Trottenberg: 14th Street ‘Will Be a Template’

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in discussion with Times reporter Winnie Hu. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in discussion with Times reporter Winnie Hu. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Stay tuned.

New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg took a victory lap regarding the initial success of the 14th Street busway on Thursday, telling attendees at a major conference that the successful experiment would “be a template for other parts of the city.”

“We felt pretty confident that the traffic would not be so bad on the side streets … and that [the car-free zone between Third and Ninth avenues] would transform 14th Street,” Trottenberg said at Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities conference on Thursday at Columbia University.

“The results have been even more exciting than we thought, and it’s lifted our spirits to see the positive response, not just that the buses are moving faster, but the street feels calmer,” Trottenberg added as part of her Q&A with New York Times reporter Winnie Hu. “And that the traffic on the side street hasn’t turned into the apocalyptic hellscape that critics predicted.

Winnie Hu's coverage has focused on the city's efforts to rein in cars — without acknowledging their outsized impact.
Winnie Hu’s coverage has focused on the city’s efforts to rein in cars — without acknowledging their outsized impact.

“Where might we go next? Stay tuned,” Trottenberg said. “We’re thinking about that next. People’s worst fears did not come to pass and I hope it’ll be a template for other parts of the city.”

Hu, whose coverage of the busway had been largely skeptical before its debut last week, revealed that she now sees the benefits, bringing in some personal information that she had denied her readers.

“My daughter goes to school in Union Square,” she said. “We actually took that bus. It was terrible. And now that it’s running the way it is, it is a way for us to get around.”

She sounded surprised.

In other exchanges, Hu’s bias towards drivers came through. At one point, she asked Trottenberg about what the “role of cars” will be in the future, given the city’s slow-moving effort to prioritize bikes, buses and pedestrians — and the rollout of congestion pricing in 2021.

Trottenberg did not accept the frame of the question as a war on cars — a term Hu has used in her reporting. Trottenberg called for “massive” investment in public transit so that drivers have a greater incentive to stop using their cars.

“Are you looking for fewer cars on the road?” Hu asked. The question again suggested that a transportation commissioner — in 2019, in a city that may someday be under water due to climate change, but which is already a congested, snarled mess — actually has a choice.

Again, Trottenberg said her ability to reduce car use depends on “enormous” investments in public transit, as London and Stockholm did before those cities instituted congestion pricing.

“It’s not clear how much ability [the MTA] will have to add capacity before congestion pricing takes effect,” she said. “On the DOT side, we are adding bus lane capacity, bike lane capacity and pedestrian space. And you see the result: People are now saying, ‘The buses are working so well on 14th Street. Why can’t we have more buses on 14th Street?’ For that, we need the MTA [to buy more buses]. We need both sides of the equation.”

Later, at the same conference, Council Speaker Corey Johnson admitted that he had been a skeptic of the busway, but has already been convinced.

“The idea of restricting cars … endured fierce opposition and a healthy dose of skepticism — and I was skeptical at certain points,” he said. “But I am thrilled to say that this pilot is really taking off. Buses are moving ahead of schedule and the side streets are not overrun with cars. I live on 15th Street! People are calling this, ‘Miracle on 14th Street.'”

He called for more such miracles.

“They happen when we make smart decisions about the limited space we have,” he said. “We have given way too much of our streetscape to cars.”

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