De Blasio's blind spot

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has positioned himself as a progressive, but transportation advocates say his positions on issues like congestion pricing point to a car-centric approach.

Javier Muñoz Fernández

A passionate group of low-income immigrant New Yorkers gathered on a gray mid-December morning on the steps of New York City Hall, waving bright pink and green cardboard signs in the chilly wind. They were there to protest what they called the oppressive enforcement of arbitrary laws that target them, and to demand their right to work with dignity.

You might think that Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has positioned himself as a champion of immigrant rights in the era of President Donald Trump, would have been standing there alongside them. The mayor, however, was nowhere to be seen.

That’s because the more than 100 mostly Asian delivery cyclists were there to protest one of de Blasio’s own policies, a crackdown on electric bicycles that the workers depend on to do their jobs.

“This policy is counterintuitive to New York being a sanctuary city,” Persephone Tan, associate director of immigration and policy at the Asian American Federation, told the protestors. “This policy brings extra scrutiny on low-wage workers. This policy creates more interaction between police and communities of color who already have a negative history with the NYPD.” The crowd cheered.

The disconnect on the e-bike issue is emblematic of a deeper divide in the mayor’s policy positions. De Blasio spent his first term building up his credentials as a progressive, many suspect with the intention of making a left-leaning run at the presidency in 2020. He has championed trademark progressive causes like universal pre-K, affordable housing, increasing the minimum wage and severely cutting stop-and-frisk policing. He even had U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders swear him in at his second inauguration.

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Advocates for progressive transportation policies, though, said that when it comes to the way people get around New York, de Blasio has a significant blind spot. He is stuck, they said, in an outdated, auto-centric view of how the city’s streets are supposed to function, one that gives more weight to SUVs than e-bikes.

That windshield perspective is evident in big picture issues like his stand on congestion pricing for vehicles entering Manhattan’s central business district to fund the collapsing public transportation system (long opposed, still skeptical) as well as his opinions on street-level problems like cars double-parking in bike lanes (go for it if you need to drop off some groceries) and his use of parking placards as political favors (50,000 new ones went out to teachers and other school employees last year).

“Many of the mayor’s positions are incompatible with urban transportation,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “He still has a very car-oriented mindset on many of these issues. You can’t have a car city and a public transportation city. You really have to choose.”

Navigating the streets and tunnels of the city is the one great unifying experience of New Yorkers. All of the city’s residents, no matter their age, income bracket or social status, have to grapple with the challenge of getting from here to there in a sprawling, congested and often chaotic urban landscape.

Yet unlike education, housing, labor rights and policing, transportation has not traditionally been a defining issue for New York politicians. John Raskin, executive director of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, sees that as a huge missed opportunity.

“Transportation policy is a prime area where we need a progressive approach to decision-making,” said Raskin, who believes de Blasio’s transportation blind spot is causing him to ignore a fundamental tool in fighting income inequality. “If public transit is done well, it can be how low-income New Yorkers access opportunities. It can help people immigrate to New York from anywhere in the world without having to have thousands of dollars to spend on purchasing and owning a car. It can be the connection between affordable neighborhoods and jobs and education in some of the wealthiest parts of the city.”

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For the mostly middle-aged men gathered on the City Hall steps that December day, e-bikes – which contain an integrated electric motor and are seen as an environmentally friendly option for deliveries and personal transportation in cities around the world – make their jobs possible. But the bikes have long existed in a gray area in New York City: technically illegal to operate but usually accepted, perhaps because without them the speedy food delivery that increasingly defines the city’s eating habits would be impossible to sustain.

Residents of certain neighborhoods, including the Upper East Side, have denounced e-bikes as a menace, despite the lack of any data to suggest they have been involved in more than a handful of crashes, and de Blasio has responded to those complaints by promising swift, draconian action. Delivery workers want the mayor to negotiate with them to legalize and regulate the bikes, but they said getting his attention seems to be an issue of class and clout. “People who live in the rich areas stick together and complain,” said one middle-aged delivery worker, who didn’t want to give his name for fear he might lose his job. “They are very, very powerful.”

Transportation advocates didn’t necessarily think the de Blasio administration would be like this. When he took office in 2014, many were cautiously optimistic, and his appointment of Polly Trottenberg as commissioner of the city Department of Transportation was seen as a promising sign. She seemed well-suited to continue the expansion of the bike lane and public plaza initiatives that had been started under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Trottenberg came to the job with a reputation as a seasoned policymaker, and like Bloomberg’s pioneering DOT commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, she understands the latest thinking on how to better design healthier, safer and more environmentally sustainable cities.

There was more reason for advocates to be hopeful when, shortly after de Blasio took office, he unveiled his Vision Zero initiative, which aims to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero by 2024. Loosely based on successful European policies that have revolutionized streets in countries like Sweden, de Blasio’s policy was widely seen among advocates as the next step in getting the city to prioritize people instead of cars on increasingly congested streets.

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Vision Zero quickly bore fruit. Trottenberg joined with advocates to lobby state legislators to allow the city to lower the default speed limit to 25 miles per hour on city-controlled streets. The change, which was signed into law in November 2014, was considered by many longtime proponents of safer streets to be a crucial victory. After a pedestrian-oriented redesign of Queens Boulevard, not a single New Yorker has been killed on the legendary “Boulevard of Death” since 2014. And overall traffic deaths have gone down over the first four years of de Blasio’s tenure.

The mayor’s office, in response to questions for this story, offered a written statement citing Vision Zero as de Blasio’s proudest transportation policy initiative to date. “In only four years, we have brought the numbers for these tragic incidents down to the same level as 1910, when the city first started keeping these records. The name of this initiative says it all – zero fatalities is our goal. With this immense progress, we think it is achievable while still getting New Yorkers from point A to point B safely, efficiently and affordably.”

