Thursday’s Transpo Conference: A Call for Reform

While former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa and DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall got most of the attention for their keynote speeches at last week’s transportation policy conference, much of the day’s real intellectual ferment took place in the five separate breakout sessions that convened before lunch. The groups were organized as follows:

The goal of each workshop, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said, was to generate lists of specific short-term and long-term priorities. After lunch, the moderators returned to the stage to present each workshop’s findings.

Interestingly, a few key issues bubbled up in all five groups, regardless of the specific topic:

  • The five groups all expressed a deep and strongly-felt desire for a better quality of life on Manhattan’s sidewalks, streets and non-park public spaces.
  • All called for a greater ability for people on the neighborhood-level to test new ideas on their own streets and share urban design best practices with other civic groups.
  • Each group called for better collaboration within city government and said that there needs to be improvement in the way that city officials work together across agency lines.

That last point emerged as the day’s elephant-in-the-room. Tollerson and Yaro put the question this way: Can city agencies each working "in their own separate silos" nurture the flexible, collaborative processes necessary to create the needed change in New York City’s transportation and public space policy? There were some serious heavy-hitters in the Planning and Policy workshop including Buz Paaswell, Director of CUNY’s Transportation Research Center, and the general feeling in that breakout group was, "No." It is time for the post-Word War II structure of agencies and authorities responsible for New York City’s vast transportation and public space infrastructure to be re-thought and reformed.

After her session on Pedestrians and Sidewalks Sheffer reported, "Many said it was important that communities have more of a role in trying to determine furniture, signage, and width of sidewalks." She also said, "a real concern is that there is not enough coordination on pedestrian and street issues" between city agencies. During the session neighborhood leaders said City Hall downplayed aesthetic priorities that weren’t part of big development projects or well-funded retail districts. Wellington Chan of the Chinatown Partnership summed up the mood when he explained how hard it is to procure resources for something like new street furniture:

"Anything that’s not dull gray concrete is not acceptable to the Department of Transportation. They’ll say, "You have to design in accordance with DOT standards or you’re liable for the cost. So, to put up a nice planter, you need to be a business improvement district or a local development corporation."

Sheffer said that many of the participants in her workshop are ready to take it upon themselves to foster a new proactive culture. They want to design their own principles for managing street vendors, for instance, and to build coalitions among different civic groups. Sheffer’s Pedestrians and Sidewalks group wanted to:

  • Ease the conflict between pedestrians and turning cars.
  • Increase the number of pedestrian ramps throughout Manhattan.
  • Promote exclusive crossing periods for pedestrians at crazy intersections.
  • Seek "better access to the waterfront," with money and staff to promote innovative design and public amenities.

In general, Sheffer said, the group wants to help the city cater to pedestrians’ shifting needs and "enable them to traverse the borough with some degree of pleasantness."

Bruce Schaller’s session on Cars and Buses spent a lot of its time focused on parking. He reported that there was a "division in the group about whether adding parking spaces eases the parking problem or adds more cars." Like Sheffer’s session, Schaller’s yielded a call for smarter government. He said the city should "coordinate agencies" on teams to manage big new developments or zoning changes. If the city does that, he said, experts in transportation and health and planning could evaluate a project’s total impact on neighborhoods.

Schaller’s group called for strong measures to solve Manhattan’s congestion problem:

  • "Selective congestion pricing" via a phasing-in of charges on drivers where traffic "is most acute."
  • This pricing should come with and, perhaps, help to fund more and more frequent bus service.
  • The city should "rationalize" its parking policy to balance the needs of all street users.

Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives, whose group discussed underutilized transportation modes, also called for balance. "There’s just not room enough to walk and bike in Manhattan," he said. His workshop proposed these steps:

  • Extend crosswalk time on busy streets
  • Improve connections between subway stations and bike lanes
  • Improve cyclists’ access to ferries
  • More bike parking outside and in private buildings as well.
  • Tighten enforcement of existing bike lanes and cyclist-protection laws.

White’s group also discussed parking, noting that 15 bikes can fit in the same street space used to store one motor vehicle. The group consensus was that bike parking clogged neighborhoods with big numbers of cyclists like the East Village and Williamsburg would do well to set aside some street space for bike parking, particularly around subway stops.

Those who discussed subway service produced the day’s most tailored suggestions. Activist Gene Russianoff, who heads the Straphangers Campaign for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he had urged his group to "focus on things that could happen or are on the drawing boards." He reported support for the MTA’s plan to install electronic real-time information on the 1, 6 and L lines in the next year. Looking farther ahead, Russianoff’s group also pushed for cross-agency policies to make the subway better serve the streets above it. These would include:

  • Completion of the 2nd Ave subway, ideally with a link to Brooklyn.
  • A "green component across the system," building on the success of the solar panels at the Coney Island-Stilwell Avenue station.
  • Expanding elevator access and other services to people who use wheelchairs.

Participants acknowledged the gap between what New Yorkers really want and what is currently politically popular. Russianoff rated outgoing Governor George Pataki’s pet project, a link from Penn Station to Grand Central, "middle priority" and gave Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to extend the 7 line to 11th Avenue and 34th Street "very low priority." Yet, "at the moment seems most likely to go ahead in the real world," Russianoff said.

How to narrow the gap between the real world and the ideal? That was the focus of Tollerson and Yaro’s panel.  Tollerson’s group called for sensible (i.e., radical) changes to guide future laws and rules. They want to see the City:

  • Prioritize projects through inter-agency collaboration
  • Create 24/7 live-work neighborhoods around transit hubs (without closing streets or building new towers that warp neighborhood scale)
  • Use the zoning code to promote mass-transit oriented strategies.

Sounds like a tall order? For one day, at least, it all felt entirely possible.