Corey Johnson’s streets master plan is a great first step for a more livable NYC

Corey
Johnson’s streets master plan would bring 250 miles of protected
bike lanes to NYC. | Max
Touhey

But meaningful action on the streets will depend upon the next
mayor

City Council speaker Corey Johnson’s latest victory in his
battle to
break car culture
in New York City arrived with a bang last
week as the City Council
passed his streets safety master plan
by a resounding vote of
35-10.

The legislation directs NYC’s Department of Transportation to
create and follow a five-year transportation master plan that
elevates the safety of all people on the streets while promoting
mass transit and accessibility, and working to reduce vehicle
emissions. As DOT has long prioritized car throughput and capacity
at the expense of nearly every other mode of travel in NYC, this
legislative directive is, for advocates of a more livable New York
City, a very big deal.

“The piecemeal way we plan our streets has made no sense for
far too long, and New Yorkers have paid the price every day stuck
on slow buses or as pedestrians or cyclists on dangerous
streets,” Johnson said in a statement shortly before last
week’s vote. “We need faster buses, safe streets infrastructure
for pedestrians and cyclists, and more pedestrian space. We need to
do everything we can to encourage sustainable modes of
transportation, especially with the realities of climate change
growing more dire every day.”

The new bill should be celebrated as a sea change in agency
philosophy. It takes little more than a glance at the DOT’s
NYC
Bike Map
to see how piecemeal its planning has been over the
past decade. Protected bike lanes disappear at intersections, never
to reemerge on the other side, while conventional bike lanes turn
into shared streets which then turn back into conventional lanes,
all in the span of a few blocks. Deep outside of Manhattan’s
core, east-west connections between north-south bike lane pairs are
non-existent for miles. To the extent DOT has planned a true
network rather than piecemeal upgrades, the agency’s effort has
been focused on facilitating leisure biking rather than commuting
and transit.

Meanwhile, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rhetoric behind the

Vision Zero initiative
, drivers have killed 27 cyclists this
year while pedestrian injuries and fatalities are
up for the second year in a row
. In early October, transit
riders won a protracted battle for
better bus lanes along 14th Street
, but the mayor has not yet
indicated he will pursue
other busways
or bus prioritization efforts elsewhere in the
city (and has yet to ride a bus along the new busway himself).

By all appearances, DOT is an agency in need of a refocused
imperative to plan for urban life, and Johnson’s proposal appears
to deliver on the service. But will it work on its own? Or is it
instead best understood as part of the Council speaker’s long
game, one heavily dependent upon the city’s next mayor?

On its surface, the bill guides DOT in the creation of the
master plan with unifying themes throughout. Through the first
five-year plan, the City Council wants to realize 150 miles of bus
lanes that are either physically separated or camera protected; bus
transit signal prioritization at nearly 5,000 intersections; bus
shelters, benches, and real-time arrival information at 500 stops
per year; 250 miles of protected bike lanes; rethought street
space, including more curbside loading zones, less focus on
preserving free parking, and safer intersections; and an additional
one million square feet of pedestrian space. The second five-year
plan would build on these totals, ensuring pedestrian- and
transit-focused improvements are standard throughout the entire
city.

 Max
Touhey
The 14th Street busway rolled out in October, but the de
Blasio administration has not indicated if similar programs may
roll out elsewhere.

But the legislative history of this bill shows how politicians
can manipulate the City Council’s best intentions. The version of
the bill Johnson first
proposed in May
called upon DOT to produce a master plan by
this October, but when DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg testified
in front of the Council earlier this year, she claimed the deadline
was unrealistic and fulfilling the bill’s mandate would
cost $1.7 billion
. Thus, to garner mayoral support, Johnson
agreed to
delay the delivery
of the initial master plan until December
2021, after New Yorkers elect de Blasio’s successor and when
realizing DOT’s new plan will be someone else’s responsibility
(and, as some politicians may view it, someone else’s
problem).

Running from good ideas because a small minority of New Yorkers
may object has long been a de Blasio hallmark, and he is content to
leave the legacy of his failure to dramatically reshape street
space in New York City in his successor’s hands. That DOT has no
common-sense pedestrian-focused master plan available now is an
indictment of de Blasio; that he punted on the issue until the end
of his tenure allows us to bring a second count against him in this
court of public opinion.

As the chief executive of New York City, the mayor is in charge
of DOT, and although the City Council can set policy through
appropriations and legislative mandates, the mayor is in charge of
implementing that legislation. If the mayor, whether de Blasio or
the person elected to succeed him in 2021, wants to slow-walk
safety, then DOT will oblige.

“Despite the fact that pedestrian, bike and transit projects
are essential to the city’s future as we face the twin crises of
congestion and climate change, it’s easy to imagine a mayor who
sees them as fat that could be trimmed from the city budget in a
time of scarcity,” Doug Gordon, a livable
streets advocate, tells me.

The ultimate problem with the legislation is one of incentives
and enforcement. Reframing DOT’s mission to focus on people
rather than cars is long overdue, but it is, as Trottenberg noted,
a costly proposition. Johnson’s initial legislation doesn’t
include the funding needed to realize the ambitious scope of the
bill, and if DOT fails to achieve these goals, either because city
leaders don’t want them to or because New York’s tireless
NIMBYs object (or both), the City Council can’t exactly toss
Trottenberg or the next DOT commissioner into the Tombs for
non-compliance. Until the Council also bolsters DOT’s budget,
this bill is very much aspirational.

But there’s nothing wrong with aspirational
legislation—particularly legislation that can be a building block
for a decade’s worth of policy. After all, even with funding to
implement the master plan still up in the air, DOT has to create
the plan, and once a plan to achieve Johnson’s goals exists, the
agency can easily move into implementation with the right
leadership push and the right funding. In essence, then, the bill
is a campaign promise from Corey Johnson. He wants to be the next
mayor, and he is using his current office to set an aggressive
agenda that will rethink New York City’s streets and reshape the
streetscape. It’s one a mayoral campaign can build upon and
amplify with ease.

Advocates cheering on Johnson’s plan echoed these thoughts.
“The conversations around this legislation have helped further
the idea that creating a comprehensive network of real bike lanes,
bus lanes, and expanded pedestrian space should be an essential
function of city government, and not extras pushed upon an
unwilling city by pesky advocates,” Gordon says. “The piecemeal
and largely reactive approach taken by the de Blasio administration
over the past six years hasn’t really helped New Yorkers see or
understand how their streets could function better. A master plan
with clear benchmarks could go a long way toward changing that,
even if the fruits of such a plan don’t pay off for years or
hinge on such unpredictable nature of politics, budgets, and other
unforeseen circumstances.”

Ultimately, de Blasio’s decision to punt on pushing for the
master plan right now is disappointing but predictable. But the
City Council has set the stage for the 2021 mayoral race a few
years early, and the next mayor will either take the reins and run
with it or frustrate the badly-needed reshaping of New York City
streets. The fate of Corey Johnson’s master plan will very much
be on the ballot when the de Blasio era draws to an end.

Benjamin Kabak is the editor of Second Ave. Sagas, where he
covers all things transportation in New York City. You can find him
on Twitter via
@2AvSagas
.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Corey Johnson’s streets master plan is a great first step for a more livable NYC