They’ve Got Metrocards in Their Pockets, But Transit’s Not on Their Minds

The candidates share a laugh about distracted driving at last night's debate.

In New York — the most walkable city in America, where millions of people ride trains and buses every day — transit and street safety tend to be second- or third-tier issues in mayoral elections. At last night’s Democratic mayoral debate, none of the candidates seemed inclined to change that.

With 90 minutes and seven candidates on stage, opportunities to substantively debate any given issue were limited. Still, one question from Juan Manuel Benítez of NY1 Noticias opened the door to articulate a vision for NYC streets. Benítez asked what the candidates would like their physical imprint on the city to be, specifically citing the addition of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and smoking-free zones under Bloomberg. No one on stage took the opportunity to mention the largest piece of real estate that the mayor of New York directly controls: the city’s streets.

While all the major candidates had the presence of mind to bring a Metrocard with them to claim some straphanging bona fides, no one responded to Benítez with a plan to prioritize transit on NYC streets and give bus riders relief from the city’s grinding congestion. On a day when a violent Midtown cab crash was all over the news, none of the candidates told Benítez they would redesign streets to prevent injuries and deaths.

Instead, the only clues the candidates provided about their views on transportation policy and livable streets came during the “lightning round,” when they were supposed to give yes or no answers.

When asked whether they had ever texted while driving, provoking amused titters from the audience, most of the candidates wore sheepish grins, even before serial Tweeter Anthony Weiner scored the biggest laugh line of the night simply by saying yes. John Liu tried to keep the guffaws coming when he said, “I have, but I’ve never smoked pot.” And that was the closest brush with the issue of traffic violence, which injures tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year, in the whole debate.

What else did we learn from the lightning round? Quinn, de Blasio, and Weiner are the three candidates who don’t want to mandate bike helmets (Liu wants to require them for “city-sponsored programs,” a.k.a. bike-share). All the candidates except for Erick Salgado (who said he’s had a driver for the past 10 months) remembered to carry a Metrocard with them. And the candidates are mostly sticking to their previous positions on congestion pricing, the single most important transit and traffic policy proposal that’s out there.

Here’s what they said when moderator Errol Louis asked if they support it…

Sal Albanese: Yes, I have my own plan, it’s more sophisticated, called the fair tolling plan. I don’t support the Bloomberg measure.

John Liu: I did because it would have provided more outer borough mass transit options.

Christine Quinn: Yes.

Bill Thompson: Not now.

Erick Salgado: Yes.

Bill de Blasio: Did not approve of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal, no.

Anthony Weiner: No.