medallions. The city set up a $65 million rescue fund to help cab drivers struggling with those loans and with the crushing competition from ride-shares, but candidates like Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, say that the mayor isn’t going far enough.
Uber and Lyft drivers suffered as well, as the pandemic undercut travel and decimated their incomes. And a new competitor, German chauffeur-hailing service Blacklane, is threatening to cut into their customer base.
The future of ride-share hasn’t come up much on the campaign trail, but one candidate, Andrew Yang, has the ear of a top Uber adviser, Bradley Tusk, who is advising his campaign. (Tusk was also a campaign manager for Mayor Bloomberg.) Yang said a 2019 California law that reclassified contract workers like Uber drivers as employees, with the benefits and protections that carries, was a good idea.
But Uber refused to comply with the rule and won a massive victory last year, when California voters supported a proposition that allowed the company to keep its drivers as contractors. Now, state lawmakers in New York are crafting bills to protect gig workers.
When state lawmakers reached a deal two years ago to charge vehicles $10 to $15 to enter Manhattan’s central business district, the city was poised to lower carbon emissions, while also thinning out Midtown’s clogged avenues.
But the Trump administration stalled congestion pricing indefinitely due, in large part, to a dispute regarding the state providing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Now that Joe Biden is in the White House and former city transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg is headed to the U.S. Department of Transportation as deputy secretary, congestion pricing is on track for 2022.
“Having the mayor be an advocate for getting this implemented, and making MTA and DOT work hand in hand would be helpful,” Maulin Mehta, senior associate at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, said. “They will need to optimize the congestion pricing program not only to hit revenue targets, but incorporate congestion and health targets, too.”
Once new vehicle tolls are installed, the city will experience a brief but significant drop in traffic volumes, giving the mayor an opportunity to remake streets.
“We should widen sidewalks and create pedestrian zones in central business districts when that happens, partly because that’s when space will speed up,” Orcutt said. “That is something on the horizon that is a big change.”
The White House is eager to pass a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill that will have ripple effects on several deteriorating, yet essential, projects.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, whose repairs have been on hold during the pandemic, could make the list. Mayor de Blasio has said he was hopeful Congress would direct some money toward the 65-year-old highway, which could be deemed unsafe by 2026.
Other proposals, like extending subway lines in the outer-boroughs, could be a tougher sell. Since 2012, Stringer has been promoting a “Triboro” line that connects Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge to Yankee Stadium through existing freight tracks, but it would require working with the state-run MTA to make it happen.
“The ideal scenario is that we integrate it with the subway system and we think the MTA makes the most sense as an operator,” Mehta said.
Another test of an incoming mayor is whether to extend expensive transit projects de Blasio championed, including the city’s heavily subsidized ferry network, or his quixotic streetcar proposal designed to run along the East River between Astoria and Sunset Park. Right now, it’s not going anywhere.
“Some candidates are saying outright they won’t do it, but it depends on whether the project booster’s horse wins the race,” TransitCenter’s Fried said. “If you’re going to make progress on something that matters, you can’t have your attention be diverted by a massive boondoggle.”
New York City has the legal right to take control of the New York City Transit Authority from the MTA, but that doesn’t mean the next mayor will try to do it.
Candidates are nevertheless talking about it. Andrew Yang pitched municipal management of the city’s public transportation when he announced his bid for mayor, and that was before the MTA received $6.5 billion in COVID relief from Congress. Rivals like Scott Stringer questioned the move based on the MTA’s exorbitant debt service. State lawmakers would also be reluctant to give up power over the transit system.
If any candidate wants to embrace an idea as bold as taking over part of the MTA, they should make it a centerpiece of their campaign, advocates say.
“They really have to put every ounce of political capital behind it. This is not something anyone can do half-assed,” Fried said. “They would have to put all of their political energy into it, once they become mayor, and bank on continued weakness in Albany to pull it off.”