“I love traffic reports because I’m not in any of them.” It turns out Seinfeld is one of those smug, entitled cyclists people are always whining about.
While waiting for the first sit-down interview with new NYC DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg to be published, many people, myself included, have spent the last day or so reading the tea leaves for signs that she will be as dedicated to the cause of safe streets as Janette Sadik-Khan. As Ben Kabak writes, Trottenberg “will have big shoes to fill.”
The initial signs are nothing if not encouraging. The official announcement of Trottenberg’s appointment on the de Blasio transition website says that she will be charged with “executing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.” It’s statement that shows that the new mayor isn’t shying away from bikes, buses, and Vision Zero as he makes the move to Gracie Mansion. And Trottenberg herself appeared at an Inauguration Day Vision Zero rally, taking the time to talk to livable streets advocates and family members who have lost loved ones to traffic violence.
But for a better sense of how Trottenberg may think about bike and pedestrian projects while at NYC DOT, this 2011 interview with BikePortland.org’s Jonathan Maus and the then-Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation offers a bit of a preview.
Particularly, in a lot of big cities there is no more place for capacity, you can only better utilize the capacity you have… And you may not have a lot of money to do it, so of course you’re going to look to more buses, more bike lanes etc…
On the power and enthusiasm of bike and pedestrian advocates and overcoming the bikelash:
One thing that’s been so interesting for us at DOT for the past few years is, we travel around the country and find that so much of the political energy and enthusiasm is coming out of bike advocacy. It’s amazing. We went to LA for this re-authorization visit. This is LA, which people think of as the car city, and 300 bicycle activists showed up and took over the meeting. I just see that’s where the political energy is in transportation right now.
We’re going to have some tough fights ahead I think. On the one hand, as you point out, economically constrained times may make people think creatively but there’s also the backlash: ‘We can’t do frivolous things like bikes!’ There are competing tensions that come out of having constrained resources. I think we need continued political energy on bike and pedestrian projects in how important they are and talking about their benefits and showing, particularly, that it’s not just the product for the elites but that there’s widespread support for these projects.
On why bike advocates are so passionate:
You have a mode of transportation that’s inexpensive to build and inexpensive to operate in which you burn no oil and you emit no carbon. It helps reduce obesity, people who engage in it reconnect with their communities and they loove it! It’s a really unique form of transportation. So it’s not surprising, since we’ve started to re-accommodate it once again in our streets, of course people are taking to it…
On safety in numbers and the positive feedback loop created by more bicycling:
It’s just strength in numbers. It’s a nice synergy: As cities have grown more accommodating of bikes, the number of people riding increases; and as the number of people riding increases, they love it and they become passionate and engaged and that political energy is genuine and important.
Trottenberg’s responses to Maus strike me as more than just the political calculations of someone who knows her audience. At a fundamental level, she gets it.
Still, there are reasons to remain skeptical of how her philosophy will mesh with the political reality of New York City, where NIMBYs — and the nontroversy-driven media that feeds off of them — are willing to scream about every lost parking space, narrowed traffic lane, or other perceived inconvenience. As Ben Fried writes at Streetsblog, “A transportation commissioner like Janette Sadik-Khan needed a mayor like Bloomberg, who gave his deputies relatively free rein and always had their backs.” So will Mayor de Blasio have Polly Trottenberg’s back? The jury is out. It will surprise no one if de Blasio is more influenced by polling and donors than his corporate-minded billionaire predecessor, and the man who once answered the phone for NBBL may not be willing to tell New York’s placarded class to take a hike when the going gets tough. It also remains to be seen who in the de Blasio administration will take up the NIMBY-flyswatter mantle of Howard Wolfson, who was willing to go to bat for Sadik-Khan at a time when a different political strategist might have advised his boss to drop the “psycho bike lady” like a ton of bricks.
But there are reasons to be encouraged beyond Trottenberg’s positive statements about bike and pedestrian projects. Whereas the Bloomberg years were seen, largely incorrectly, as an era of top-down redistribution of public real estate, each new street design brought with it a different kind of change, one that others, including Janette Sadik-Khan herself, have noted in the past week. Today, New Yorkers of all stripes are fluent in the vernacular of safe streets. And that’s something that no transition from one administration to the next can undo. There’s a growing community-driven demand for everything from additional Citi Bike stations and Slow Zones to the expansion of pedestrian plazas and play streets. There’s also a growing political constituency that votes based on how the issues of safe streets affect them personally. Trottenberg — and, more importantly, Mayor de Blasio — will have no choice but to listen.
Thank you to everyone who’s read this space over the past year. This blog has long been a work in progress, a place for me to not only advance the cause of safe streets, but to get educated about a subject that’s of great importance to me. I truly appreciate your comments, emails, tweets, and general support.
See you all back here in 2014!
This sounds like a fun event and it’s right in Prospect Park! Via Make Music New York:
Blink gathers the city’s seasoned and casual cyclists to perform a new piece for bicycle bells by composer Merche Blasco. Riders travel through Prospect Park, following a score transmitted from the lead bike via a special helmet pre-programmed with lights that cue bicycle bells of different pitches. Through the piece, riders will collaborate with each other and generate music that interacts with the soundscape of the area.Bicycle bells will be distributed to participants at the beginning of the parade.
