Surface Transportation Council Members Break Ranks To Demand COVID Recovery Plan

Fed up with Mayor de Blasio's inattention, half the panel's members sign an open letter urging action.

The horror. The horror.
The horror. The horror.

They’re fed up with being fobbed off.

Key members of the city’s COVID-19 transportation recovery panel warned Mayor de Blasio on Tuesday that the city is risking a post-pandemic carmageddon if the mayor fails to adopt its urgent recommendations.

Citing “growing funding gaps for public transportation, a rise in fatalities and injuries from traffic violence, and ballooning car ownership,” the group, comprising half of the 24-member Surface Transportation Advisory Council, demanded in an open letter that the mayor “without delay” adopt a plan “to avoid the impending wave of congestion, pollution, inequality, and traffic violence.”

The letter represents the boiling over of frustrations that have mounted for months. Last month, Betsy Plum, the executive director of Riders Alliance and one of the letter’s signers, told NY1 that, after making its recommendations in June, the panel had heard “crickets” The group represents a wide swathe of the city’s transportation community, from private motorists, to cycling advocates, to regional planners and advocates for the disabled, all of whom are united in wanting to avoid seeing the city’s returning traffic get even worse.

“New York City is the only region in the US that is close to being able to reopen, given how diligently we have managed to keep COVID at bay,” one letter signee, Tri-State Transportation Campaign Nick Sifuentes, told Streetsblog. “But we’re going to hamstring ourselves before we even get started if we don’t do something to encourage modes of transportation that aren’t cars. We have 10 million riders on transit every single day. If even a fraction of those riders convert to personal vehicles, New York City — which already sees speeds of 4.9 mph in midtown — will grind to a halt. City Hall really needs to step up its efforts to improve streets; time is of the essence.”

The members are calling for:

  • More bus and transit coordination, including “at least 40 miles of emergency [bus] lanes this summer”
  • A “connected and protected network of bike and bus infrastructure”
  • Policies to curtail “the rise of personal vehicle ownership and use” and encourage “alternative modes of transportation, including taxis, for-hire vehicles, and pooled rides”
  • High-occupancy vehicle restriction for travel into the Manhattan Central Business District
  • New regulations “for flexible use of the curb, whether for customer queuing, taxi and FHV pick-ups and drop-offs, and expand its off-hour delivery program; and
  • The transferring of traffic, parking and placard enforcement to the Department of Transportation from the NYPD.

In truth, however, City Hall lacks the political stomach for many of those goals — especially those that could trigger the ire of car drivers. HOV lanes — which, famously, were used in the CBD after 9/11 — should be a no brainer, but they seem to be going nowhere. Any proposals dealing with the curb — that is, the public space that drivers claim for private car storage — incite apoplexy among this entitled class. Placard, parking and traffic enforcement are all political minefields.

For her part, Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg insisted that, even without a comprehensive plan, the de Blasio administration is accomplishing some of the panel’s goals.

“We have not been idle this summer,” Trottenberg said at a news conference in the Bronx on Tuesday, citing the department’s work on bike lanes, bus lanes, open streets, open restaurants, and  outdoor learning. “Some of that has been underway; but there’s clearly more to go.”

Rachel Weinberger, a Regional Plan Association fellow whose boss, Tom Wright, signed the letter, said that Trottenberg is “operating in a climate where the issues that she’s responsible for aren’t taking the highest priority” and that City Hall could “give more room for DOT to do more things” — such as working on a plan for a network of car-free open streets, “instead of the haphazard individual block setup that the city has.”

“The DOT could have been working just as hard and gotten to a better outcome, but I think they’ve been lacking the space to do that,” she said.

“There’s 10,000 miles of car lanes in New York City,” Weinberger continued. “There’s 1,300 miles of bicycle lanes and only 500 of them are protected. If I had 10,000 miles of bicycle lanes along with my 10,000 miles of automobile lanes, I might see some more different bicycle riding outcomes. We work on this supposition that there’s a natural draw to the automobile. But the reality is these are policy decisions. Does the level of traffic return to pre-COVID levels? That’s a policy decision. There’s no divine or natural phenomenon at play here, it’s how we design the system.”

Weinberger said the mayor’s failure to embrace the recommendations or even acknowledge the panel was especially frustrating.

“This isn’t a bunch of people who came together and said, ‘Let’s advise the city’; this is a group that the mayor put together,” she said.

Besides Sifuentes, Plum, Harris, and Wright, signers were disability transit advocate Quemuel Arroyo; Jaqi Cohen, the campaign director of NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign; John Corlett, the director of public and government affairs for AAA NYS; David R. Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York; Ya-Ting Liu, director of policy for Via; traffic guru “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz; and Jennifer Tausig, co-chair of the NYC BID Association.