Skip to content

About all that…

April 23, 2021

Not surprisingly, people have been asking me for a comment about the news that Brad Lander, got busted by the New York Post for having a long list of driving infractions, which included multiple instances of speeding in excess of 11 miles per hour in school zones and parking illegally at hydrants and bus stops. Brad is my City Council member, a longtime partner in many safe-streets advocacy efforts, and has been responsible for so much that has gone right with things like bike lanes and bike share in the community and across the city, perhaps more than nearly any other elected official. He has been and still remains my number one choice for Comptroller, a position I think he was born to hold. (I was also asked to comment on the mayor’s comments in which he called Lander a “hypocrite,” but more on that later.)

I’ve been reluctant to say much on my typical outlet, Twitter, because I didn’t believe a tweet or even a tweet storm would accomplish what I felt I wanted to do, which was, of course, to condemn any form of reckless driving in no uncertain terms and to hold an ally to account, which I think is obviously the right thing to do on its face. But I also wanted to organize my thoughts, speak more directly about how it feels when an ally disappoints and offer some general thoughts about What It All Means…. especially in year eight (!) of Vision Zero.

I bulleted these out and they all kind of build on each other but might not always connect, so stick with me. And if you think I’ve missed the mark or whatever please let me know.

  • Speeding is wrong. Period. I could get my head around saying this was no big deal if this involved one or two speeding tickets spread out over a year, but part of the story here is that Brad Lander racked up seven tickets in less than 18 months, according to the Post, possibly making him eligible to have his car impounded under the original version of his own Reckless Driver Accountability Act. I also don’t think parking at a bus stop is ever okay, given the amount and types of people it potentially inconveniences. I think Lander stumbled in his original response to being called out on this, most notably on Inside City Hall with Erroll Louis last night. I am glad he offered a more full-throated apology today and vowed to hold himself accountable going forward.
  • When an ally messes up, it can be tempting for advocates to leap to that person’s defense, point to those who have done far worse, or use that ally’s otherwise noble accomplishments as a bit of a shield. Fear, subconscious or otherwise, kicks in: “If this person goes down, the entire cause I support could go down with him!” There are so many bad-faith people out there trying to take down sensible traffic safety measures and I understand that sort of reflexive defense. But we have to be honest when one of our own does something that jeopardizes his and possibly a movement’s credibility. There’s some other lawmaker out there with a worse record who opposes consequences for reckless drivers? Not my problem.
  • Some people have said, “Hey, it’s the Post. What do you expect?” There are a lot of problems with the Post, but this story isn’t one of them. First, the reporters behind it are great. Second, wrong is wrong even if you learn about the wrong thing from a source you don’t always like. Whatever people may think of a particular news outlet, sometimes “gotcha” journalism gets ya.
  • I’m speaking from learned experience here: back in 2014 when the mayor’s motorcade got caught running stop signs by Marica Kramer in a CBS-2 exclusive, my gut reaction was to brush it off and say that what really mattered was that he had just introduced Vision Zero. I bought into the idea that his position meant that his travel and security needs didn’t compare to other people’s. Fear kicked in: I was worried that a hugely important but politically precarious policy wouldn’t even have the chance to get off the ground. Plus, my thought at the time was that since Marcia Kramer was clearly someone who didn’t give a shit about safe streets the whole story was just another one of her infamous hit jobs. I even got into it with some journalists, as I recall. (Yes, dear reader, even I once defended the mayor.) But looking back, I was wrong. Today I think about it like this: If I was killed by a driver who ran a stop sign, would it be any comfort to my family that the driver believed he was important?
  • Elected officials need to be held to the same standard as average citizens, if not a higher one. I don’t believe it’s okay for anyone to excuse their reckless driving or anyone else’s by pointing to their policy records, saying they have important places to be, or claiming that they have unique security concerns — as the mayor said when defending himself to Marcia Kramer. Fish rots from the head, as they say, and such excuses lead to all sorts of motorist entitlement that metastasizes far beyond the placard class. (Cyclists who have been on the receiving end of a motorist’s rage because they dared to slow them down for two seconds know exactly what I mean.)
