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On 14th Street

April 20, 2017

There is certainly a conversation to have about the effects bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and public transit have on gentrification, neighborhood character, and affordability, but I’m not sure Jeremiah Moss’ latest post at Vanishing New York is where you’ll find it.

One of the reasons I and many others reacted so strongly to Moss’ take on the 14th Street Peopleway, I believe, is because it cuts right through the heart of what has always been missing from Moss’ otherwise insightful writing and his well-intentioned #SaveNYC campaign. He rarely seems to consider the role reliable transportation and safe streets play in keeping New York City affordable, diverse, and full of character.

Before I go much further, here’s a disclaimer: I get every criticism leveled at transit and safe-streets advocates, and there were quite a few either stated or implied in his post. While I don’t always agree with his tactics or philosophies, I do appreciate that Moss, like me, is operating from a place of truly loving New York. It’s in that spirit that I offer up these criticisms of three parts of Moss’ post.

1.) 14th Street is already more gentrified than Moss lets on.

To the causal reader of Vanishing New York, it might seem as if 14th Street is only just now on the cusp of being gentrified and infested with soulless corporate chain stores.

I was just thinking about how truly remarkable it is that much of 14th Street, from east to west, has not been hyper-gentrified.

Yes, there’s the Apple Store at the western end. Yes, a Target and maybe Trader Joe’s is coming to the east. And Union Square is strangled in chains. But much of the rest miraculously remains Chinese takeout joints, 99-cent stores, other discount shops, diners, and one beloved doughnut shop. It attracts a diversity of New Yorkers, many from lower socioeconomic circumstances.

Yes, there’s an Apple Store at the western end, but there’s also the entire Meatpacking District, a neighborhood so hyper-gentrified that the Patagonia Store there probably counts as a discount clothier.

As you travel east you’ll find The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a 7-11, and a Bareburger, the kind of organic hamburger joint that is nothing if not a symbol of post-Bloomberg gentrification. There’s a CVS at 14th and 8th which is across the street from an HSBC bank. At 14th and 6th, there’s another HSBC bank, which is kitty-corner from an Urban Outfitters. Next to that is a Starbucks, which is next to a Five Guys, which is next to a Foot Locker, which is next a DQ. The DQ is a few doors down from Jack Rabbit Running and a Party City, a store more commonly found in suburban shopping centers than in urban cores.

Across the street from these chains are more: a Popeye’s Fried Chicken, a Potbelly’s Sandwich Shop, a Levi’s store, and a Guitar Center. East of Union Square you’ll find fewer corporate chains, but there’s still the occasional KFC, McDonald’s, and a Duane Reade, one of two of 14th Street.

To be fair, I understand the distinction Moss frequently makes between what most people recognize as gentrification and what he refers to as “hyper-gentrification.” Fast-food joints and chain stores aren’t the kind of hyper-gentrified establishments one sees in so many places throughout the city following an up-zoning or the colonialist-sounding “discovery” of a neighborhood by ravenous real estate agents. But while KFCs and Foot Lockers can easily exist side-by-side with discount stores and Chinese takeout joints, they aren’t exactly mom-and-pops. If Moss were more open about just how gentrified 14th Street already is — He doesn’t even mention the damn High Line! — I think he’d be able to write a deeper piece on how a new street design might affect its future in both good ways and bad. Who knows what effects the PeopleWay will have on 14th Street, but even in an alternate world where the L train wasn’t shutting down it was never going to be long before hyper-gentrification arrived.

2.) Moss barely mentions why the 14th Street PeopleWay project or something like it is necessary.

One of the criticisms of Mayor de Blasio’s pet BQX project is that it will gentrify neighborhoods such as Red Hook and Sunset Park, which have (mostly) kept the forces of gentrification at bay by nature of their relative inaccessibility by public transit.

Whether this is even a valid argument against improving transit is another subject altogether, but 14th Street is not Red Hook. 14th Street is one of the most transit-rich corridors in the city. The L makes it very easy to get from one end to the other. Five additional subway lines stop at various corners along the avenue. The M14, while not the speediest of buses at any time of day, is reliable enough.