If you want to participate, meet at Grand Army Plaza at 4:30 PM on Saturday. Bring your bicycle, of course.
David Hembrow of A view from the cycle path takes on the myth that one of the pillars of the “Three E’s,” education, makes a meaningful contribution to safety on the road:
“It is imagined that given enough advice, people won’t make mistakes. This is a fallacy. People will always make mistakes. This almost defines us as being human. Not only will no amount of training prevent either child cyclists or adult drivers from making mistakes, but law changes or punishment for mistakes will also not remove the possibility of mistakes occurring.”
“What makes Dutch roads and cycle-paths safe is not training orstrict liability but Sustainable Safety (Duurzaam Veilig). Sustainable Safety is a policy of reducing the opportunity for mistakes to become injuries by reducing the consequences of making such mistakes. Roads should be self-explanatory and forgiving.”
From his paranoid claim that DOT tipped off cyclists to inflate ridership counts on Prospect Park West to his entrance on a tricycle at the State of the Borough address in 2011, no one made a bigger mockery of the fight for safe streets in New York City over the past twelve years than Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. So vociferous — and, some might say, delusional — were his claims and antics that if one were to write a screenplay for “Bikelash: The Movie,” studio executives might kick back the script with a note saying, “Love it, but can you tone down that Marty character?”
With just weeks to go before his final term in office expires, Marty has been the subject of a valedictory story in the Times and earlier this week took to the airwaves for a look back. In an interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” about the changes in Brooklyn during Marty’s twelve years in office, host Brian Lehrer pointed out that many of the show’s web commenters tagged the borough president as “a prime critic of bike lanes.” And while most of the city has learned to stop worrying and love bicycles, here’s how Marty, with characteristic stubbornness, responded:
Brian Lehrer: Have you warmed to the mayor’s approach on [bicycle lanes] at all?
Marty Markowitz: Listen. First off, I’m not against bicycles, my wife and I have a bicycle, but I have [an] absolute right to raise a question as to whether or not bicycle lanes should be emphasized as a viable alternative transportation mode. And I have serious questions about that. I really do. If you’re in your twenties and early thirties and you live in Williamsburg and you work in DUMBO, absolutely I can make sense, I don’t oppose that at all. But if you live in Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach and you work in Midtown Manhattan, and you’re in your fifties and sixties, come on. You know, the bottom line is, you know, this has to be approached rationally and the one thing I learned in all my years in public service, when you’re a zealot, you’re a zealot. If you’re not with them a hundred percent no matter what they want you are an enemy to them. So I’ve gotten used to this already and it’s okay. So have I warmed to it? Not really. I mean I recognize that certain bicycle lanes are wonderful. For instance, in Manhattan, on the west side, I love that bi—I love it. If you want to build a bicycle lane on the Verrazano Bridge, magnificent, I think it’s wonderful.
Brian Lehrer: And Citi Bike, a good thing?
Marty Markowitz: From what I can see so far it doesn’t seem, you know, except the placement of some of those bikes somewhere, but I, it looks like it’s had a positive impact by and large. I don’t see any opposition to it.
In a two-minute near-soliloquy, Marty neatly encapsulates his entire relationship with bicycles over the past decade, covering everything I’ve come to know — and truly appreciate — about how people who really hate bike lanes talk about bike lanes:
- The obligatory “Some of my best friends are bike lanes” assertion. Marty excels at this tactic like no other person. And there it is, right in his first breath: “Listen. First off, I’m not against bicycles, my wife and I have a bicycle…”
- One statement that directly contradicts the next. Marty believes that bicycles shouldn’t be emphasized as a “viable alternative transportation mode,” but also believes they are a perfectly viable transportation mode for young people commuting from Williamsburg to DUMBO. (By the way, why is it that no one questions whether or not bicycles are a viable mode for men of all ages transporting Chinese food?)
- Framing the slight reallocation of road space in terms of a culture war. Marty not only symbolizes Brooklyn’s mostly false divide between young newcomers to the borough and “real New Yorkers, he also epitomizes the tactic of using this dichotomy to fight progressive change. (Go to any community board meeting on bike lanes and listen to people establish their bona fides by first stating how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood and you’ll know exactly what I mean.) But remember, it was bike-lane-opponents Neighbors for Better Bike lanes, not Transportation Alternatives, that felt that starting a spin-off group called “Seniors for Safety” would help their cause. Seniors who bike for transportation and recreation — and there are many – should be insulted by the way people like Marty cynically think so little of their physical ability.
- The straw man. Very few advocates or transportation planners believe bike lanes will result in large numbers of two-wheeled commuters heading from Sheepshead Bay to Manhattan. Rather, they think that giving New Yorkers safe and more convenient access to jobs, schools, parks, shopping, and transit hubs in their communities is simply a smart approach to a sustainable future. Of course, it would be great if the end result of patching together those smaller networks is that one could safely ride seventeen miles from Columbus Circle to Manhattan Beach, but that’s not the immediate objective. But, man, the way Marty puts it, it sure sounds like those crazy TA hipsters are pretty far out of the mainstream if they think real New Yorkers will pedal their way from one end of the city to the other! Put down the Gatorade, bike crazies!
