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How Will the Next Mayor of New York Deal With Transit and Traffic?

America’s largest city has a transit system under stress, and an ongoing battle between cars, bikes and pedestrians for control of the streets. Yet mayoral candidates are saying little about the transportation problems.

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The Bx12 SBS select bus service is New York City’s second most popular bus route. It ties the northern tip of Manhattan to the Bronx, carrying riders along the bustling Fordham Road commercial corridor past the Botanical Garden and on to the imposing towers of Co-Op City.

In 2008, Michael Bloomberg’s administration made this the city’s first Select Bus Service, giving the route its own dedicated lane, cutting the number of stops and allowing riders to board without a ticket check. These reforms made the trip faster and more efficient for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who ride it every day. Since then, 16 more select service bus lanes have sprouted across the city, a model that transit advocates champion as the future of transit in New York.

However, on an oppressively hot day in early June, New York City’s premier select bus service is standing room only and crawling through traffic. Unlike actual bus rapid transit service, a common form of transportation in Latin American and Asian nations, the Bx12 does not have a lane that is physically separated from traffic. In its Manhattan stretch, it doesn’t even have a painted lane.

A quarter of an hour after leaving its first stop at 207 Street, this exemplar of New York’s transit future hasn’t even arrived in the Bronx yet.

“This is pretty bad service,” says Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director with The Riders Alliance. “We’re going under four miles an hour. There are 150 people on here, and they should be able to expect a lot better.”

As a long and tortured Democratic primary for the mayoralty nears its end, transportation issues have taken a back seat to almost everything else. In televised debates it is brought up only in the context of crime. At mayoral forums like the one held at the 92nd Street YMCA, none of the questions are about the future of commuting, the highly contested streetscape or traffic safety.

The lack of focus on transportation may simply reflect the fact that in this one area the candidates almost uniformly agree with each other. There is no sign of the 2013 “bikelash,” where some Democratic candidates threatened to tear out protected bike lanes. No one is calling for the de-pedestrianization of Times Square, as Bill de Blasio wanted to do. Congestion pricing is a fait accompli. All the candidates support more bus ways, with more freedom from traffic than the Bx12 SBS line. The proliferation of on-street dining has undercut the arguments of parking preservationists.

“There is a remarkable consensus on what we need to do for our streets,” says Pearlstein. “When Anthony Weiner was running for mayor he told Bloomberg ‘when I’m elected, I’ll rip out all the fucking bike lanes.’ No one's saying anything remotely like that now about bike lanes, bus lanes, open streets or sidewalk restaurants. The question is how far they will take it.”

Bikers riding in bike lanes in New York. This year's primary shows no sign of the 2013 “bikelash,” where some Democratic candidates threatened to tear out protected bike lanes.

The Transportation Stakes

New York is a subway city. The mayor does not have direct control over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the inner-city trains and a chunk of the commuter rail lines. But even with the city’s most iconic mode of transit out of the candidates’ grasp, the transportation stakes of the election are still extraordinarily high.

While the mayor does not control what’s underground, they wield almost total power over the streets. The next occupant of Gracie Mansion will have the power to make the Bx12 SBS run faster, create 16 more select bus routes, add miles of protected bike lanes and make the city safer for pedestrians.

That will not be a small task. As New York emerges from the pandemic, the city’s streets are more contested than ever. The restaurants that have scrambled for space on the streets and sidewalks will have to fight to retain their newfound freedoms. Vehicle ownership surged in 2020, and so did parking wars and traffic fatalities. New Yorkers still lost more hours to traffic congestion than any other city in America. The future of commuting is in doubt, which could augur still more cars on the road and fewer fares to keep the subways running.

Then there is the looming question of climate change in a city that prides itself on its low carbon emissions, but where passenger cars are still the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas in the transportation sector.

“We are sitting here on what feels like an August day in early June,” says Jonathan Orcutt, who served as policy director for the city’s Department of Transportation under Bloomberg and at the beginning of de Blasio’s term.

“This stuff is all connected, and we have to do something about it,” says Orcutt, now director of advocacy for Bike New York. “The potential is fantastic in terms of thinking about open streets, thinking about street safety, creating a climate friendly template for American cities. If New York does it, everybody else will do it.”

Transportation Policy Under De Blasio

Transportation policy hasn’t been inert these past eight years. While de Blasio’s administration will not be remembered for its transportation choices, he has delivered real changes.

In 2018, the city’s Department of Transportation announced that with 83.1 miles of protected bike lanes installed since de Blasio took office, it had tripled the amount of bike safety infrastructure since Bloomberg’s day. Four busways were created, where streets were closed to private cars to allow faster bus speeds, including on 14th Street in Manhattan and in Flushing, Queens. The bike share program, Citi Bike, grew to be the largest system of its kind outside China. The administration also committed substantial resources to Vision Zero, a campaign to eliminate traffic deaths in the city. The number of roadway deaths did fall substantially between 2014 and 2019, although the annual total never fell below 200.

The pandemic accelerated some of these trends and halted others. As traffic at first vanished from the streets, and it became clear that outdoor interactions were safe, 83 miles of streets were made car free. A record number of bus lanes were installed (16.3 miles), and another record of 28.6 protected bike lanes were built. On the other hand, traffic fatalities rose despite a sharp decrease in the number of vehicle miles travelled throughout the city, likely because higher driving speeds make interactions more dangerous for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike.

But these accomplishments have been persistently critiqued by transportation advocates. Bus lanes were not physically separated from traffic, so drivers could idle in these spaces with little fear of repercussion. The de Blasio administration installed more protected bike lanes, but the defenses they offered cyclists were often flimsy plastic bollards.