The L train carries 200,000 passengers per day, including many who presumably work at or patronize the “Chinese takeout joints, 99-cent stores, other discount shops, diners, and one beloved doughnut shop” that Moss rightly celebrates. Without dedicated bus lanes and safer biking infrastructure, how will anyone move across 14th Street during the shutdown? If you can’t afford to take an Uber to work, don’t have a Citi Bike membership, or aren’t employed by a tech company that might run a private bus, what will you do? Sit in traffic on the M14? Massive gridlock hits everyone very hard, but it always hits people of lower socioeconomic means the hardest.

It is precisely because 14th Street is such a vital transportation corridor that some sort of solution to move a lot of people during the 15-month shutdown of the L train is necessary. Does Moss have any thoughts on this? They’re not in his post.

3.) If Moss has an argument to make against the PeopleWay, why use straw-men to make it?

As Ben Kabak points out, this part of Moss’ post is in bold for some reason:

We all know that one powerful way to hyper-gentrify a neighborhood, or a cross-section of the city, is through transportation alternatives, i.e., bike lanes and trolley cars. Pedestrian plazas, as Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn showed, made property values shoot through the roof in Times Square. These are proven tactics. Conservatives love them because they’re good for the rich. And liberals love them because they’re environment friendly. But they are not friendly to a diverse, affordable, and equitable urban environment.

As to Moss’ first bolded point, I don’t disagree entirely. Bike lanes and better transit can be used in exactly the way Moss describes. But he seems to have given no thought as to why “transportation alternatives” contribute to hyper-gentrification. It’s because our body politic sees them as amenities or extras and not as what they really ought to be: civic rights.

Enrique Peñalosa says it best:

I don’t think protected bicycle ways are a cute architectural feature. They are a right, just as sidewalks are, unless we believe that only those with access to a motor vehicle have a right to safe mobility, without the risk of getting killed. And just as busways are, protected bikeways also are a powerful symbol of democracy, because they show that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.

So long as safe and reliable transportation is seen as something that’s mostly given to those who forcefully advocate for it either with their time (as in the case of my fellow street safety advocates) or money (as in the case of powerful real estate interests) then such things will most certainly and very naturally accrue to neighborhoods that are in or even well beyond the process of gentrifying. “Advocacy,” as my friend Aaron Naparstek likes to say, “is a luxury product.” The solution, therefore, is to make such things as basic an expectation as running water and cable TV hookups. The more we do that, the less bike lanes and reliable transit will be perceived as something only rich people get.

Then there’s the idea that liberals love things like bike lanes because they’re environmentally friendly. In a world doomed by climate change, that’s certainly a selling point, but Moss uses this quality to dismiss and insult liberals. It reminded me of NBBL’s Louise Hainline who dismissed safe streets advocates by telling New York magazine, “They’re just holy. They really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to go to the food co-op.” Moss, you see, is neither liberal nor conservative. Like Hainline, he’s just a commonsense New Yorker who can see through all the bullshit.

Yes, I think more bike lanes are good for the environment, but that’s not why I ride a bike. I love “transportation alternatives” because private automobiles are the most inefficient and expensive way of moving people through a dense city. Even if cars were powered by air, they’d still take up too much damn space. So if Moss has an idea for an efficient way to move hundreds of thousands of people across 14th Street that’s better than bikes and buses running in dedicated lanes, a lot of “lefty bike advocates,” as he calls guys like me, would like to hear it.

Moss then says that such transportation alternatives and the means by which they are placed throughout the city “are not friendly to a diverse, affordable, and equitable urban environment.”

This claim doesn’t stand up to even a moment’s consideration. Here’s Ben Kabak again:

When all it takes to hold up a bus carrying over 40 people is one guy in a private vehicle pulling out of a parking spot, there’s nothing equitable about that arrangement at all. There’s nothing affordable about it either, as people waste countless hours in traffic when they could be at work earning money.

I share many of Moss’ concerns about hyper-gentrification, but if his goal is to keep the city affordable for more than just the 1% and preserve New York’s diversity in the process, keeping the streets clogged with noisy, space-hogging, pollution-spewing vehicles seems like a perverse way to do it.



