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The De-Evolution of a DOT Slow Zone in Three Easy Steps

February 5, 2015

If culture eats policy for breakfast, what does this example of DOT policy do to the culture of reckless driving?

As Brad Aaron at Streetsblog reported, the Department of Transportation has “DOT has watered down some Slow Zone features,” partly in response to complaints about losing a handful of parking spaces and also as a result of Slow Zone signs being “hit and damaged at an unsustainable rate.” A robust gateway treatment is essentially the defining feature that is meant to a) distinguish a “Slow Zone” from a neighboring “Do Whatever You Want Zone” and b) slow down drivers as they turn corners. Remove the gateway treatment and, lacking other traffic calming features such as chicanes, the Slow Zone is more of a Suggestion Zone. If drivers even see the sign, that is.

Here’s an example from Union and Bond Street in Brooklyn. This is the Slow Zone gateway as it existed in October 2013:


Here it is in August 2014. It’s clearly been hit by a driver:


And here’s that same “gateway” in October 2014:


Basically, in the span of just one year, DOT gave up. That says something about its institutional culture, doesn’t it? But scroll back up through this post again. If you start in October 2014 with the sign on the sidewalk and end with the sign in the street, that’s the progression you’d want to see as far gateway design is concerned. And once that sign has been planted in the street, like a settler’s flag claiming land for the Kingdom of Pedestrians, you’d want to start moving toward a gateway design that looks something like this:


Design eats culture for breakfast.

Culture. Policy. Breakfast.

January 19, 2015

If you paid attention to the coverage of Vision Zero in 2014, you may have noticed one of DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg’s most frequent refrains:

“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,’” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”

Here it is again, in a different interview:

“Culture eats policy for breakfast,” said Trottenberg. “That’s one of my mantras in this business … meaning you can change policy, but culture is a more complex thing to change, and something that often takes more time and more effort.”

The phrase “Culture eats policy for breakfast” traces its roots to Peter Drucker, an influential Austrian-born business management consultant and author who died in 2005. Drucker actually said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too” but that lengthy quote has been adapted and simplified as it’s flown around the corporate world.

In any company, organization, or even social movement, there’s always a conflict between those who would implement sweeping change quickly and those who feel that a piecemeal, step-by-step approach is more prudent. If you’re the head of a large city agency with a direct impact on the lives of millions of citizens, striking a balance between these two competing philosophies is key, lest big and noble policy goals get destroyed by something as simple as bad timing or a small group of people who simply aren’t ready to change.

But something always rubs me the wrong way anytime I hear Commissioner Trottenberg repeat her line about culture, policy and breakfast. When I match it up against the absence of truly innovative and original bicycle projects from DOT in 2014 — most of the protected bike lanes installed last year originated under the Bloomberg administration — it seems that what should just be a catchy piece of business advice may actually be a core philosophy that’s holding the city back from taking biking to the next level. “Culture eats policy for breakfast” has become a self-perpetuating, defeatist mantra that ignores how far the city has come, where it wants to go, and who wants to take it there. It removes design and engineering as primary drivers of cultural change, defers too much to those who seek a kind of selfish comfort in the status quo, and has consequences for other important policy goals beyond bikes.

Here are what I see as the biggest problems with “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”

1. The last administration changed the menu. 

In the waning months of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term, an August 2013 New York Times poll showed widespread support for bike lanes, bike share, and pedestrian plazas.

Image via NY Times.

Image via NY Times.

Even as far back as March 2011 — the same month Neighbors for Better Bike lanes filed their Article 78 lawsuit to remove the Prospect Park West Bike lane — a Quinnipiac poll showed that 54 percent of New York City voters viewed the expansion of bike lanes as “a good thing.” By July that number had risen to 59 percent. In August, a Marist poll showed 66 percent of New Yorkers supported bike lanes. Again, this was in 2011, when New York Magazine asked “Is New York Too New York for Bike Lanes?”

