CM Brewer: ‘I’ll Hold DOT Accountable on Promises and Data’

There have not been enough of these this year, DOT data show — and Council Member Gale Brewer may look into it. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
There have not been enough of these this year, DOT data show — and Council Member Gale Brewer may look into it. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The chair of the Council’s oversight committee will consider investigating the Department of Transportation for claiming it has made significant street safety improvements, yet failing to provide evidence in a timely fashion.

Self-professed “data nerd” Council Member Gale Brewer told Streetsblog last week that she “love[s] the idea” of using her committee’s investigatory power to explore whether the Adams administration has indeed redesigned 750 of the promised 1,000 intersections — as Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez said last week — or whether it done fewer than that, as the agency’s own public data shows.

“The first thing we would do,” Brewer said of her Oversight and Investigations committee, “is use the investigators we have, which is fantastic, because other [committees] have legislative staff who are wonderful, but they don’t go out and investigate. After that, we would have an oversight hearing based on the investigation.”

When asked if that’s something she would like to do, Brewer said, “Yes, absolutely.”

Intersections are not the only issue that may fall under Brewer’s investigative gaze. This year, the city is under a legal mandate to build 20 miles of dedicated bus lanes and 30 miles of protected bike lanes. A tracker from Riders Alliance shows that only 5.4 miles of bus lanes have been created, and one from Transportation Alternatives shows that only 7.2 miles of protected bike lanes have been laid down. (DOT has said, on background, that more miles have been created, but that the agency’s public data has not been updated.)

At issue for Brewer and street safety advocates is simply that the Department of Transportation claims it has made good on many promises, yet failed to document whether it really has. For example, in late July, Rodriguez said that the agency had completed “more than half” of the 1,000 redesigned intersections promised in January by Mayor Adams — but Streetsblog reported nearly three months later that fewer than 400 had been completed. That story was based on the agency’s public data.

Nonetheless, on Sept. 29, Rodriguez said that DOT had now finished 750 intersections. When asked for a list of the intersections, and what has been done at each one of them, the DOT press office could not corroborate Rodriguez’s information, saying (again on background) it is working to collect the data that will show Rodriguez was offering accurate information.

An independent review of the DOT data says he was not.

The tracker shows that days after Streetsblog’s story, the DOT updated some of its public data feeds to show that it has done 665 intersections, though the vast majority — 79 percent — involve retiming the signals to allow pedestrians to get a head start before drivers, a configuration called a “leading pedestrian interval” which heightens safety but does not involve any physical infrastructure.

In addition:

  • Only nine of 100 promised raised crosswalks have been installed.
  • Only 14 of the 665 intersections were previously named as “Vision Zero” priorities.
  • Only 65 bike corrals have been installed this year — and only a small number of them at intersections, which is far short of Adams’s promise of daylighting 100 intersections with bike corrals this year.
  • Only 123 intersections, up from zero documented when Streetsblog did its story in mid-September, got some actual physical upgrade to calm turning, according to the DOT’s current data. (But getting to the heart of Brewer’s concern, the city’s open data portal for turn calming improvements still shows as blank; the raw data is downloadable, yet not sortable. As such, it is difficult to discern what improvements were made this year as opposed to over the past six years.)

As such, advocates are calling for more and better changes — and full documentation of same.

“Traffic fatalities are nearly at least year’s Vision Zero record and that’s why completing intersection overalls is so important,” said Cory Epstein, the spokesman for Transportation Alternatives. “There has been a lot of progress [with the LPIs], but we would always encourage the administration to use permanent, physical redesigns to make streets as safe as possible.”

A blank data page provided by DOT.
A blank data page provided by DOT.

The information available in the city’s open data feed includes separate databases for raised crosswalks, leading pedestrian intervals, bike parking, turn calming (that one that still shows as blank unless a user knows how to download and sort the data), and traffic signal requests. (The city also keeps a street improvement project page, but it only had seven improvements that were not in the other databases and are similarly difficult for a layman to filter. The city does not have a database for other safety improvements, such as pedestrian-only signal phases, sometimes known as “Barnes dances.”)

The potential for an oversight investigation comes as DOT has started addressing the staffing shortages were hindering projects — according to interviews with more than a dozen past and current agency employees.

At the Sept. 29 press conference, Rodriguez praised new employees such as his just-hired chief of staff Ryan Lynch, formerly the mayor’s deputy chief of staff; and a new acting intergovernmental affairs official, Ricardo Rodriguez — two vital positions that had frequently been vacant this year. Rodriguez downplayed the importance of the staff turnover cited in the Streetsblog report.

“You know when you have an agency with 6,000 men and women, there’s always going to be a turnover of people and people move from one agency to another or leave for personal reasons,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been participating in some conversation with leaders across the nation. New York City is a role model. No one other city has done the job that we have done. This is what we will continue doing under the leadership of Mayor Adams and myself. And we’ll continue working toward the goals that we announced on the first day.”

He accused Streetsblog of “trying to politicize” the story of whether the Adams administration will meet its promises and legal requirements as the weather turns colder and the end of the painting season approaches. He also said our story was inaccurate because “our team at DOT shared with you the numbers that we have done three-quarters of the goal to do 1,000 intersections” (the press office has not, in fact, shared such numbers).

He did say he appreciates “the great job Streetsblog and advocates do because we are in the boat together.”

“We are committed to continuing redesigning the intersections,” he added. “We are on target when it comes to the intersections. We will continue working toward our ambitious goal on buses and the bike lane. We will continue sharing with you with more details. Thank you.”

The DOT declined to comment on Gale Brewer’s interest in those details.

Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, who has a role in this discussion as chairperson of the Council’s Transportation Committee, declined repeated requests to comment for this story.

Road deaths are high by the standards of the Vision Zero era, which began in 2014:

reconciled numbers through 10-3-22
Chart: DOT