‘Open Streets’ Hearing: DOT and NYPD Have No Plan — And Don’t Like the Council’s

This is what a coronavirus-era Council hearing looks like.
This is what a coronavirus-era Council hearing looks like.

There were many good ideas expressed at Friday’s City Council hearing on converting roadways into public space for corona-crammed New Yorkers. Not a single one was presented by the Department of Transportation or the NYPD, however.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and several other members of a restive legislature, were openly frustrated in the testimony and responses from DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and her NYPD counterpart (and, apparently, holder of a veto power), Transportation Bureau Chief Mike Pilecki — and Johnson slammed the officials for not supporting the council proposal, for not having a plan of their own, and for denigrating the community spirit of New Yorkers.

virtual corey johnson 4-24-2020
Corey Johnson, online

“I’m disappointed,” Johnson said as the Transportation Committee took up his and Carlina Rivera’s bill to force Mayor de Blasio to create 75 miles of open streets. “I haven’t heard … the administration’s ideas. What do you have? I thought you’d come in and say, ‘We’ve identified X number of streets where we could do this.’ But no.”

Earlier, Johnson had laid down his challenge to the de Blasio administration in a blistering opening statement.

“Other cities have shown we can do without burdening the police for enforcement,” he said. “We should not use New York’s exceptionalism as an excuse for settling. New York is unique, but I will not accept that cities around the world can overcome challenges that we can’t. New York should be leading. We should not blame New Yorkers for government failure to innovate. One percent of our streets are not too much to ask.”

It was a gripping day in the committee room, featuring dozens of council members and scores of activists and members of the public contributing via Zoom. There was action from the start, so let’s break it down by section:

Who’s in charge here?

Deputy Chief Michael Pilecki.
Deputy Chief Michael Pilecki.

If there was any doubt that the city Department of Transportation has surrendered its authority over street use to the NYPD, it was dispelled at the very start of the hearing when Pilecki was having technical problems with his Zoom hookup.

Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez asked Trottenberg to begin rather than have the world wait for the police to get their wires uncrossed, but she deferred, saying that her comments were coordinated with the NYPD’s testimony, so the police would have to go first.

When he finally did address the matter at hand, Pilecki set a tone that Trottenberg could not recalibrate.

“We have to deploy our resources strategically,” he said, adding that it is “not possible” to “deploy officers to police an area equivalent of three full New York City Marathon routes.”

And he argued that Oakland’s successful experience of barring thru-traffic on miles of residential streets is not applicable to New York, where “pedestrians may be lulled into a false sense of safety by streets that appear to be closed to traffic but are not.” He later said that he trusted most New York drivers, but said that some would move barricades to access off-limits roadways, meaning that “the department would need to place an officer or traffic safety at every intersection.”

“The department stands ready to work with the Council,” he concluded, “in a manner that does not require significant police resources.”

Trottenberg was left with no room to maneuver.

“We ask that the Council recognize the many challenges and competing demands all of us in city government, especially NYPD, are facing,” she said, repeating much of what Pilecki had said.

Parks work fine

The NYPD came under repeated fire for its consistent claim that officers or crossing guards must be placed at every intersection. It is a standard that is not used in any other city during this crisis — and, indeed, is not used by New York City when it wants to create public space.

Last week in Astoria, for example, the NYPD’s 114th Precinct put up sawhorses and blocked Shore Boulevard next to Astoria Park to keep drag racers off the strip. The move came after 311 complaints — and has required no officers to remain anywhere on the .8-mile stretch, now open for socially responsible recreation.

And cars are kept out of Central Park with just a few signs and no officers, as Johnson and Bike New York spokesman Jon Orcutt pointed out.

Yet Pilecki consistently said that any street that is made off limits to cars must be “policed” — and Trottenberg consistently toed that party line. When asked about sawhorses, she responded, “We’ve been talking to PD about the level of confidence we have in putting up a sawhorse and trust drivers not to just run through it.”

Those discussions have led the DOT to conclude that it lacks said confidence — though later Pilecki was later forced to admit that Central Park is working just fine with a sawhorse or two.

“Are you getting reports that cars are violating that?” Johnson asked.

“I am not aware of reports of that nature,” Pilecki said.

Mocking Oakland

Another part of the testimony centered on whether Oakland — which is currently the nation’s leading converter of roadways to open space — is a suitable model for New York. Oakland’s own DOT Director Ryan Russo suggested in an interview with Streetsblog that many parts of the Bay Area plan is directly applicable, but neither Trottenberg nor Pilecki appeared to agree with his on-the-ground assessment.

Trottenberg’s dismissal of Oakland began in her opening statement.

“We examined Oakland’s model and see two cities with different realities and possibilities,” she said, launching into a selective number crunching designed to make Oakland look like a flyspeck on a map rather than one of America’s great cities.

“Our cities are built differently, and our streets see disparate uses,” she said. “New York City is the densest city in the country, with around 27,000 people per square mile citywide, and almost 70,000 people per square mile in Manhattan, compared to 7,000 people per square mile in Oakland. The streets that will be closed in Oakland are typically low-density, single- or multi- family residential streets, where overcrowding is not a major concern.”

Trottenberg failed to point out that many parts of New York City are low-density, single-family areas with densities similar to Oakland, which is the same size of, and has the same population of Staten Island, itself a diverse part of our city.