Don’t Think of a Parking Space

March 16, 2017


I haven’t been mountain biking in years, but there’s one tip that has always stuck with me on and off the bike. It has to do with avoiding the kind of obstacles that tend to cause riders to crash or send them flipping over their handlebars. A mountain biking club in Brevard County Florida sums it up perfectly:

If you stare at an obstruction on the trail and think “I sure hope I don’t hit that,” chances are you’ll hit it! Instead of looking at that stump, rock, or hole on the side of the trail look down the trail where you want the bike to go.

This advice can be applied to other sports – golfers who can’t stop thinking about sand traps before they tee off will surely hit a ball into one – and it can also apply to life in general. While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that following The Secret will get you that job promotion or win you an Academy Award, it remains true that concentrating too much on the potential for failure frequently prevents success.

Yet, in a way that’s clearly not intentional and most likely the vestigial effect of the bikelash days, this is exactly what DOT does when they present street redesigns to community boards. Since concerns about parking frequently make or break a project’s chances for success, the agency tries to diminish concerns about parking… by making it almost impossible to focus on anything other than parking.

Consider this truly outstanding proposal [PDF] from DOT to create better bike connections to the Williamsburg Bridge. On most of the “proposed improvements” pages, the impact on parking is given prominent placement. Here’s just one example:


Is three parking spaces a lot? I happen to think it’s nothing compared to the benefits of this project, but a business owner who drives to work or a resident who leaves his car on the street might disagree. Either way, the concept of parking loss is now impossible to avoid, offered up by DOT as something to latch on to by those who tend to value car storage over safer streets. And latch onto it they will.

Even when there’s no impact on parking, DOT lets people know that there’s no impact on parking. Here’s a slide from DOT’s presentation [PDF] on another great project, the Amity Wiggle:


A list like this raises interesting questions. Would providing dedicated space for people on bikes and calming traffic be less worthy goals if, say, one or two parking spots had to be lost? What about ten spots? And if DOT later presents another project to the community board that does impact parking, does that allow the board to believe it’s a worse project than one that doesn’t?

By frequently mentioning concerns about parking, anyone who wants to change a street – or their city – legitimizes and perpetuates concerns about parking. You know the old thought experiment where you tell someone not to think of a polar bear with green eyes and then all they can think about is a polar bear with green eyes?  I’ve been to community board meetings where DOT reps start their presentations by saying, “We know that parking is a top concern.” Guess what happened? Parking was a top concern.

How can cities change the focus so that parking doesn’t derail good projects? Here’s my advice, and I think it applies not only to the hard working men and women of the New York City Department of Transportation, but to anyone presenting a new street design to community groups, civic organizations, and other entrenched agents of the status quo:

Don’t do NIMBYs’ jobs for them.

If possible, don’t give prominent placement to NIMBY concerns in your presentations. Just don’t. Will there be an impact on parking? Maybe, but don’t put such information on the same list as a project’s positive benefits, such as injury and fatality reduction rates. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be prepared to answer the inevitable question about how much parking will be lost to a bike lane, bike share station, or other street transformation. But having such information available at one’s fingertips is vastly different from giving it a spotlight in a PowerPoint presentation.

You’re under no obligation to elevate trivial concerns in ways that put the onus on you to defend your belief that innocent people shouldn’t be crushed to death by automobiles. If someone believes that saving parking > saving lives, the onus is on them to explain such a morally bankrupt philosophy.

I want to be clear: the strategy isn’t to treat people like idiots or ignore and deceive them. We’re all neighbors, after all. The strategy is to treat people like adults and make them own their concerns. Cap’n Transit has a related and very good take on how do deal with and listen to NIMBYs:

We should listen to NIMBYs, not because that’s how you get things done, but because they’re people. People deserve respect, and one of the best ways to show respect is by listening. But listening and acknowledgment do not necessarily mean acceptance or agreement. We need to listen skeptically.

You may have noticed that people don’t like it if you tell them they’re being irrational. So what do you do if you think they are? Make them justify, rationally, their concerns and their Predictions of Doom. In other words: listen, but be skeptical. In the long run, listening without being skeptical doesn’t do anyone any favors, including the NIMBYs.

