For Nearly Two Years, Ex-NYC DOT Chief Has Undercut the Signature Street Safety and Sustainable Transportation Agenda of Her Successor

Tomorrow, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Bert Bunyan is expected to weigh in for the first time on the core arguments brought by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign against the City of New York.

Former DOT commissioner and current CUNY vice chancellor Iris Weinshall.

Ostensibly, the dispute is between the anti-bike lane groups known as “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” (NBBL) and “Seniors for Safety” on the one hand, and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan on the other. But there’s one critical player whose name won’t be on the docket: Iris Weinshall, Sadik-Khan’s predecessor at the Department of Transportation.

Weinshall, the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer and currently the vice chancellor for facilities planning at the City University of New York, has campaigned against the Prospect Park West project for the better part of the past two years. At first attempting to prevent the redesign of PPW, then, once the bike lane was implemented, to discredit the finished product and undermine Sadik-Khan, Weinshall has worked mainly through backchannels and behind the scenes, her methods evading scrutiny.

Publicly, Weinshall has made three prominent statements on the bike lane that runs past the apartment she shares with Schumer on 9 Prospect Park West: a quote to the Daily News indicating her opposition to the project soon after its installation; a December, 2010 quote to the New York Times saying she was concerned “about safety elements of the bike lane and the level of both community input and the data that’s being made available to the community”; and a December, 2010 letter to the New York Times signed alongside Louise Hainline, a dean at Brooklyn College who also lives at 9 PPW, and Norman Steisel, a former deputy mayor under David Dinkins. The letter to the Times identified all three as members of NBBL.

Weinshall’s affiliation with the campaign to wipe out the bike lane has been swept under the rug since NBBL filed suit against the city and Sadik-Khan in March. Gibson Dunn attorney Jim Walden, who is representing NBBL pro bono, told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that Weinshall is “not part of the group” suing the city.

The extent of Weinshall’s involvement in the opposition to the Prospect Park West redesign has become something of a guessing game, with reporters getting few if any answers out of Weinshall herself. But documents obtained by Streetsblog indicate that Weinshall’s activities are, in fact, intimately linked to NBBL’s campaign against the bike lane.

Last summer, Weinshall traded on her contacts at CUNY in an attempt to help members of NBBL discredit the Prospect Park West redesign, and she met with City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca in the run-up to the council’s December 9 hearing on bike policy – an early milestone in a long run of bad publicity for Sadik-Khan and the NYC DOT bike program, which stemmed in large part from opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign and their lawsuit.

Weinshall did not comment to Streetsblog, and the City University of New York has denied all freedom of information requests for Weinshall’s email correspondence related to the Prospect Park West bike lane. This story is based on correspondence obtained from other freedom of information requests and corroboration from other sources.

Before NBBL: Markowitz and Weinshall Urge DOT Not to Build the PPW Bike Lane

After years of community-led workshops grappled with the problems of motor vehicle speeding, sidewalk bike riding, and insufficient bike access to the western side of Prospect Park, the city presented plans for the Prospect Park West redesign to Brooklyn Community Board 6 in April, 2009, and the full board voted to approve the project that June.

The first warning shot from Weinshall came four months later. In a letter dated October 20, Borough President Marty Markowitz urged Sadik-Khan “to shelve this project indefinitely.”

“I am joined in this request by former DOT Commissioner, Iris Weinshall — who absolutely agrees that the installation of a two-way, barricaded bike lane would cause incredible congestion,” Markowitz wrote [PDF].

Well before NBBL and its offshoot “Seniors for Safety” formed, before Jim Walden became a sought-after source for quotes about what makes streets safe, Weinshall was quietly staking out her position and broadcasting it to her successor: The Prospect Park West bike lane would lead to intolerable traffic back-ups.

As Part of Campaign to Erase the Bike Lane in Front of Their Homes, CUNY Vice Chancellor and CUNY Dean Asked for Help From CUNY Professor and His Students

NBBL coalesced the summer after the bike lane was installed, in 2010. From the outset of the group’s formation, Weinshall has helped NBBL carry out its agenda.

In one episode last summer, Weinshall and Hainline used their CUNY connections in an attempt to undercut DOT. They convinced City College transportation professor Robert “Buzz” Paaswell to help steer them to pro bono transportation engineering assistance, with the intent of commissioning a traffic study of the Prospect Park West redesign. They also tried to enlist Paaswell’s students in their efforts, hoping to use them to collect traffic data. NBBL was ultimately unable to obtain a consultant to perform such a study. (Bike lane opponents eventually followed through on the idea of compiling a dataset to cast doubt on DOT’s statistics. They later used their own bike counts, taken near the northern tip of the Prospect Park West bike lane, to create the false impression that DOT had inflated bike counts the agency presented to the public, which were taken at the more heavily-traveled center of the corridor.)

The bike lane opponents began to search for a traffic engineer to help them in late June, according to correspondence obtained from Markowitz’s office. In a message dated June 29 [PDF], Hainline typed up and e-mailed out notes from a recent NBBL meeting to 22 of her allies, including Weinshall’s daughter — Yale Law School graduate Jessica Schumer — and three staff members at the Brooklyn Borough President’s office: “Louise will work with Iris to find a transportation consultant for this project, keeping mind at the moment we have no financial resources — just our brain trust.”