And Pilecki had no answer when Johnson asked why Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly said that Oakland’s model is inapplicable to New York City because California drivers are apparently so much more polite than New York drivers.

“What is that based on?” Johnson asked.

“I have no data to back that up,” Pilecki said.

The problem for Pilecki and Trottenberg is the mayor’s new party line on Vision Zero in the age of corona. Mayor de Blasio has long touted the need to create protected bike lanes and to put drivers on road diets to slow them down. He understands — at least as expressed in his limited public policy in this area — that the most-vulnerable road users must be kept safe from drivers.

But during the COVID-19 epidemic, de Blasio has subtly shifted his public statements. Yes, he still blame drivers for recklessness and speeding — but then suggests that the pandemic is the wrong time to double-down on protected areas for cyclists and pedestrians because he can’t put a cop on every corner to police the drivers, and he believes he must.

“We have to be careful to make sure that we don’t put people in a situation where they think they are safe from cars and trucks and they turn out not to be,” he said on the Brian Lehrer show on Friday morning — a statement that puts the onus on pedestrians who might be walking on an open street rather than on the drivers who are violating that person’s sense of safety by first entering the roadway and then driving too fast.

The mayor’s talking points were consistently echoed by Trottenberg and Pilecki (whose agency provided the talking points to the mayor in the first place) — and Rivera was appalled.

“I’m disappointed in the lack of trust you place in New Yorkers,” she told Pilecki and Trottenberg. “We can tell when a street is open [for walking]. New Yorkers have significantly changed other behaviors during the crisis.”

Pilecki said he trusts most New Yorkers, but “there are people who will disregard barriers and our concern is that it poses a safety risk.”

Oakland’s DOT Director Russo specifically addressed that concern in his interview with Streetsblog, saying the presence of cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders and other residents in the roadbed does change driver behavior — just as drivers move slower on the city’s existing “shared streets,” which are painted differently and feature specific street architecture to show drivers that this is no longer their space, but shared space.

Johnson wondered if, at the very least, there are lessons to be learned from Oakland and other cities.

“Is New York City so different that we can’t apply any lessons here?” Johnson asked, exasperated.

Trottenberg played the corona card — pointing out that New York’s agencies are dealing with the epicenter of the pandemic, which means entirely upended public need at the same time when thousands of city workers are themselves sick with the virus.

“I don’t believe that, but at the moment we are different from every city in the United States in terms of the severity of the coronavirus,” she said.

So does the mayor have any ideas?

Johnson was clearly frustrated throughout as both the DOT and NYPD officials consistently said they want to “work with” the Council to create more public space, but did not offer any ideas for how it could be accomplished.

“I haven’t seen anything pro-active by you all,” Johnson said. “I haven’t heard, ‘OK, we’re not Oakland or Milan. We’re New York City. But here’s what we can do. … Here’s the data. Here’s where we’ve done this in the past and can start off.” So that’s what I’d like to hear. Not here are the operational concerns. we can work through those. but what are your ideas?”

Trottenberg started her answer suggestions that she had plenty of ideas, but then offered none.

“One idea is looking at models that are not labor intensive [such as] with immovable barricades,” she started, but then dismissed that notion because the NYPD had concerns about “too much re-routing of emergency vehicles” which would require police enforcement.

She offered no other ideas, even ones that had been rejected. Pilecki again said the NYPD could only sign off if the plan was “not labor-intensive.” (Russo in Oakland said his city’s police department is not involved in the “slow streets” project at all after the agency gave some initial consultation.)

“There really is no plan from DOT,” Rivera concluded. “There is nothing presented after all these weeks of the pandeic and weeks after the end of the 1.6-mile [open streets] pilot, which was too small in scope and not implemented in the way it should have been.”

Activists were unimpressed by the Trottenberg and Pilecki show.

“The only thing that makes New York essentially ‘different’ in this context is the mayor’s insistence that we can’t do it here, or can’t do it without thousands of cops,” testified Eric McClure, executive director of StreetsPAC, the political action committee. “Neither of those claims stands up. We close streets all the time for utility work or tree-pruning or block parties with a few cones and a sign or two. Further, there’s just no factual basis to believe that giving people some extra space will cause a rush of unsafe clustering.”

Council Member Carlos Menchaca pointed out that the mayor’s budget cuts have resulted in the termination of the summer youth employment program. If the NYPD needs people to stand on street corners to make sure barriers are put back into place if a local delivery is made, perhaps tens of thousands of out-of-work teens could be hired, he said.

“I don’t know if civilians can be utilized in intersections to direct traffic. I don’t know liability,” Pilecki said. “We can pass that message along to the chain of command…”

And what of the future?

Most of the debate centered on the current crisis, but Orcutt put the conversation in a broader context, arguing that we need to make changes now so that we are better positioned when New York starts to reopen.

“The mayor’s intransigence on this issue [will] put us behind the 8 ball when it comes to gradually reopening the city,” he said.

Orcutt referred to MTA projections showing that subway and bus ridership will be way down for a year after the crisis, as people shun places where they made be crowded — just as they are on sidewalks and in parks right now.

“We know what New York City looks like when people can’t or won’t use the subway, and some try to substitute car travel,” he said. “The weeks after 9-11 saw lines of congested traffic reaching from Manhattan back to the Nassau and Westchester County suburbs. Same in the days following Hurricane Sandy. Even our recent history of worsening congestion as some people abandoned faltering transit for Uber should warn us of what may be coming.”