The New York Times poll proved what many advocates and policy leaders had long known, that the media-generated bikelash that had dominated the headlines for years never matched the reality on the ground. “People are voting with their feet, they’re voting with their pedals, and they’re voting with their dollars,” former DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was fond of saying. Howard Wolfson, who had long gone to the mat for the Bloomberg administration’s livable streets agenda, gave this valedictory comment late last year: “At some point it became obvious that this was a popular policy, that people were using bike lanes, that Citi Bike was being used. (Emphasis mine.)

“Culture eats policy for breakfast” takes the momentum accrued under Bloomberg and runs the risk of squandering it. The language accepts the idea that popular policies are still up for debate. Even worse, it reintroduces a debate that was settled a long time ago.

2. There’s more than one way to define culture.

Consider the following quote from DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson about the agency’s choice to install extra-wide parking lanes on streets with more than enough room to accommodate robust bicycle infrastructure:

People in the community might not initially value the importance of a street to the bike network until there’s some initial calming and the character changes,” DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson said, citing Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights and 44th Drive in Long Island City as examples where DOT later converted extra-wide parking lanes into bike lanes. “People don’t necessarily envision a street as a bike-friendly street,” he said. “Once you make an improvement, people take to it and opinions change.”

Riverside Drive, for example, is a major cycling route both for points along the Upper West Side and for recreational cyclists heading to the George Washington Bridge. Safe streets advocates have been packing community board meetings on the Upper West Side on all manner of traffic-calming and bike-related projects for months, oftentimes outnumbering opponents by a lot. So who is Benson talking about? Not that one should ignore people in the local community who can’t or don’t want to envision the benefits of a complete street, but incorrectly or imprecisely defining words like “culture,” “people,” and “community” fuels a myth that New York still isn’t ready for bike lanes. It makes “Culture eats policy for breakfast” a self-fulfilling philosophy.

3. It diminishes the importance of past institutional experience.

The Vanderbilt Avenue traffic calming project mentioned by Benson above began with the installation of wide parking lanes in 2006 before an upgrade to class 2 bike lanes in 2008. With everything that’s changed since 2006 — The Ninth Avenue bike lane, the city’s first on-street protected lane, wasn’t installed until 2007, for example — the interim step of installing wide parking lanes to build community acceptance for bike lanes may no longer be necessary. After all, none of the doom-and-gloom predictions that preceded previous bike lane installations came to pass, so DOT should by now be well versed in swatting down most community board complaints, including those related to the loss of parking. (More on that later.)

4. It removes DOT as a prime agent for rapid culture change.

It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The same might be said of livable streets. Endless community board presentations and tabloid arguments about whether or not New Yorkers will sit and enjoy themselves in pedestrian plazas tend to yield diminishing returns. Instead, the debate can easily be settled by setting up some traffic cones and buying cheap lawn chairs at a hardware store. As former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt recently tweeted, “If your policy changes infrastructure, it will change culture.”

5. It fails to fully seize the moral imperative behind Vision Zero as a catalyst for change.

Some cities justify the expansion of their bike lane network because it will attract young tech workers and help the economy. Fairly or not, many people only thought that Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan wanted New York City to be like Copenhagen. Not that these are bad reasons to build bike infrastructure, but they’re unlikely to satisfy longtime residents who think that young hipsters are coming with their bikes to take away parking spaces.

Vision Zero, on the other hand, arms DOT with a very powerful justification for reconfiguring streets. Ending all fatalities and serious injuries must trump petty concerns about small amounts of free parking spaces.

Of course, Families for Safe Streets has fully seized this mantle, changing the conversation and earning a marathon-like victory to lower to the default New York City speed limit to 25 mph. But Families for Safe Streets can’t fight every fight, especially since they have their eyes trained on some pretty big fish this year. It’s going to be up to DOT to explain at the community board level why some concerns simply don’t warrant serious consideration in light of the moral urgency of Vision Zero.

6. There are consequences to waiting for the culture to change. 

The most obvious consequence of deferring too much to some notion of a change-resistant culture is that people will die. While we’re waiting for “the community” to get used to seeing Riverside Drive as a part of the bike network, people on bikes are still using it, more exposed than they need to be.