Emphasis mine.

So what does this mean in practice?

Consider a presentation about fixing a street that’s seen a rash of crashes and tragic deaths. Imagine listening to an engineer explain that a new design, if installed, will result in a 40% reduction in injuries and fatalities for all users. Since only a few parking spaces will have to disappear to make this happen, it’s hardly worth mentioning the number of spots that will go away.

The presentation ends. Then, as soon as the floor is open for questions from the community, someone raises a hand and asks, “How many parking spaces am I going to lose on my block?”

That person would look like a selfish asshole, right?

But consider what could happen next. The presenter, who anticipated that this question would come up, answers it quickly and then shifts the focus back to the project’s safety benefits. After that, it would be on the person who asked the original question about parking loss to explain why storing cars is more important than saving lives. The NIMBY, in this case, has done all the work of being a NIMBY, no assistance required.

I can only offer a Justice Potter Stewart kind of rule for when you should mention parking in a presentation and when you shouldn’t. On a mile-long project, will only five spots be re-purposed? Maybe that info just doesn’t deserve prominent placement. Will one hundred spots be eliminated? Perhaps it does.

There’s a larger lesson here beyond the individual project level. Cities around the world are going car-free – or car-lite – and moving toward such a future here in New York won’t be possible if leaders and traffic engineers keep NIMBY fears of losing parking at the forefront of their minds. The focus needs to be on mobility, safety, and sustainability, not car storage.

Just as mountain bikers shouldn’t look at a stump, rock, or hole on the side of a trail if they don’t want to get thrown from their bikes, there’s an easy way to prevent parking concerns from derailing street-safety plans:

Don’t mention it.





Beers, Bikes, and Babies

February 24, 2017


I was fortunate to be a guest on Two Beers In, a podcast hosted by husband-and-wife team Cody Lindquist and Charlie Todd. I’ve known Charlie since my days at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre when he was one of my instructors, and Cody — also a UCB veteran — is a hilarious comedian and actress. You might also know Charlie as the founder of Improv Everywhere, the New York City-based comedy collective behind the No-Pants Subway Ride and other “unexpected performances in public places.” I’ve participated in some missions and they’re always a blast, the kinds of things that take advantage of everything great New York City has to offer.

I’m on two episodes, one in which we talk about politics in general, and another in which we talk specifically about all things biking, from bikelash and bike laws to Citi Bike and riding with kids.

It was a real pleasure speaking with Charlie and Cody and nice to and talk to two people who, like me, love how biking has opened up the city to them not only as commuters but as parents.

Please subscribe to Two Beers In, like the podcast on iTunes, and check out the live show at the UCB Theatre East.

Because Bikes

February 21, 2017

During a recent trip through my neighborhood, I noticed this new traffic configuration near the intersection of 3rd Street and Prospect Park West.


Here’s the old configuration:


Most people on bikes who come up 3rd Street cross PPW to either pick up the bike lane or head straight into the park, so the new traffic pattern keeps them out of the way of drivers making right turns. It also makes things more convenient for drivers, who can turn right without having to wait for people on bikes to get out of the way. While the safety of this change is debatable — 3rd Street is uphill, so the right-hook risk has now been replaced with a move that places slow riders directly in the path of possibly angry drivers trying to make the light — one thing is clear:

This change did not require community board approval.

The new striping went in late last year after DOT repaved 3rd Street as part of its routine maintenance program. There was no presentation to the transportation committee, no vote, nor any notification to the board whatsoever.


Now before I continue, let me be clear: Even as a member of the Transportation and Public Safety Committee of Community Board 6, I don’t think that such changes should require community board approval. DOT saw a chance to change the street to make it safer and they did it. If it winds up not working out, DOT can always switch it back. It’s just paint.

This new traffic configuration grabbed my attention a bit more than such a change normally might since I happened to notice it just a few days after a rather contentious meeting of the Community Board 6’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

The big topic of the night was the Amity Wiggle, a proposal to improve the bike connectivity between Amity Street and Dean Street. Streetsblog breaks it down:

The street network has no good, officially-sanctioned bike connection from points west of Court Street onto the Dean Street bike lane. But hundreds of cyclists each day make their own route, taking Amity Street, then doing a short jog against traffic on Court Street to hit Dean. That maneuver… is technically illegal, and there’s no infrastructure to formalize it.