- The plea for common sense. When Marty says, “This has to be approached rationally,” he sounds like Internet commenters who use the anonymous handle, “Voice of Reason.” Typically the comments that follow are anything but.
- The paranoid invocation of an all-powerful bicycle lobby. With his use of the words “they” and “them,” but without going the full Rabinowitz, Marty implies that he’s been the target of an uncompromising and unnamed opposition who sees him as the “enemy.” Never mind that many of the traffic-calming projects Marty opposed outright, including Prospect Park West and Plaza Street, involved a lot of fine tuning and tweaking to satisfy bike lane opponents’ criticisms. And it also helps to ignore that a group of people sued to have a popular bike lane not just changed, but removed entirely. In Marty’s world, it’s the bike people who are rigidly unreasonable.
- The demeaning personal insult… For NBBL member Louise Hainline, it was the condescending comment that people who ride bikes for transportation are holier-than-thou hippies. (“Bikers really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to the food co-op. That’s touching. But it’s silly.”) For Marty, it’s saying that anyone who subscribes to the radical belief that one fifth of a roadway along a park should be devoted to bicycles must be a zealot.
- …followed by the claim of persecution and martyrdom. Despite the name calling, Marty does not believe he’s done anything to deserve the scorn heaped upon him for his positions. He’s “gotten used to this.”
- “Am I getting too beligerent? Here, let me once again remind you that I love bicycle lanes.” “I mean I recognize that certain bicycle lanes are wonderful,” says Marty, rattling off a couple that are just dandy. One happens to be a mostly recreational path on the far edge of Manhattan and the other doesn’t exist yet, but, man oh man, does Marty Markowitz adore bicycle lanes… so long as they don’t take space from cars.
When Lehrer asks Marty if Citi Bike is “a good thing,” Marty’s characteristic belligerence gives way to an almost confused resignation. This is where you really must listen to the interview since you can almost hear the air come out of his tires as he stammers and trips over words in an attempt to reconcile the fact that Citi Bike is undeniably popular with his belief that there’s still some debate about the future of bicycles as transportation. Citi Bike, in this way, is the bike hater’s Kryptonite.
So there you have it: an exit interview of sorts with the man who was the face of the bikelash, at least while it lasted. Will I miss Marty Markowitz? In some ways, yes. I will miss his love and enthusiasm for Brooklyn, even if it was a love for a kind of egg-creams-and-Dodgers-games simulacrum that was probably never as ideal as he made it out to be. And I will certainly miss the material he gave me for this blog, especially in its early days. But I will not miss his opposition to safety for all Brooklynites, nor his apparent lack of compassion for people who can’t afford to drive everywhere.
As a livable streets advocate who sees nothing but opportunities ahead now that one of the biggest obstacles in the fight for safer streets motors off into the sunset, perhaps my feelings about Marty Markowitz can best be summed up by one of the funniest moments from “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which a rabbi is asked by a young villager if there’s a blessing for the tsar. “Of course,” replies the rabbi. “May God bless and keep the tsar…far away from us.”
Remember when Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes litigant Norman Steisel dismissed the DOT’s counts of cyclists on the Prospect Park West bike lane in part because many were perceived to be going somewhere other than work?
Furthermore, the D.O.T. data’s lack of credibility is reinforced by our own videotapes. These show that the Prospect Park West bike lanes are used by half the number of riders the D.O.T. says, and that cyclists are not riding to commute as originally contemplated but are recreational users who could be better served by enhancing the existing lane 100 yards away in Prospect Park.
This argument was, and remains, absurd, since NBBL would often cite the fact that people drive to the park for concerts, Little League games, working out, and other non-work purposes as an argument for preserving the parking and three-lane configuration.
Todd Litman, writing for Planetzien, tackles this and other anti-bike arguments in a great post entitled, “Mythbusting: Exposing Half-Truths That Support Automobile Dependency.”
Critics sometimes argue that walking and cycling primarily provide recreational travel, with the implication that this frivolous. For example, Poole asks, “Why should I—either as a highway user-tax payer or a general taxpayer—have to pay for someone else’s hobby?” But a significant portion of all travel is recreational: travel for vacations, to sport and cultural events, or to shop for recreational goods. Critics assume that automobile trips that serve recreational purposes are important but walking and bicycling trips that serve the same purposes are not. For example, they value a car carrying passengers to walk or ride on a trail, or to a gym to pedal a stationary bike, but not people who walk or bike directly from their home. This is arbitrary, inefficient and unfair, reflecting a bias against non-motorized travel.
The Poole to which Litman refers is the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole, who, writing in Surface Transportation Innovations #121, tries to soften his argument against funding for a U.S. Bicycle Route System by saying, “I have nothing against bike riders or bike paths. Several of my family members are avid bike riders.”