There are other consequences, some small, some big. The mayor has set a goal of 6 percent mode share for bikes by 2020, just five years from now. It won’t be achieved with extra-wide parking lanes. And if the city can’t touch parking to stop people from dying or get more people on bikes, then good luck removing all the spots needed to install a real bus rapid transit line.

* * *

“Culture eats policy for breakfast” does not and should not mean that one drifts in the tides of culture, waiting the for the currents to change. I don’t think Trottenberg sees it that way either, and it was certainly important to concentrate her department’s efforts on the speed limit change and the arterial slow zone program, but it doesn’t follow that bikes needed to get the short shrift as they did in 2014. DOT needs to use its power for positive change as well as the moral imperative of Vision Zero to demonstrate that there is no daylight between pedestrian safety projects and bike safety projects. One contributes to the other.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, “Culture eats policy for breakfast” originated in the business world, so I thought I’d turn to the business world for a deeper look. Here’s Bill Aulet, director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, writing at Techcrunch:

Some may believe that culture cannot be “engineered,” and that it just happens. It is true that culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA of the company and is in large part created by the founders – not by their words so much as their actions. So the very decision to not try to create a corporate culture, or worse, to not have company values, is in fact your choice of what culture will prevail – and not for the better. 

“Culture eats policy for breakfast” is not a philosophy. It’s an observation. It’s advice, and, applied correctly, fairly good advice at that. But if it’s allowed to be the guiding principle by which DOT operates, then eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024 — just nine (!) years from now — won’t happen. Remember John F. Kennedy’s 1962 announcement that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? And remember how we did just that in 1969? It took boldness, experimentation, money, and manpower. Vision Zero needs to be like the Apollo program, but for streets.

“Breaking a bike is easy…”

January 8, 2015


Vélib’, the bike share system of Paris, will display this message at all of its 1,800 stations today. My French is terrible, but the caption for the cartoon on the right translates to, “Breaking a Vélib’ is easy…he can not defend himself.” The cartoon is by Jean Cabut, known by his pen-name of Cabu, who was one of the victims in yesterday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo.

It’s not for nothing that Vélib’ gets its names for the French words “vélo” and “liberté” – “bicycle” and “freedom.”

Thank You

December 29, 2014

2014 has been a pretty good year as far as livable streets in New York City go, most notably with the reduction of the city’s default speed limit to 25 mph. It’s a huge step in the right direction, a major victory for Families for Safe Streets, and a sign of good things to come.

This past year was also an interesting year for me here on the blog and off of it. I was privileged to meet so many loyal readers in the flesh at various events and, much to my delight, every now and then during my rides to and from work. I truly appreciate everyone’s comments, criticism, tips, and friendly hellos.

For the curious – or in case you missed them – here are my three most popular posts of 2014:

I’ll take that as advice for 2015 – apparently my readers like pictures of cute kids on bikes and long posts involving media criticism.

As this year ends, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the organizations that are working to make a safer city and that serve as my inspiration in so many ways. If you’re still looking to make a year-end charitable donation, the wonderful folks at Streetsblog and Streetfilms as well as Transportation Alternatives will put your money to good use. With all that we have left to do to advance Vision Zero and make a better New York City, I hope you’ll give them your support.

Have a safe and happy New Year.

The Critic

December 10, 2014

Brad Aaron at Streetsblog has an excellent takedown of the new victim-blaming public service campaign from the MTA. While I’m a safe streets advocate and agree with Brad’s criticisms, my initial reaction to the PSAs was largely filtered through my professional experience as a TV producer and writer.  My day job involves looking at images, writing words, and making sure that those two things add up into one coherent narrative. So when I saw “Cycling for Trouble,” a new bike safety public service announcement from the MTA, the first things I noticed were the glaring inconsistencies, ridiculous images, and downright incorrect information in its brief thirty seconds.

The ad begins with a young man getting ready for his ride. First he puts on gloves:


Note: gloves are not required when riding a bicycle in New York City. Yet.