The legal way to the bike lane on Dean Street from Amity takes people 4/10 of a mile out of their way and involves a short hop on Court Street, which is nobody’s idea of a pleasant biking street. You can see why people opt to take this short cut:

DOT’s solution to making this already common practice legal is pretty simple, boiling down to just a few new signs at the intersection, as well as a class-2 bike lane on the overly wide Amity street. Simple, right?


Not so fast. The meeting, which was actually DOT’s second presentation on the subject to the committee, quickly descended into a game of Bikelash Bingo. At least three of the people who were against the proposal began their comments by pointing out that they were generally supportive of cycling, before going on to list the ways in which they felt that this proposal wasn’t safe, a rhetorical tactic that’s familiar to longtime readers of this blog. There was a small amount of concern trolling, as some justified their opposition based on a sense of duty to protecting cyclists, even though the people in the room who biked attested, one after the other, that this proposal would protect them. There were anecdotes about scofflaw cyclists and admonishments that bikes need to follow the same rules as cars before cyclists can get special treatment. Others opposed the Wiggle based on the fact that they didn’t personally understand it or see the need. And in one of my favorite but perhaps least explored anti-bike tactics, one person suggested that the Amity Wiggle should be shelved in favor of a more comprehensive plan to improve the overall bike network on a neighborhood or even district-wide level.


As is often the case, most of these arguments seemed to serve as cover for the kind of status-quo bias that permeates so many community board discussions surrounding bikes. This isn’t 2010, so there’s no need to counter each one.

Unfortunately, the overall effect of the discussion was that the Amity Wiggle only mustered enough support on the committee to get six yea votes. Five people opposed and one abstained. Since that’s as good as a tie it means that getting the full board to approve the proposal will be an uphill battle. It might involve a letter-writing campaign by advocates or the intervention of a City Council member. All for a proposal that merely involves legally codifying what people are doing anyway by putting up a few signs and painting some lines on the ground.

Again, sigh.

Last week’s drama and my observation up near Prospect Park West led me to ask a simple question: Why did the Amity Wiggle have to go before a committee when the new traffic configuration at 3rd Street and PPW was installed without community notification or approval?

The Wiggle may seem like a small example, but it’s indicative of a larger trend, one that’s been holding New York City back for far too long. When things that expand convenience and safety for people on bikes require DOT to jump through multiple hoops, while things that expand the convenience of people in cars can be installed without any sort of notification to the affected community, that’s a recipe for stagnation. It means that anything bike-related, which already faces fierce opposition from parking- and driving-obsessed community board members, is often destined to fail or be watered down to the point of uselessness.

The Amity Wiggle was not invented by the DOT. It grew from a bottom-up proposal by Ian Dutton and other community activists. It’s a minor tweak to the traffic law that doesn’t actually change what’s already happening at this intersection. No concrete has to be poured. It enhances safety for people on bikes at no expense to the safety of other street users and makes bicycling a more convenient transportation option in a neighborhood that certainly doesn’t need more car traffic. It doesn’t even take parking, for goodness’ sake.

In a vacuum, community boards’ preference for the status quo is not necessarily a bad thing. But we don’t live in a vacuum. New York City’s transportation challenges and the looming threat of global climate change that many of us will live to see require the rapid implementation of innovative solutions at every conceivable level. If the city can’t make minor tweaks to the transportation network without coming hat in hand to a dozen people on committee, what hope is there when the solutions need to be far bigger and implemented at a much faster pace to stave off disaster?

For these reasons and more, regardless of what happens at the full board level DOT should go ahead and install the signage to make the Amity Wiggle legal. There’s a chance here for the agency to use this small tweak to start a citywide revolution of innovation. DOT shouldn’t miss it.

