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An [old] interview with Polly Trottenberg

January 1, 2014
Image via Politico.

Image via Politico.

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’s Jonathan Maus and the then-Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation offers a bit of a preview.

On the allocation of street space:

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.

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