Then he puts on his helmet:


Note: a helmet is not required for adults when riding a bicycle in New York City. Yet.

Then he makes sure his bike has tires:


Note: although not legally required, a bicycle equipped with tires is highly recommended.

Then he puts on his headphones and goes for a ride:


Look, I agree. Wearing headphones in both ears while riding a bike is Not a Good Idea… if you’re riding in the heart of Midtown, on Jay Street in Brooklyn, on in any other very congested part of the city. (Having an earbud in one ear is perfectly legal, however.) But on a pathway along an empty beach? Really? Is this the most effective visual way to convey that wearing headphones isn’t the smartest thing in the world? So even before the central message of this PSA has a chance to really get out there, any skeptic who stops to process this image – that is to say, any New Yorker – is likely to be taken out of the moment entirely.

Then there’s this mini-scene, where the guy slowly coasts through a quiet park – another place where wearing headphones isn’t really all that bad – as he points to perhaps to a pal or just someone he wants to notice him:


That’s quickly followed by this image:


The sequence above is very strange: A man who methodically prepares for his ride by putting on gloves, strapping on a helmet, and making sure his bike has tires suddenly morphs into a cocky-yet-clownish character from a bad comedy video? It’s just dumb and not very well thought out.

Then the man takes to the street where bouncing bold graphics tell us what he is listening to:


This, of course, is a total surprise if you can’t hear the techno-inspired beat that begins playing the moment the man puts on his headphones. It’s just so strange. Would listening to Serial or WFAN at a low volume be “Not Good”?


Anyway, apparently the music is so loud that it causes the man to go blind, since he crashes into the same bus that’s been right in front of him for at least a block:

This is just dumb on top of dumb, and makes me suspect that no one familiar with biking in New York City, or even bicycles in general, was involved in this spot’s production. Part of the reason wearing headphones in both ears isn’t a good idea is because it makes it harder to hear cars or other cyclists approaching from behind you. On the Manhattan Bridge, what bike commuter hasn’t been stuck behind a person huffing up the incline with a set of earbuds wedged into his noggin? There’s no amount of bell ringing or “On your left” loud enough to get that guy to hear you and move over, so you’re more or less screwed until Canal Street. But its pretty rare that I see an earbud-wearing cyclist coming from the opposite direction on the bridge and think, “I better be careful. That guy who clearly has me in his line of sight can’t hear me.”

Oh, and another thing: there hasn’t been a documented case of a headphone-wearing cyclist rear-ending a bus, at least not one resulting in serious injury or death. Believe me, if an idiot died doing something like this, it would be on the cover of the Post for a week. And that’s perhaps the biggest failure of this spot: in presenting a situation so unlikely it’s less common that getting killed by a falling air conditioner after being knocked over by an exploding Mister Softee truck, the message gets totally lost and subjects the entire piece to the wrath of Gothamist. Even WNYC got in on the act. That’s probably not the outcome the MTA expected when the idea for this PSA began.

Then there’s this image and catchphrase at the end of the spot:


I guess “Stay alert. Don’t crush bicyclists and pedestrians with your multi-ton vehicle” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Why I’m Against a Texting-While-Cycling Law

November 11, 2014
Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Before you scroll directly to bottom of this post to leave a comment, here are some disclaimers: Speaking on a cellphone or texting while riding a bicycle is not something that I condone. On the busy and sometimes dangerous streets of New York City, you need all your wits and senses about you. When you’re on your bike, I do not recommend listening to music on headphones, staring into an iPhone, chatting with a friend, or taking a selfie. Eyes on the road, #bikenyc!

With that out of the way…

You may have read that New York City Council member Mark Treyger is poised to introduce legislation that would make using a cellphone while riding a bicycle illegal. At first glance, such a proposal sounds like a good idea. After all, given my disclaimers above, who would be against making it illegal to do something as potentially distracting and dangerous as using a cellphone while biking? Plus, Treyger’s bill doesn’t exactly seem like it’s all that punitive.