  • In Streetsblog, Gersh Kuntzman wrote that “advocates were quick to say that it’s foolish to focus on the actions of any one driver when the problem is specific roadway design and the larger culture.” It might be foolish if we were talking about John Q. Driver or Jane Q. Motorist who don’t have any direct influence over public policy, but in this case we’re talking about the mayor of New York City and a prominent member of the City Council. What elected officials say and what they do matter immensely; when there’s a gap between their rhetoric and their actions it harms the causes they support and creates a lot of frustrating and unnecessary work for advocates. Believe me, the last thing I and many other folks thought we’d have to do this week is talk about the driving record of Brad Lander, of all people, or waste any energy listening to Bill freaking de Blasio call someone else a hypocrite for their driving habits. 
  • As somewhat of an aside, how about the mayor’s comment about all this at his daily press conference? “Everyone who says they believe in Vision Zero has to live by it. Now, you know, we’re all humans. We’re going to make mistakes sometimes, but that’s too many to chalk up to just a single mistake, obviously. So, I’m surprised.” Sure, he says “we all make mistakes” which might lead someone to think he has finally figured out what Vision Zero is all about. But that’s not how I interpret it. Vision Zero isn’t something drivers “believe in” and “live by.” You don’t get into your car and think, “I’m going to Vision Zero today.” Vision Zero isn’t about giving motorists a pass if they “make mistakes sometimes” and shaming them if they make “too many.” It’s about the people with power — that would be the mayor and DOT leadership — building a system where the consequences of any mistake, whether it’s a driver’s first or fiftieth, aren’t deadly or life altering to anyone inside or outside of a car. Anyway, Bill de Blasio is going to leave office never having understood one of his signature policies.
  • On the street design front, Shabazz Stuart pointed the discussion to larger questions about infrastructure and its influence on driver behavior. Anyone familiar with my take on Vision Zero knows that I agree with his opinion wholeheartedly — but I think we have to go one step further and question not just the conditions that contribute to reckless driving but the primacy of car culture itself. Yes, our streets are “designed to encourage driving at high speeds,” as Shabazz correctly notes, but they’re also designed to encourage driving. Full stop. We can’t uncouple reckless driving from the fact that New York City’s transportation policy is essentially, “Drive ’em if you’ve got ’em.” I received my last speeding ticket in 2004 on a trip to Virginia and my last parking ticket three summers ago when I forgot to move a rental car for alternate side parking. While I’d like to think I’ve received so few tickets because I’m the most conscientious driver in the city, a bigger reason is that I pretty much never drive. Traffic calming is necessary and effective, but I don’t think we will reduce dangerous driving in any significant fashion until we reduce driving in general.
  • In order to take on the primacy of car culture in New York we need to first take on car culture’s primacy in New York City politics. As part of his vow to hold himself accountable for his actions, Brad Lander has promised to give up his placard and drive less. That’s all good, but why does any elected official even have a parking placard to give up in the first place? Why is it just assumed that they need to drive so much? Because they have important places to be and important things to do? Nope. Sorry. That’s some real tragedy-of-the-commons type reasoning, because the list of what people might consider an important trip is as vague as it is long and could apply to anyone anywhere, with devastating consequences for [waves to entire city and planet]. Why does an able-bodied person need to drive to pick up his dry cleaning a few blocks from his house? Because he’s on his way to somewhere important and anyway it was just for a few minutes? Why does someone think it’s okay to be driven to get a pastry and a coffee twelve miles from where he lives? Because it keeps him grounded and sane while doing his important job? Why do community boards get budgets for buying cars? Why does the Brooklyn Borough President continue to make excuses for using a public plaza as a private parking lot? Why do elected officials and their staffers need to drive to a City Hall that sits on top of more subway lines than exist in most of the rest of the United States combined? Because they have a lot of important stuff to do, work hard and keep a busy schedule? Bullshit. There are eight million stories in the naked city and each one of them involves people who work hard and keep busy schedules. If they all use that as an excuse to drive, we’re fucked.
  • So where does this leave me? Pretty exhausted, to be honest. It’s still mind boggling that both the man who campaigned on Vision Zero and the elected official who became its biggest supporter have each been caught driving recklessly, one nearly eight years ago and the other this week. It’s almost like a perfect set of bookends to the story of New York’s version of Vision Zero itself, with the volumes in between filled with plenty of success stories, to be sure, but far too many stories of racist crackdowns on immigrant delivery cyclists, cops running over Citi Bike users for riding with headphones, the distribution of massive amounts of parking placards and PBA courtesy cards, no end in sight to the amount of parking required in new buildings, community boards spending multiple hours over multiple months debating lines of paint on a couple of streets and a pandemic-induced spike in traffic fatalities the city still doesn’t seem to know how or want to address. We have so much work to do.

%d bloggers like this: