The 2017 NYC Streetsies, Part 3

Delivery worker Liqiang Liu speaking on the steps of City Hall. Photo: David Meyer
Delivery worker Liqiang Liu speaking on the steps of City Hall. Photo: David Meyer

This is it folks, the final Streetsies installment and the last Streetsblog NYC post of 2017.

We’re going out with a look at the best advocacy and the best elected officials of the year, plus a curated assortment of highs and lows (mostly highs). For the full Streetsies experience, read part one and part two before proceeding, if you haven’t already.

Have a great New Year, Streetsblog readers. We’ll see you back here on Tuesday as we resume our regular publishing schedule.


Activists of the Year

Neighborhood activists fought for and won street safety upgrades and bus improvements across the five boroughs in 2017. It’s impossible to do justice to everyone who volunteered, but the campaigns for safer biking on Midtown avenues, high-capacity car-free “PeopleWays” during the L shutdown, a more multi-modal Grand Concourse, and an impressive array of protected bike lanes in Queens all stand out.

The biggest breakthrough of 2017 belonged to the advocates and researchers at the Biking Public Project, who reframed the narrative around e-bikes and working cyclists in New York.

When Mayor de Blasio said NYPD would expand its e-bike enforcement in 2018, Do Lee, Helen Ho, and Dorothy Le were ready. They had interviewed working cyclists and were well-versed in the labor dynamics of the restaurant delivery business. They knew how essential e-bikes have become to delivery cyclists, and why the mayor’s claims that his initiative wouldn’t harm individual workers didn’t hold up.

Mayor de Blasio listens as Jinhua Li asks about the city's upcoming crackdown on electric bicycles. ViaNYC Mayor's Office/YouTube
Mayor de Blasio listens as Jinhua Li asks about the city’s upcoming crackdown on electric bicycles. ViaNYC Mayor’s Office/YouTube

Many delivery cyclists are undocumented immigrants, which constrains their political influence. But when workers directly confronted de Blasio at public forums, they changed the equation. The mayor can’t claim to provide sanctuary for immigrants when he’s robbing them of their livelihoods and increasing the risk of deportation via e-bike citations. Thanks to the Biking Public Project and the delivery cyclists they work with, the hypocrisy has been exposed.

Elected Officials of the Year

Honorable mention goes to council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Helen Rosenthal for their work calling attention to excessive capital construction costs at the MTA. They accomplished the rare feat of getting the MTA Chair on the record discussing the problem — even if that response was completely inadequate.

In the top spot this year, it’s a tie between Carlos Menchaca and Antonio Reynoso, two council members who set the stage for breakthrough street redesigns in their districts.

Menchaca and Reynoso

Menchaca prodded DOT to rethink its Fourth Avenue reconstruction project. It’s the only major north-south street in western Brooklyn where a high-volume bikeway makes sense, but until Menchaca spoke up last year, DOT wasn’t planning to include any bike infrastructure in an upcoming capital rebuild. His foresight paid dividends in 2017, and DOT is now on the verge of implementing curbside protected bike lanes on a street that served as a hostile traffic speedway just a few years ago.

Reynoso, meanwhile, is the council member making the most forceful case to get cars out of the way of buses and bikes during the L train shutdown. At a candidates forum on the topic, he said that TransAlt’s concept for a car-free PeopleWay on Grand Street in Williamsburg “can be real” and “permanent, if we do it the right way.” (He won a second term handily.) Then at a council hearing earlier this month, he told DOT Grand Street should become a model of future street design. While the city’s plans for Grand have yet to be fleshed out, Reynoso is giving DOT plenty of political space to do something bold.

Best Reporting

Coming in just under the wire, Brian Rosenthal’s investigation of high MTA construction costs, published on the front page of the Times today, is the hard-hitting, meticulously researched exposé transit advocates have been waiting for.

The piece confirmed many of the factors that researchers like Alon Levy have suggested as potential explanations — bloated head counts on work crews, uncompetitive bidding, the revolving door between senior MTA staff and the engineering firms that win nine-figure contracts. Rosenthal’s deeply reported account will be an invaluable reference for advocacy campaigns to wring more productivity out of every dollar spent on transit construction, so improvements can be delivered at the scale New York City desperately needs.