Tickets for texting or talking on the phone while biking will carry a $50 fine, which could rise to $200 for repeat violations.

But first-time offenders who don’t hurt anyone or cause property damage could avoid the fine by taking a bike safety class, which the city Department of Transportation and NYPD would be required to start offering next year.

Treyger said he proposed the classes to make it clear the ban wasn’t a money-raising gambit.

“We think we should be emphasizing education rather than collecting revenue,” he said.

This seems perfectly reasonable. Other cities, such as Chicago, have made texting-while-biking illegal, and the movement is gaining favor among legislators elsewhere in the country.

But there are lots of reasons to be suspicious of such a bill, Treyger’s motivations for proposing it, and how it might be enforced on the street. While I’m inclined to re-emphasize my disclaimer above — Please, don’t use a cellphone while biking — I’m also very much against Treyger’s bill. Here’s why.

1. It’s legislation by anecdote. 

From the Daily News:

Treyger said he was prompted to introduce the ban when he saw a cyclist on Stillwell Ave. in Brooklyn texting and veering in and out of traffic, nearly causing an accident.

And the Post:

Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) says his bill was prompted by seeing a distracted cyclist nearly cause a multi-car accident near his office in Gravesend.

When considering such an account, one has to consider the source. Treyger’s most recent contribution to the Vision Zero discussion was to call into question the placement of a speed camera as nothing more than a “gotcha” trap against motorists. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Treyger has not previously sponsored any sort of meaningful bike-safety legislation, questioning his motives here as well as his account of this alleged near-accident is reasonable and prudent.

Chicago Alderman Margaret Laurino, who proposed that city’s texting-while-biking law, said that it was “‘common sense’ in leveling the playing field between bicyclists and motorists.” That idea — that cars and bikes must be held to the same standard — is a common thread in legislation such as this, and smells somewhat of a “no fair” reaction to the rise of Vision Zero and the safe streets movement: if drivers have to obey particular laws, then so do cyclists. Indeed, that’s what Tregyer told the Daily News: “If it’s reckless for drivers to do it – which it is – it’s just as irresponsible for cyclists.” But this is the logic of my five-year-old daughter, who thinks it’s unfair that I have different rules for her than I do for her 21-month-old brother. Again, I’m not arguing that texting while cycling is smart or all that safe on the mean streets of New York City, but it most certainly is not “just as irresponsible” as texting while operating a two- or six-ton piece of complex motorized machinery.

It’s fine for some laws and public safety campaigns to be borne out of personal experience or observation — or even pet peeves — but they have to hold up under the weight of data and statistics. Which leads me to…

2. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Texting or using a cellphone while cycling has been a factor in exactly zero fatalities or serious injuries. Treyger has argued that such  statistics aren’t collected because the behavior isn’t currently illegal, but that, of course, is hogwash. The NYPD and their surrogates in the tabloids report on all kinds of circumstances that allegedly contribute to crashes. Other more neutral agencies, such as the Department of Health, track all sorts of information as they relate to injuries and fatalities in NYC. If a texting cyclist had seriously injured or killed a pedestrian or caused a multi-car crash we’d have heard about it by now.

3. We already know what makes cycling safe.

Protected bicycle lanes that are separated from vehicular traffic. Green waves and signal timing that prioritizes the slow and steady movement of people on bicycles over people in automobiles. 20 mph speed limits. Bicycle-friendly cities are already doing a lot of simple things to protect people on bikes from death by car. Banning cellphone use isn’t even among the top 50 things on their lists.

4. It actually doesn’t apply equally to motorists and cyclists.

Treyger’s bill “would ban any use of a cellphone, tablet or computer except when attached to a hands-free device. It’s currently legal to fiddle with a smart phone while riding a bike.” Drivers are free to fiddle with GPS devices, dashboard touch-screens that require them to take their eyes off the road just to change radio stations or adjust the AC, and many other non-cellphone devices. These distractions have likely caused more fatal crashes than texting-while-biking. There’s also plenty of research to show that hands-free devices do little to limit a driver’s cognitive distraction. If Treyger wanted to save lives, he’d propose, or at least discuss, banning the use of a cellphone in any form, handsfree or otherwise, while operating a motor vehicle.

