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City & State


The Complete-Streets Election?

August 06, 2013

By Nicole Gelinas

Maybe the bike lobby is all-powerful. The last time New Yorkers elected a new mayor, in 2001, twenty-first-century transportation policy was on no one’s agenda, even before 9/11. The only thing that came close: then-city Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s proposal to give teachers free MetroCards. The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which closely follows the mayoral election, didn’t even ask potential voters what they thought about their daily travels. Things have changed a lot—so much that Transportation Alternatives, which advocates for cycling, walking and public transit, is on the list of groups that will sponsor the official candidate debates this fall. Why the change—and which mayoral candidates get it?

The old-fashioned way of thinking about transportation was not to think about it unless something went wrong–e.g., the transit union was on strike. Not anymore. Younger people are embracing mass transit—and not just as a painful way to get back and forth to work until you can afford to park a car in Manhattan or move out of the city.

In mid-July, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority told its board how “millennials” use transit throughout the day—and night. Twentysomethings and young thirtysomethings would just as soon take a bus home than a taxi after a late dinner. They also embrace incremental change, or, as MTA special-project chief William Wheeler puts it, improvements that “can be implemented in the person’s commuting lifetime.” They like countdown clocks and things like the Second Avenue Select Bus service.

These are the same folk who view bicycling as a way to get around—and a practical complement to the MTA–not as a radical environmental statement. Since springtime, 64,718 people who have signed up for an annual Citi Bike membership. Thirty thousand people, many of them young office workers, use Citi Bike every day—and more would use it if there were enough bikes.

To the folk who have embraced new subway cars, countdown clocks, better bus service and bikes, transportation isn’t supposed to be an ordeal—it’s an integral part of quality of life. Plus all of this goes together; one day you may take the train, the next day, the bike. Moreover, bikers need efficient subways and buses to keep cars and trucks from clogging the streets.

But what will happen next?

Despite the massive changes, New York is really in the early phases of this transformation—or should be. To serve all New Yorkers, Citibike should expand up past Central Park and down past downtown Brooklyn as well as into the other three boroughs. Says Adolfo Carrion, who’s running for mayor on the Independence line, people in outer Brooklyn “constantly ask me, ‘why don’t we have the bike program?’” The city also needs fast bus service between boroughs—which means taking lanes away from cars and trucks, like with bike lanes.

But building on the past half-decade requires a mayor who is willing to stand up to special-interest squawkers – whether it’s voters who would rather have idling graffiti-covered trucks double-parked in front of their houses than a nice, quiet, shiny new bike dock, or donors who don’t like the fact that their drivers can’t speed now through Midtown traffic.

We have that in Mayor Bloomberg. As Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, puts it, “you can pester Bloomberg, but you can’t make him do anything”—or not do anything.

Will we have it in the next mayor?

We’ve got one billionaire candidate, but he’s against bike lanes. Supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis said “no” when NY1’s Errol Louis asked him if there “should … be more bike lanes in our city. Primary opponent Joe Lhota said the same—although he later said that he’s open to more bike lanes and other traffic-calming measures as long as they go through a robust public-hearing process first. (Of course, there already is a robust public process, as anyone who went to Citi Bike community meetings can attest. Bike-lane opposition should be an important marker even for voters who don’t ride bicycles. If you oppose a bike lane, you are proposing faster car and truck traffic, with endangers pedestrians.)

The only option, then, may be democracy—e.g. that the next mayor builds on what Bloomberg has done only because enough voters want him to.

There are some positive signs.

First, there’s the general polling data. In a Quinnipiac poll of Democratic primary voters this month, 67 percent said transportation was “extremely important” or “very important” to them. Quinnipiac’s June poll showed that 57 percent of New Yorkers want bike sharing in their neighborhoods—including half of Staten islanders.

Poll after poll shows majority support for bike lanes and other traffic-calming measures. As Noah Budnick, Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, says, this is “the new normal. … No serious candidates is going to run against these things.” Candidates can feel pretty confident that even if lots of people don’t care either way, there’s no huge bloc that’s vociferously against bike lanes. In the Manhattan Institute’s spring poll, only a plurality of Republican voters opposed them.

Second, thanks to social media and other technology improvements, pro-streets groups have a better chance of congealing their voters into a significant group. That’s important, because most New York voters likely won’t rank transit and transportation as their top issue; voters are more worried about crime and jobs.

But in what could be a close race, does any candidate really want to run the risk of pissing off the tens of thousands of voters who do care enough to rule out a candidate based on streets issues? StreetsPAC, a new political-action group, is getting candidates on the record via a questionnaire ahead of making endorsements down to the City Council level.

Transportation Alternatives won’t endorse, but it wants candidates to commit to bring “safe streets to 50 New York City neighborhoods a year”—including more space for pedestrians and cyclists as well as lower car and truck speeds. Social-media and e-mail efforts, including on Election Day, can affect turnout, especially among young voters who are famous for staying home in non-presidential years. And turnout among any motivated, organized group can change the election outcome.

Advocates have done a good job, too, of making sure they don’t confine their efforts to wealthier neighborhoods. Earlier this month, the streets geeks were out in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to inaugurate the poorer neighborhood’s first bike lanes, and are constantly making the point at community meetings that the most dangerous streets for children to cross are outside of core Manhattan.

Smart candidates are already responding to this change—if gingerly. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has proposed a tri-borough rapid bus service among Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, complete with its own lanes (meaning less space for cars). Quinn’s spokesperson also says she’s “open to new bike lanes as long as they go through community engagement process,” which they already do, in part thanks to legislation she passed as speaker.

She’s also committed to “reduc[ing] pedestrian, cyclist and driver fatalities 50 percent by 2021” beyond Bloomberg’s 30 percent reduction. That would necessarily involve slowing cars and trucks—not just through speed cameras, but through better street designs.

Former city comptroller Bill Thompson hasn’t said much yet—but as the Republicans showed in their bike-lane answer, sometimes being quiet is better. (And Anthony Weiner has backtracked from his 2011 promise to rip out the bike lanes.)

The biggest risk to the candidates here may be a negative-image problem. Even a voter who doesn’t care much about this stuff can tell who is irrelevant and out of touch, and who isn’t. As Carrion—who also supports better cross-borough and inter-borough transit—puts it: the “conventional politician” is “on the wrong side of history on this.” Even “the conventions of business attire” are changing “to accommodate this new way of living in cities.”

Original Source:



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