Transportation Alternatives, while praising the administration for Vision Zero, recently released a report that projected the city is nowhere near on track to meet the stated goal of zero, and gave the mayor a B- for his efforts on street safety.

As his term progressed, de Blasio revealed himself to have perhaps more affinity with the minority of New Yorkers who drive than the millions who depend on public transportation, walking and bicycles. His daily 11-mile SUV trip from Gracie Mansion to the Park Slope Armory YMCA angered many activists who saw hypocrisy in the mayor’s insistence on using a gas-guzzling vehicle to get to his favorite exercise spot while lecturing New Yorkers – and the nation – on the importance of green living.

Charles Komanoff, a longtime advocate for safe streets and better public transit, brought attention to the issue when he called “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC one morning last summer – and called the mayor out on the daily drive.

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“What provoked me was in his opening segment, he was crowing about how New York City is going to lead the charge to sanctify and preserve the Paris climate agreement,” said Komanoff, who helped design a congestion pricing plan called Move NY. “Meanwhile, the transit system is crumbling – the transit system which matters so much more to the ability of New York City to remain viable and to keep the idea of a green metropolis. Here he is ignoring it politically and thumbing his nose at the transit system and the 8 million people who ride it every day. I couldn’t abide that.”

As de Blasio was cruising back and forth over FDR Drive – which was speedily resurfaced from end to end in 2015, after his commute made him aware of its pothole-ridden condition – the subways were melting down. Disruptions in service due to deferred maintenance have been affecting thousands of riders daily, and the fallout represents an existential threat to New York’s economy, even its identity. While the mayor does not control the MTA, a job that belongs to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, advocates for riders nonetheless have persistently criticized de Blasio for his lukewarm response to an underground situation that is widely perceived as a crisis.

“The primary job of a mayor of New York City is to be an advocate for the people of New York City,” said Doug Gordon, an advocate who blogs about transportation at Brooklyn Spoke and frequently denounces the mayor’s policies on Twitter. “But he had to be drawn kicking and screaming into the subways during the summer of hell to take a ride during a morning commute to experience what real New Yorkers are experiencing. He is not using his bully pulpit in the best way that he can.”

Rather than throw his weight behind some form of congestion pricing, which would reduce pollution and crowding on city streets as well as provide a steady funding stream, de Blasio has pushed for a millionaires tax that would increase the income tax paid by the wealthiest New Yorkers. Many think it would be unlikely to get through the state Legislature. (Congestion pricing would be a tough sell too; it fell short in Albany when it was attempted with Bloomberg’s backing in 2008, and Cuomo’s proposal has already drawn vocal opposition from outer borough legislators who said it would impose an unfair burden on their constituents.)

“The subway is in crisis and any realistic solution will cost billions of dollars,” said Raskin, who believes congestion pricing could also fund reduced fares for low-income New Yorkers. “Congestion pricing is a fair and sustainable way of raising money to fix public transit. The number of working poor and low-income people who are commuting into Manhattan by car is vanishingly small. The most vulnerable New Yorkers who are trying to get to work are doing so on the subway. And so failing to fund improvements to (public) transportation is actually the most regressive policy.”

Now that Cuomo’s Fix New York City panel has put forward its congestion pricing plan, the mayor said this plan is better than previous iterations, but he still sounded equivocal about congestion pricing in general. His office, in response to questions for this story, referred to his comments on “The Brian Lehrer Show” in mid-January: “A fundamental issue in this entire plan that the state is putting forward is how do we create fairness? So you know, making sure that people in each part of the city are treated fairly, making sure that the money that comes from it stays in New York City, making sure that the Fair Fares is addressed so low-income New Yorkers can have accessible MetroCards and MetroCards they can afford – all of these fairness questions have to be addressed.”

The mayor also apparently remained resistant to arguments from many organizations he might be expected to have an affinity with, including the national environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and the anti-poverty group Community Service Society of New York. Late last year, the society issued a report estimating that under a congestion pricing plan, 18 outer borough residents would benefit for every city resident who would have to pay more to commute. When proposed fare subsidies are factored in, that ratio would be 38 working-poor residents to every car commuter.

The mayor’s position is drawing more intense criticism as he seeks to boost his national profile on environmental issues. On Jan. 10, de Blasio appeared to throw his weight behind a city lawsuit that names big oil companies for their role in climate change. That drew another round of scathing criticism on Twitter, and even a column by Jim Dwyer in The New York Times, with the headline “Battling Climate Change from the Back Seat of an S.U.V.

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The question among advocates remains, why doesn’t the mayor get it?

“I can’t psychoanalyze the man,” Gordon said. “But based on what I know of him, at a gut level he doesn’t really understand that if you want to achieve a lot of New York’s transportation goals, none of them can happen without decreasing the number of cars that are in the city. It also may just be that politically he doesn’t see the need to go out on a limb here.”

While de Blasio plays it safe, many of his peers around the country, and the world, are leading the charge toward greener, less auto-centric cities. Anne Hidalgo in Paris, Valérie Plante in Montréal, even Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, all are making efficient public transportation and pedestrian-friendly streets a priority. Just as de Blasio’s crackdown on e-bikes began in January, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami announced pilot programs for short-term e-bike rentals. There’s a sense that New York, perceived as on the transportation cutting edge just a few years ago, is falling behind due to a lack of vision at City Hall.

“The mayor cannot ignore this any longer,” White said. “The moment is here to shift his policy and really lead. Is the surface transportation network going to be designed and managed around cars, or is it going to be designed and managed around people? It sounds dramatic, but I think New York will ultimately fail as a city if we don’t make that shift.”