5. It’s a waste of resources.

The courts are already clogged with cyclists who have been cited by the NYPD for behaviors which are not actually illegal. Do we need to send more people to a courtroom — or even a classroom — for something that hasn’t been shown to cause a measurable level of harm?

Then there’s the question of limited manpower in the age of Vision Zero. An officer who spends ten or twenty minutes issuing a citation for a minor traffic offense can not spend that same ten or twenty minutes issuing citations for another, more serious offense. This is why many bike advocates are frustrated when the NYPD tickets cyclists for going through a red at a T intersection. It’s not that anyone condones any and all red-light running, but rather that by stationing officers at low-stakes locations, the NYPD is missing an opportunity to target more serious offenses, even against cyclists. Which leads me to…

6. There are serious concerns about how the NYPD would apply such a law.

Far from “leveling the playing field between bicyclists and motorists,” Treyger’s bill could have the unintended effect of tilting it against people who bike. Given how some precincts prefer fish-in-a-barrel ticketing against cyclists over measures that would actually make New Yorkers safe, there’s no reason to think the same thing wouldn’t happen here. Indeed, this was one of the chief concerns of advocates in Chicago:

The Active Transportation Alliance, a group which promotes biking, walking and mass transit use, supported the ordinance but was concerned that bicyclists, because they are more visible than motorists, would be more often targeted than phone-using motorists.

Additionally, we’ve seen time and time again that low-level criminal infractions are disproportionately used as a pretext for pulling over young African-American and Hispanic males.

…the facts in a recent CUNY Law School study show that from 2008 to 2011, the New York City Police Department issued more tickets in minority neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods to cyclists who rode their bikes on the sidewalk. Of the 15 neighborhoods with the greatest number of summonses for the crime of bicycling on the sidewalk, 12 consist mainly of blacks and Latinos.

That NYPD might abuse such a law is not reason alone to oppose it, but it is important to understand the context and stewardship into which such a law might be enacted.

Treyger’s bill may or may not pass. I can certainly see many in the advocacy community deciding to get behind it — or at least not actively opposing it — on the grounds that arguing against it is too nuanced a discussion for New York City right now. With cyclists Public Enemy Number One and even the DOT’s current strategy of protecting cyclists leaving many scratching their heads, coming out against what seems on its surface like a common-sense law might feel like a waste of political capital.

There is reason for optimism, however. New York City has certainly seen its share of go-nowhere, anti-bike legislation proposed by city council members who never before took an interest in cycling safety. Yet one of those city council members has since gone on to be a stalwart supporter of Vision Zero, lower speed limits, and safe streets. If David Greenfield can evolve into a Vision Zero hero, then there’s hope for Mark Treyger yet.

I Want Your Bike Story!

October 30, 2014

I’m working on a new and exciting (non-blogging) project with a partner and need your help! Do you have a great bike story? Something you’d want to tell in your own voice? Something amazing, terrifying, wonderful, interesting, curious, strange, scary, funny, or some other adjective that you’d like to share? Then I want to talk to you.

Ideally, your story is something that sticks out in your brain as highly memorable, the kind of thing you’d want to tell to someone the minute you walked into a room. Some ideas:

  • “A helmet saved my life!”
  • “Not wearing a helmet saved my life!”
  • A strange encounter with a driver, fellow cyclist, pedestrian, or police officer.
  • “I was riding with my kid when suddenly…”
  • “You’ll never believe what happened. This guy rolled down his window and said…”
  • True tales of breaking the law.

The above is by no means a comprehensive list. Anything goes!

Contact me at brooklynspoke [at] gmail [dot] com. Include a brief summary of your story — a short paragraph is enough — as well as your name, neighborhood, and contact information. I’ll try to respond to everyone who sends me something.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog over the last four years. My favorite part of doing this is interacting with so many smart and passionate people.

– Doug


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