Most Damning Indictment

Disability rights advocates called on Cuomo, Lhota, and the MTA to accelerate efforts to add elevators and improve maintenance of existing ones. Photo: David Meyer
Disability rights advocates called on Cuomo, Lhota, and the MTA to accelerate efforts to add elevators and improve maintenance of existing ones. Photo: David Meyer

TransitCenter’s Access Denied report framed in stark terms how the MTA is falling behind peer agencies on accessibility for people with disabilities. While transit agencies in Boston and Chicago are more than two-thirds of the way to making all of their stations ADA-accessible, the MTA has done so for fewer than a quarter of its stations, and lacks a plan to do anything more than the minimum requirements under federal law.

With Governor Cuomo’s “enhanced station initiative” proceeding to spend tens of millions rehabbing dozens of stations, the absence of stair-free access in the plans sticks out like a sore thumb. The fundamental problem isn’t a lack of expertise or resources — it’s the indifference of the MTA.

The Nerves of Steel Award

What would you do if a guy in the passenger seat of a Cadillac flashed his parking placard, claiming to be a cop, and told you to clear out of the bike lane, or else he’s putting you in cuffs? I’m pretty sure my heart rate would double and I’d get out of the way.

Not Brian Howald, who had the presence of mind to inspect the placard and determine that it did not belong to a law enforcement officer. So he called bullshit. To cap it off, when the car peeled away, he proceeded to hustle on his bike for more than a mile, including an avenue block uphill, so he could catch up to the Cadillac and snap a definitive picture of placard-abusing Marty Golden’s mug.

Worst Public Space Management

Second runner-up: The barricades NYPD put up in response to a Times Square motor rampage, which made part of the Seventh Avenue bike lane unusable.

First runner-up: The concrete barriers that state DOT dropped on the West Side Greenway in response to a fatal motorist rampage. At least they got straightened out after a few days.

Caught between an NYPD fence and moving traffic on Fifth Avenue by Rockefeller Center. Photo: Nicole Gelinas
Caught between an NYPD fence and moving traffic on Fifth Avenue by Rockefeller Center. Photo: Nicole Gelinas

Winner: The clunky NYPD fences and jersey barriers littering Midtown with no explanation. They seem to be a response to the greenway truck attack too, but the only discernible effect is the inconvenience, discomfort, and danger imposed on pedestrians.

Wildest Rollercoaster

In March, Governor Cuomo announced that the Sheridan Expressway would come down, removing a barrier between South Bronx neighborhoods and the Bronx River. It was a thrilling high point for a multi-decade neighborhood advocacy campaign.

Meet the new Sheridan "Boulevard." As envisioned by New York State DOT, it's not much different than today's Sheridan Expressway. Image: State DOT
Meet the new Sheridan “Boulevard.” As envisioned by New York State DOT, it’s not much different than today’s Sheridan Expressway. Image: State DOT

Three months later, the Sheridan project looked like a highway removal in name only. The state DOT’s design for the new surface road wasn’t much narrower than the Sheridan itself, and an imposing new Bruckner Expressway ramp would create a new obstacle along the riverfront. The Sheridan removal should be an occasion for Hunts Point residents to shape the future of their neighborhood, but so far Cuomo’s DOT is still dictating terms.

Biggest Loss

Joe Ricketts’ decision to shutter DNAinfo and Gothamist after reporters voted to unionize deprived New York of excellent neighborhood coverage and impassioned reporting on behalf of cyclists and transit riders.

Lifetime Achievement

Cyclists, led by DOT Assistant Commissioner Ryan Russo, ride over the newly-completed Greenpoint Avenue Bridge bike lanes. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

After 14 years at NYC DOT, Ryan Russo snagged the job of Oakland’s first permanent DOT director. One of the key figures who brought New York’s approach to street engineering into the 21st century, his influence on the bike network, the development of DOT’s low-cost redesign toolkit, and the roll out of Vision Zero initiatives is hard to overstate.

Ryan sat down with Streetsblog to review his eventful career at NYC DOT before he rode off for the West Coast, and the two-part interview is a great insider’s guide to more than a decade of progress at the agency.