Welcome to DOT, Commissioner Gutman — Now Create Better Bus Service, Advocates Say

Will the redesign help this? File photo: Angela Stach
Will the redesign help this? File photo: Angela Stach

They’re already hammering Hank.

New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman
New DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman

New Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman will arrive at his desk today with a hefty report to greet him outlining the de Blasio administration’s failures to provide high-quality service for bus riders — and an urgent call to end the “tale of two cities” transportation system that disproportionately affects people of color.

The report from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, “30 Miles to Go: How Mayor de Blasio can secure a progressive legacy on transportation,” says that 2021 is this mayor’s “last chance to deliver a more equitable, just, and sustainable transportation system for New Yorkers.”

Under Gutman’s direct predecessor, Polly Trottenberg, DOT recognized the need for better bus service with a plan for 20 miles of bus lanes and car-free busways. But the administration didn’t get to that number — which was already three times fewer lane miles than the MTA had requested.

“As often happens under Mayor de Blasio, implementation fell behind the promised pace of bus improvements,” says the report [PDF].

When he announced Gutman’s appointment on Wednesday, de Blasio highlighted that the Gutman DOT would act quickly and “go even farther with the Department of Transportation leading the way as we build a more equitable city.”

Activists from the coalition — which includes TransitCenter, Riders Alliance, the Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign — centered on that point, reminding Gutman that “improving New York City’s slow bus service is a matter of racial equity and economic fairness.”

The average bus commuter earns $28,455 a year (compared to roughly $40,000 for the average subway commuter) and 75 percent of bus riders are people of color, according to the report. It’s worth nothing that a recent poll by Transportation Alternatives showed broad support for helping bus riders, with 56 percent of New Yorkers supporting repurposing parking spaces to create more bus lanes (and that support rises to 66 percent among New Yorkers earning less than $50,000 per year).

As such, the coalition demands:

  • Even more dedicated bus lanes: DOT did end up building about 16 miles of dedicated bus lanes last year, the most ever. Now the coalition wants 30 new lane miles. “Initial bus lane mileage targets are not ambitious enough,” the report states.
  • More on-bus cameras: This is ultimately an MTA issue, but state law now allows the agency to install enforcement cameras on all bus lines, which it must do, the advocate said.
  • More innovative road designs: The DOT created the 14th Street busway in 2019 and a center-running dedicated bus lane on EL Grant Highway in The Bronx last year. Why are those the exception, not the rule? Both Jamaica Avenue and Fordham Road need better bus service. (The report did praise the DOT for exceeded its goal of installing bus signal priority signals, as Streetsblog reported.)

Time is running out. In January, 2019, the mayor announced his better bus initiative that sought to improve bus speeds by 25 percent. By the end of last year, bus speeds were up just 5 percent, from 7.6 miles per hour to 8 miles per hour citywide, the report states.

A roadway that was once a car sewer now treats bus riders to a first-class dedicated lane. Photo: DOT
This is what works: EL Grant Highway in the Bronx. File photo: DOT

“The mayor must vigorously expand and upgrade the bus lane network to achieve a significant citywide improvement for bus riders before he leaves office,” the coalition said. “Without a strong network of bus-priority streets in place as the city recovers, mounting traffic congestion will cost bus riders time, add stress, strain household finances, and limit opportunity.”

Coalition members praised DOT for its prior work last year, during a global pandemic, but placed the issue squarely on the desk of Gutman, an intellectual property lawyer who is not a transportation professional.

“With Henry ‘Hank’ Gutman taking over as the agency’s new commissioner, the city must continue accelerating the rollout of projects that reprioritize our streets for people and public transit over cars, especially during this critical time,” said Liam Blank, policy and communications manager for Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The report’s release was timed to the birthday of Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks, whose battle against an earlier strain of the ongoing injustice towards bus riders informs today’s fight, said Riders Alliance Senior Organizer Jolyse Race.

“Bus riders need our mayor to deliver on his promise to end the tale of two cities and make New York the fairest big city in America,” Race said. “With 30 new miles of bus lanes this year, the mayor can leave City Hall with a progressive legacy of putting riders first on busy New York streets.”

We reached out to DOT before 9 a.m. on Thursday and asked for an interview with Gutman. After publication of this story, we received the following statement from agency spokesman Brian Zumhagen:

We’re proud of the progress we made in 2020 – a year when we installed the most new bus lanes in New York City history, despite a COVID-shortened installation season. We’re grateful for advocates’ feedback and bold thinking, and we look forward to beginning another ambitious installation season as soon as the weather clears up.