Dershowitz v. #BikeNYC

December 8, 2016

I don’t want to give too much oxygen to Alan Dershowitz’ opinion piece in the Daily News in which he laments the law-breaking “culture of cycling in NYC.” Much of it is well-worn, bikelash-era material that has been easily swatted down countless times before. After I read it, my first reaction was that it felt as if it had been written in 2010 but had just dusted off after sitting in an editor’s inbox for six years.

But Dershowitz does take on a more modern development: Intro 1072, otherwise known as the LPI Bill. Here’s his take on it:

There’s also a City Council bill that would allow cyclists to ignore the stop lights for vehicles that under law they’re supposed to obey — and instead let them go through lights at more than 1,000 intersections with a “leading pedestrian interval,” when the walk signal comes first. Bad, bad idea.

Some rebuttals:

The bill would not “allow cyclists to ignore the stop lights for vehicles that under law they’re supposed to obey.” The very nature of changing the law means that the law will no longer requires people to obey those lights; they’ll have to obey different lights. (Dershowitz might have meant that current law requires people on bikes to obey “stop lights for vehicles,” but any lawyer knows that imprecise language can sink an argument very quickly.) The LPI bill is not a license for cyclists to blow through intersections. It’s a safety measure meant to give people on bikes a head start so they are not at risk of being hit by turning cars and trucks.

Dershowitz claims that allowing cyclists to go on LPIs is a “bad, bad idea” but has no evidence to support his claim. In reality, it’s a good, good idea that people are already using to stay safe.

I understand and am sensitive to the almost instinctive reaction among some New Yorkers that this bill will put pedestrians at risk of being hit by cyclists. But consider the video above. When the walk signal goes on, the people on bikes travel in a parallel direction as the people on foot. No cyclists turn, so there’s no conflict with pedestrians. It doesn’t seem bad at all.

Dershowitz goes on to do a sort of twisted version of “This isn’t Amsterdam,” in which he points to European bike riders’ lawfulness without answering his own question about what makes European bike riders obey the law:

People who love to ride bikes in New York often hold up Europe as a model. Well, my experience in Europe has been different. Bike riders — and there are many more of them in most European cities — seem to be more respectful of red lights. What are Europeans doing that we aren’t?

So what are Europeans doing that we aren’t? Among other things, they’re allowing people on bikes to get head starts on motor vehicles. Jump to 16 seconds in this video — via Copenhagenize — and you’ll see some examples of advance signals for bicyclists in action:


At the end of his opinion piece, Dershowitz encourages readers to “Put on your thinking caps and try to come up with some realistic, constructive solutions to this problem.” Bike advocates have done that. And one of the things we came up with is the LPI bill.






The Advice I Gave My Daughter this Morning

November 9, 2016

This morning during our walk to school, I talked to my seven-year-old daughter about the election. That kid worked her butt off; over the last month she came with me to two volunteer shifts and was my data-entry assistant when we made calls from home. She deserved to feel like her work mattered, and part of feeling like one’s work mattered is in making sense of the outcome, win or lose. I asked her what she thought about the news. She said, “It was unexpected.” Characteristically to the point, if you know my kid.

We talked a little bit about how — just as we did a lot of work before Election Day — we still had work to do. Perhaps even more. She asked what she can do and I told her, “Ask questions.” She asked me what I meant and I said that just because someone is the President — or a teacher, or a mom, or a dad, or a really any adult — it doesn’t mean that person always does the right thing. I told her it’s always our job as people to question someone when we think they’re not being nice or not making the right choice, even if that person is “in charge.”

I know a lot of people are wondering what they can say to their kids or do for them that will make things feel alright, which right now may be more of a need to assure ourselves than them. My advice was what I figured an independent, intelligent, compassionate, and sometimes stubborn seven-year-old kid would be able to get. Your kid may need something else. Results may vary.

Our children are going to hear a lot of crazy stuff in the coming weeks, months, and years, and I want mine to be ready. I want my daughter to know that it’s okay ask questions and that people aren’t right just because they’re “grown ups.” I want her to know that she must always start from a place of respecting other people, but that respect also has to be earned. I want her to grow up and know that questioning authority is okay. And being a bit of a rabble-rouser is okay, too. It’s what makes her an American.

