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Bill de Blasio and the Folly of “All-Of-The-Above” Transportation

November 29, 2018

Despite the subway system’s continued and rapid decline, there’s been a lot of forward movement in the world of New York City transportation recently. I’ll leave it to others to debate the finer points of the proposed e-bike legislation or just how and when the recently announced $100-million expansion of Citi Bike will happen, but my general sense is that when it comes to thinking about how New Yorkers get around there was a lot to be thankful for in this post-Thanksgiving week.

I wanted to focus on something that was buried toward the end of the piece by J. David Goodman that ran in the Times on Tuesday on the coming “clash” between City Hall and the City Council over legalizing most forms of e-bikes and e-scooters. Here it is:

Seth Stein, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said: “While e-scooters are illegal under state and city law, the mayor is committed to innovation as part of his all-of-the-above transportation strategy to get New Yorkers moving again. We look forward to reviewing the proposals.”

Emphasis mine.

This was one of the most revealing comments on transportation from the de Blasio administration I’ve heard, inasmuch as it is perhaps the most succinct explanation for the mayor’s failure to tackle congestion and mobility in any meaningful way in his five years in office so far.

What does the mayor want? He wants an “all-of-the-above transportation strategy to get New Yorkres moving again.” So the good news is that he–or at least the people who speak on his behalf–has at least recognized that New Yorkers are hopelessly mired in gridlocked traffic.

Unfortunately, that’s the extent of the good news.

Simply put, “all of the above” is not a viable transportation strategy, no more than “pleasing all of the people all of the time” is a viable political strategy. In a city where space is at a premium, it can’t be. No metropolitan area in America or anywhere else in the world that I’m aware of has ever been successful at moving huge numbers of people efficiently by choosing an “all-of-the-above transportation strategy.” It’s nonsense. It’s also the exact opposite of leadership.

It is unquestionably true that when it comes to transportation, New Yorkers have more choices than ever before. On top of our existing subway and bus system, the city has (slowly) rolled out more Select Bus Service, opened (highly-subsided, low-capacity) ferries, expanded Citi Bike (without public funding), and devoted on-street parking spots to car sharing (after no small amount of community board whining). With Citi Bike set to expand to become the biggest bicycle-sharing system outside of China, as well as the imminent arrival of e-scooters, there’s probably never been a wider array of choices for getting from point A to point B, at least in recent memory. On paper, in fact, this should be a very good time to be among the car-free majority that makes New York the vibrant city it is.

But what good does that expanded menu do anyone if city streets remain choked by private automobiles either moving or stored, for-hire vehicles cruising for their next passenger, placarded vehicles parked on every flat surface, and a seemingly endless and unregulated glut of oversized delivery vans and trucks? If bike lanes become loading zones and bus lanes become de facto parking lanes for police officer’s personal cars, no amount of shared bicycles or articulated buses will make a dent when it comes to moving people through the urban grid.

And that’s why Bill de Blasio’s “all-of-the-above transportation strategy” is, now five years into his time in office, an abject and utter failure. New York City, woefully behind the world’s great cities, must move beyond this idea that everyone can get around however they choose. What New York needs is less “all-of-the-above” and more “some-of-the-above-but-mostly-no-cars.”

“All of the above” only works in situations where one person’s choices do not affect or interfere with another’s. And when it comes to transportation, choices matter. More specifically, how policy makers choose to allocate space matters.

The mayor likes to point out that his goal is to make New York the fairest big city in America. And while it may seem to fit with that goal of fairness to keep city streets open and available to everyone equally no matter how they choose to get around, all one has to do is try to move just a few blocks at nearly any time of day to know how that plays out. To paraphrase the French poet Anatole France, “The law, in its majestic equality, allows drivers, cyclists, and bus riders alike to enter Midtown Manhattan.”

Street space, like all space in this universe, is governed by the laws of physics and the constraints of geometry. If I remember nothing else from my high school physics classes, it’s that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In urban planning terms, that means that a bike lane can not occupy the same space as a parking lane. It’s a zero-sum-game.

green-hierarchy

Image via BikePortland.org and the City of Portland

Zero-sum games mean that someone, a mayor for example, has to make tough choices. A city cannot balance all modes, as that implies that all modes can find some sort of happy equilibrium on their own. They can’t. What a city can do is prioritize efficient modes to benefit the most amount of people. That starts with walking, biking, and transit and ends, way down at the bottom of the type of reverse pyramid of transportation hierarchy seen above, with using three SUVs to move one person 12 miles.

There are encouraging signs that people in positions of power are starting to get this and that ideas once seen to be on the fringe or that merely stayed in advocacy circles are breaking into the mainstream. On Thursday, bike and transit Twitter lit up when NY1’s host Jamie Stelter quoted City Council Speaker Corey Johnson as saying to a live TV audience, “I think we have to break the car culture in this city. We have to focus on bikes and the subway and other forms of getting around.” Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, a regular bike commuter who’s never shy about speaking up for safe streets and efficient transportation, could hardly contain his excitement at the speaker’s comments. Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez has long expressed his desire to reduce car ownership in the five boroughs. (Although perhaps not as fast enough as current climate change modeling reports suggest we should.)

If that’s what these officials are saying now, they’re already a lot farther along when it comes to their thinking on private automobiles in the city than Bill de Blasio is after five years in office, not to mention many more as Public Advocate and as a member of the City Council. They’re even more evolved than where Mayor Michael Bloomberg was 2006, in the pre-JSK era, when he said, “We like traffic, it means economic activity, it means people coming here.” Thanks to some nudging from a smart DOT commissioner, he would later change his tune and eventually the city produced some of the best evidence around to show that streets for people are better for “economic activity” than streets for cars.

Despite offering a plethora of transportation choices, Mayor de Blasio has wasted the last five years because he has been, is, and will likely remain afraid of making tough choices, of telling motorists that they can not expect to drive everywhere for free, and of standing up to the police department. It is a sort of predatory delay and should be seen as a major black mark on his legacy, however he’s judged by history. It didn’t have to be this way, but thanks to him the next mayor will be starting from a huge deficit when it comes to getting New Yorkers moving again. If the city is to be able to grow and thrive, that person will have to make some very tough choices about what kind of transportation menu is available to New Yorkers. Some of the biggest items, private cars, will have to be taken off completely.

 

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