DOT Capstone Report Looks Back, Offers Advice to Next Administration

Yesterday, DOT released “Sustainable Streets: 2013 and Beyond,” a 212-page report and accompanying website outlining the department’s achievements over the past six years and providing guidance for the next administration. Last night, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was joined by a panel of council members and New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson for a discussion of the document and the future of sustainable streets in New York.

DOT's new report looks back on its progress -- and leaves a blueprint for the next administration.
DOT’s new report looks back on its progress — and leaves a blueprint for the next administration. Image: DOT

“That certainly wasn’t the norm on city streets,” Sadik-Khan said in front of slides showing projects like the Madison Square plazas, the Prospect Park West bike lane, and Select Bus Service. Sadik-Khan pointed to the department’s 2008 Sustainable Streets strategic plan as the start of the transformation, followed by annual progress updates in the form of the Sustainable Streets Index. Last night’s release marked the capstone to six years of work, she said.

Just six years ago, the only yardstick by which the public could regularly assess the DOT was a few pages within the annual Mayor’s Management Report. It showed how many potholes DOT filled and how quickly the agency replied to service requests, but it didn’t offer a clear picture of the agency’s strategic goals and the measures it was using to track progress. Maybe because, at the time, the agency hadn’t articulated any strategic plan.

How times have changed. DOT now produces a bevy of reports to keep people informed about what the agency is doing and how the city’s streets are performing. Metrics like safety are now measured and tracked much more intensely and publicly.

The mammoth new report is divided into six sections, focusing on safety, mobility, world class streets, infrastructure, and resiliency. Each section includes a look back at how projects big and small have not just transformed the look and feel of New York City’s streetscape, but also changed travel behavior and measurably affected everything from crash rates to bus ridership and retail sales.

Each section also provides a series of recommendations for the future if the city is going to continue to meet its goals. The recommendations include things outside the agency’s direct control, like encouraging the state to give the city local control of automated enforcement, and things the agency did not do under Sadik-Khan, like aggressive expansion of physically-separated bus lanes. The report specifically mentions the pedestrian-heavy area around Penn Station, where DOT watered down its original busway plan in the face of opposition, as a candidate for car-free streets and dedicated transit lanes in the future.

During the panel after Sadik-Khan’s remarks, Council Member Brad Lander seconded the future focus on busways. “The next mayor can’t be the bike mayor. That’s taken,” he said. “The beginnings of BRT are wonderful, but we need a really robust citywide BRT network.”

The report notes that congestion pricing, in some form, will have to be discussed due to dwindling city, state, and federal resources. “You can’t have post-traumatic stress disorder about the loss of congestion pricing forever,” Lander said. “Some day we’ll have to have congestion pricing in New York City.”

The report also calls for the expansion of car-free spaces, including expansion of Weekend Walks and Summer Streets events, as well as a year-round pilot of car-free loops in Central Park and Prospect Park. It calls out Lower Manhattan as “a strong candidate” for large-scale pedestrianization or shared streets with slow-speed, limited vehicular access.

Livable streets have often required heavy political lifting. Calling herself Sadik-Khan’s “body armor in the City Council,” Manhattan Borough President-elect Gale Brewer acknowledged that removing or properly pricing parking can be a challenge because elected officials respond to often-loud constituencies who fight for free or cheap parking. “It’s one thing for commercial [areas] but for God’s sake, don’t make the parking on the side streets cost a penny,” she said.

Danny Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights on the City Council, said the city must support plazas in low-income communities and not rely solely on existing neighborhood partners. “The infrastructure within these immigrant communities is not always there the way it is in other parts of the city,” he said. “It’s an environmental justice and an economic justice issue.”

Later in the program, Sadik-Khan said DOT will announce on Tuesday new support for public plaza maintenance in low-income communities, through a neighborhood plaza partnership program. “The approach to public space can’t be: Only public space in areas that can afford it,” she said.

During her remarks, Sadik-Khan began listing the names of DOT staff and thanking them for their work. “I know it sounds a little bit like the Academy Awards,” she said, before coming to a final name. “It’s been a pleasure to work for Mayor  Bloomberg,” she said. “He always had our back in some fairly difficult fire.”

The final audience question of the evening concerned the prospects of livable streets in the de Blasio administration. Lander, who endorsed de Blasio in August, was the first to answer. “He’s traveled a long way on these issues, and I think that’s great,” he said. “People in this room shouldn’t feel anxious about that.”

“Some of us were right the first time,” Brewer shot back, to laughter from the audience.