Also: this advice could totally backfire and she might wind up questioning everything her mother and I tell her, like not getting a tattoo, at least not until she’s out of the house, but no matter what those giant earrings that stretch out your earlobes are totally out of the question.

Is Your City’s Public Education Campaign Worth It?

October 27, 2016

All movies tell their stories in three acts. Act one begins with some sort of status quo. Then something comes along that changes that status quo and moves the story into act two. By the time the story gets to act three, the person or people affected by that change in that status quo — the small-town sherriff, the band of rebels, or the private investigator taking on powerful government interests – do something specific to either adapt to or fight that change.

The same holds true in advertising. Ads are stories with a purpose: to get people to buy a product or service. I’m vastly oversimplifying it, but for an ad to get people to motivate people to spend their money, it also has to have three acts, or parts:

  1. Define the status quo.
  2. Introduce something new that disrupts that status quo.
  3. Motivate a specific behavior or action.

Using the above framework, think of an ad for a new soft drink:

  1. You’re thirsty, right? (Status quo.)
  2. Awesome Water is here to quench your thirst! (Something new.)
  3. So if you’re thirsty, drink Awesome Water! (Specific action.)

Now, this isn’t the only way ads can motivate people to part with their hard-earned cash. They can tug at people’s heartstrings. (“When you care enough to send the very best.”) They can prey on insecurities or fears. (“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”) Or they can include a catchphrase or slogan that’s so memorable that there’s no way to not think of the brand or product when one hears it. (“Just do it.” “Think Different.”) Regardless of the tactic, the purpose is the same: get people to buy stuff.

Public awareness campaigns don’t always have the same goals as consumer products. For starters, they’re not usually trying to get people to buy something. But for them to be effective, the tactics should more or less be the same.

One of NYC DOT’s most effective public awareness campaigns had to do with the 2014 reduction of the citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph. The messaging followed the same steps outlined above:

  1. The New York City speed limit used to be 30 mph. (Status quo.)
  2. It’s been lowered to 25 mph. (Something new.)
  3. So drive 25 mph. (Specific action.)

That’s a simple takeaway: drive five miles per hour slower than before. The concept is easy to explain in a thirty-second radio ad, Facebook post, or during a quick interaction between a Vision Zero Street Team member and a motorist. It can be understood in the amount of time it takes to drive by a billboard or walk by a bus shelter. (It’s hard to measure the exact effectiveness of DOT’s  “Your Choices” campaign, but at least it was easy to understand. Drivers – not kids on bikes or people crossing with the light in a crosswalk – have the biggest responsibility to move through the city safely.)

But what to make of the city’s current campaign to remind people to be careful as the clocks change and it gets darker earlier? What should any individual person do about that? Following the basic framework at the beginning of this post, you can see how this breaks down by step three:

  1. It’s been light out during the evening commute for a while. (Status quo.)
  2. When the clocks change, it will be dark. (Something new.)
  3. ???

So what’s the third step? What’s the specific action to follow once someone has the not exactly surprising information that it gets dark early when daylight saving time ends? Be careful? Most drivers think they are. (Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all drivers are above average.) Is the takeaway that drivers should take turns slowly? Define slow. Should they look out for pedestrians? That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the excuse a lot of drivers give when they hit someone: “He came out of nowhere!”

I’m not even sure such a campaign could contain all the information needed to change driver’s behavior in just three steps. “What does darkness have to do with driving? My car has lights! It’s those pedestrians buried in their phones who need to be careful!” Even if one can defend this campaign by saying that it’s mostly about raising awareness about a serious public health problem – Did you know that the earlier sunset and darkness are linked to an increase in the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by drivers? – what is anyone supposed to do with that awareness? It’s an open-ended question that can lead to all kinds of misguided initiatives, from NYPD crackdowns on cyclists to taping reflective tape on seniors’ canes.

$1.5 million is less than a rounding error in the city’s budget. This campaign will come and go. Maybe more people will choose to drive safely. Maybe they won’t. But the next time the city thinks about sending its a public service campaign, I hope it asks a simple question: What specific behavior do we want people to change? If there isn’t a simple answer, then go back to the drawing board.