Hainline and Weinshall put that brain trust to work in the following month. By August 3, Hainline was able to announce to the group that she had made contact with Paaswell and that he had offered to help them. “We may or may not get some pro bono help, but Paawell [sic] thought he could steer us some, even if he can’t help us overtly,” Hainline wrote in the e-mail [PDF]. The “help” they discussed, Hainline continued, included “objective data collected by people who know how to do this (like some of his students), on counts of pedestrians, bikers, cars, etc.”

Hainline wrote that Paaswell then referred her to Sam Schwartz Engineering. Schwartz told Streetsblog that Paaswell reached out to him and set up a phone call with him and Hainline, though Schwartz did not take the job.

In a phone call with Streetsblog, Paaswell confirmed that the conversation with Hainline took place, including the discussion of using his students to collect traffic data, and said that it was arranged by Weinshall. He said he decided not to help Weinshall and Hainline further because “I didn’t have the time right then.”

Hainline has not returned repeated requests for comment.

Weinshall Contacts Council Member James Vacca Leading Up to December’s Bike Hearing

On December 9, the City Council Transportation Committee convened a hearing on NYC DOT’s bike policy. After Sadik-Khan went through a battery of questions, mainly from council members expressing varying degrees of hostility to cyclists and bike infrastructure, committee chair James Vacca gave the floor first to Steisel; then to Lois Carswell, the lead representative of the anti-bike lane group “Seniors for Safety”; then to Carol Linn, an active member of NBBL; then to Markowitz. The four bike lane opponents testified before any pro-bike speakers, and some exceeded the two-minute allotment for public testimony. Steisel clocked in at sixteen minutes, according to people in attendance.

The hearing led to a cycle of news coverage the next day portraying the city’s bike program as a source of controversy and dispute, as well as a lot of media time for characteristically buffoonish bike lane mockery from Markowitz.

Weinshall did not make an appearance at the hearing, but correspondence from Vacca’s office indicates that she contacted him on multiple occasions in the weeks leading up to the event.

On October 29, Vacca directed his legislative policy analyst via email to set up a meeting with Weinshall and Steisel [PDF]. The following month is also when Weinshall and Steisel met with City Council Members Brad Lander and Steve Levin, whose districts include segments of Prospect Park West, to voice displeasure with the bike lane and lobby for its removal, according to the New York Times. At the time we went to press, Vacca’s office had not returned a request to confirm when the meeting with Weinshall and Steisel took place.

As the hearing approached, Weinshall attempted to contact Vacca several times. She called his legislative office on November 22 [PDF], then placed calls to his legislative and district offices on December 2 [PDF] and 3 [PDF 1, 2, 3], the week before the hearing, according to staff e-mails obtained from Vacca’s office via a freedom of information request. Vacca apparently returned the call sometime before the evening of December 4 [PDF].

The day after the hearing, Vacca received a thank you e-mail from Steisel [PDF], copied to Weinshall. The message begins, “on behalf of my associates and myself, I want to thank you for affording us an opportunity to present our concerns about the current configuration of the bike lane on Prospect Park West.”

Vacca also apparently scheduled a meeting with Weinshall and Council Member Steve Levin after the New Year, based on an invitation confirmed via email on January 6 [PDF].

Vacca spokesperson Bret Collazzi sent the following response when Streetsblog asked to speak to the council member about the documents we received from his office:

As a matter of policy, Council Member Vacca does not discuss private conversations. That said, based on your prior coverage of our December 9th hearing, I feel the need to once again reiterate that the Council Member convened a hearing on bicycling in New York City because it is a topic of great importance to New Yorkers, not because of discussions with any individual or group.

The NBBL + Weinshall Effect

Tomorrow’s hearing at Brooklyn Supreme Court could mark the end of the NBBL lawsuit. Or it might lead to another round of waiting, pending a decision from Judge Bunyan. Regardless of the outcome, the Prospect Park West bike lane opponents have already affected the shape of New York’s streets, if not the one in their own front yards. By inserting cherry-picked numerical arguments and false claims about the public process that preceded the PPW project into their lawsuit accusing NYC DOT of acting in bad faith — accusations that have been picked up repeatedly in the press despite the ease with which they are rebutted — they have made it much harder for the city to roll out street redesigns that are proven to encourage bicycling, prevent injuries, and save lives.

In community board meetings to discuss bike lanes in southern Brooklyn, people who vote on street design projects can be overheard sneering dismissively at statistics documenting the safety effect of projects like the Prospect Park West bike lane. The NYC DOT bike program, which had expanded the network of bike lanes at a clip of 50 miles per year since 2007, has drastically slowed, with only a handful of projects on the construction calendar for 2011. Bike projects that had already won community board votes in favor have been scaled back.

Iris Weinshall probably won’t go anywhere near Brooklyn Supreme Court tomorrow. She will keep her distance from any press covering the lawsuit that she is ostensibly not a party to. But the story of the lawsuit can’t be told separately from the story of Weinshall’s campaign to eradicate the Prospect Park West bike lane.