“They [de Blasio’s team] did put in some more protected bike lanes, but they’re still too patchy,” says Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Your average middle-aged woman is not going to see them as safe enough to go out and ride her bike in yet.”

Even some of the most notable achievements of recent years are the product of city council leadership, not de Blasio’s priorities. An ambitious street safety master plan, requiring 150 miles of separated busways and 250 miles of protected bike lanes, was masterminded by City Council President Corey Johnson. The mayor only signed it after the implementation date was pushed back until after his term ended.

The open streets legislation during the pandemic was similarly spearheaded by Johnson, with de Blasio’s eventual reluctant acceptance.

“We wouldn’t be sitting here right now if council hadn’t forced this to happen, threatening to legislate over the mayor’s head,” says Orcutt while sitting in a white plywood bunker, lined with flowers, which offers a restaurant four tables in a single parking space.

“If the mayor wants to be, the mayor is virtually omnipotent in New York City in terms of sanitation, trash, water or the streets,” says Orcutt. “It's an incredibly powerful position. But de Blasio has not approached it that way. Thank God for the City Council, we've got great people there who stepped into the policy vacuum.”

How Much Power Will the New Mayor Allow NIMBYs to Have?

In 2013, the Democratic primary felt like a campaign to see which candidate was ideologically least like Michael Bloomberg. Eight years after de Blasio won that contest, the politicians competing to succeed him are trying to prove that they broadly share his politics but would be better at implementing them.

If de Blasio hasn’t acted like he has near total control over the streets, that’s partly because he pitched himself as an antidote to the imperial mayoralty of Bloomberg. He promised to engage with neighborhood groups, and not act over their heads.

But the community organizations the mayor, and other politicians, are most likely to hear from are not necessarily representative of the community. A recent study of dozens of neighborhood meetings in Massachusetts found that attendees are whiter, wealthier and more likely to own property than the average city resident. Those disparities held no matter the demographics of the surrounding area. Attendees were also overwhelmingly opposed to change, with 62 percent speaking in opposition to the proposals brought before them.

In New York City, the picture is further complicated by the 59 community boards — neighborhood groups that are appointed by local councilmembers and borough presidents to represent their corners of the city. Although they have no official power, the Department of Transportation must alert them to proposed changes to the streetscape, which they often oppose. Streetsblog New York reported that one Manhattan board leader argued against adding a protected bike lane by disputing census data showing that 80 percent of neighborhood residents did not own cars.

“There's kind of a universal critique of de Blasio that he's weak,” says Pearlstein, “that there were plenty of things he could have done that he didn't do. Whether or not that's true, it's meant that candidates pretty much across the board have said they're going to get tougher.”

For the 2021 candidates, the question is to what degree they would be willing to sideline hyper-local community concerns for what transit advocates say is the greater good. The responses among the front-runners are mixed. Eric Adams is the longtime Brooklyn borough president who has been supportive of these neighborhood-level institutions. Poll leaders Kathryn Garcia and Maya Wiley have both pitched themselves as being unwilling to give community groups veto power over amenities and safe streets for the whole city.

Andrew Yang, meanwhile, promised to revisit the busway that the de Blasio administration established in Flushing, Queens, because local business leaders have rallied against the project due to its effects on parking. (One councilmember denounced the idea by chanting, “business lives matter!”, at a press conference for the busway.)

“You have a project that is speeding the commutes for 150,000 people a day, and then you have a handful of people who had to change their driving routine or find new parking,” says Pearlstein. “Those people don't count more just because they're louder. The mayor has to understand that NIMBYs are better resourced than the average person who would benefit from most of the things they oppose.”

New York is a subway city. But the mayor does not have direct control over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the inner-city trains and a chunk of the commuter rail lines.

The Inertial Force of Automotive Interests

Yang’s flip-flop on the Flushing busway, after speaking in favor of the idea previously, illustrates the fears of transit advocates. They don’t worry about an aggressive policy shift away from their proposals. There is no organized drivers group pushing against bike lanes or for more parking garages. There is no Democratic candidate who promises to fight for the rights of car owners.

“There's nothing as contested as the street and the curb space in New York, and the pandemic has made it more so,” says Mitchell Moss, professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University. “But especially in a Democratic primary dominated by very liberal forces, the automobile culture is not a well-articulated, forceful part in this campaign.”

The danger instead is that the next mayor will have a million other priorities in a city where the recovery from the pandemic, battles over policing and the affordable housing quagmire are likely to dominate the policy conversation. Will they simply deprioritize the streets and listen to the loudest voices in the room?

The best-case scenario may be that the mayor simply delegates streets issues to a skilled deputy and gets out of the way. That’s essentially what happened during the Bloomberg administration. After all, billionaires are not known for their interest in public transit. But in his second term, Bloomberg gave a world-renowned transportation policy expert control of transportation policy.

For Pearlstein, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the city’s first rapid bus route, the lesson of the last eight years is that pressure cannot let up on the city’s political class, no matter how friendly to riders’ interests they seem. In a society where automobile ownership is the norm, the elites drive even in the one American city where the car is not king. Mayors are busy, distractible and likely to go with what they know — and the political class and their donors are not riding the bus.

“No matter who it is, and how committed they are to these principles, their agenda is going to be incredibly crowded, and there's going to be a lot of people and conflicting concerns rising to their attention,” says Pearlstein. “I don’t think there’s any naivety among advocates that once the primary is over, that our job will be done.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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