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The Jury Is Still Out on NYC Mayor Eric Adams’ Street Policies

New York City’s newest mayor has made several key moves to speed up bus service and open lanes to more bicycles. But transit advocates are asking for bolder policies while reckless driving becomes a serious problem.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
(Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Eric Adams had a busy 2021. He won the Democratic primary for New York City mayor, and the general election, but also found time to attend club openings and dine with celebrities across the metropolis. He was a living, breathing advertisement for the 24-hour possibilities of the Big Apple.

But while he indulged in the most expansive campaign of glad-handing New York has ever seen, Adams also attended the ribbon cutting for a state-of-the-art bike parking facility by the company Oonee.

“This movement is growing at a pace that is unbelievable,” he told the assembled crowd, in a stem-winding speech republished by Streetsblog. “Biking is an amazing way of bringing our city together. The more infrastructure we build, the more likely people will use bikes in a real way.”

During the Democratic primary, Adams wasn’t the first choice for many transportation advocates. His campaign was light on policy details, and although he expressed a lot of enthusiasm for non-car options, his promises were on the vague side. He boosted the idea of “bicycle superhighway,” whatever that means, and mainly talked up the health benefits of a two-wheeled commute. (Adams is an outspoken nutrition and exercise enthusiast.)

Still, when he won, advocates liked a lot of what they heard at events like Oonee’s ribbon cutting — especially after Bill de Blasio's tepid actions on their issues in his later years. Adams won the endorsement of StreetsPAC in the general election. Gothamist ran an article entitled “Is NYC About To Get Its First Bike Mayor?”

So now, six months in, how is Adams measuring up on bike and pedestrian issues? After all, New York mayors have near total control over the streets — unlike their severely attenuated influence over the subways — and big, bold changes are possible.

But so far, some advocates say that Adams’ approach to their issues feels a little slapdash (a critique that has also been leveled at the rest of his mayoralty).

“Adams probably had less written down in terms of policies and goals than the rest of the Democratic field and it's showing,” says Jon Orcutt, who was policy director for the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) under Michael Bloomberg. “The rhetoric is all good. But we've seen very little statement of goals or policies that are new, so it feels like a very incremental difference.

After Adams took office, he appointed Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez as DOT commissioner. As part of the city’s legislative body, he had been a critic of de Blasio’s DOT, and as head of the agency under Adams, he’s largely seen as a qualified, if political, hire.

Unlike Rodriguez’s predecessors under de Blasio and Bloomberg, he hasn’t sought to remake the agency in his image or force a new direction yet. DOT isn’t stacked with his people, and instead the legacy bureaucrats are still largely running the show.

But even without a radical new direction, Adams and Rodriguez are making promises and outlining priorities that would make advocates in most other American cities jealous.

In April, Adams agreed to put $904 million into a previously existing effort to remake the city’s streets. The commitment marked a huge increase in funding, along with a reduction in promised implementation time, and was seen as a big win by advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives.

“We've had strong first steps from the Adams administration, with a $904 million commitment to the New York City streets plan,” says Danny Harris, Transportation Alternatives executive director. “That’s a huge investment in our future where streets are built for people. So far, the language has been strong, and the main focus will be on implementation and keeping those timelines.”

In June, Adams announced a plan for 150 miles of new and enhanced bus lanes over the next four years, starting with 20 miles in 2022. This year and next, his administration promises to install designated bus lanes on Fordham Avenue in the Bronx, Northern Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and First Avenue in Manhattan. Plans also call for 20 miles of protected bike lanes by the end of 2023.

Critics like Orcutt argue that faster action is needed. Advocates feel the need for such interventions to make non-car transport safer and easier, as New York City confronts the same scourge of reckless driving that has seized the rest of the country. Traffic deaths have soared the last few years, hitting 243 in 2020 and 273 in 2021. This year is on track to be even worse. 

These losses come in the wake of the Vision Zero plan adopted by de Blasio in 2014. Lower speed limits and the installation of speeding cameras helped reduce fatalities for much of his first term. But progress began to stall after that, as de Blasio began compromising on individual traffic projects that ran afoul of neighborhood groups.

It remains to be seen how Adams will fare under similar pressure. His administration has reportedly told councilmembers that zoning bills will only succeed if they aggressively lobby for them, a kind of hands-off approach which could spell doom to many traffic calming and non-car streets projects.

“Reckless driving appears to be here to stay and the city has not moved expeditiously to stamp it out,” says Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for the Riders Alliance. “We need to see a rapid increase in the pace of redesigning intersections and narrowing lanes, and reclaiming space on the street with concrete and other immovable objects to keep cars out of where they shouldn't be.”

Orcutt says he fears that without a more solid commitment, too many of these interventions will be overwhelmed by the tide of reckless driving and parking. He notes that much of the city’s new traffic calming and bike lane interventions are just paint and plastic, which do little to keep the cars out. Beyond run-of-the-mill dangerous drivers, some public employees — including police officers — are putting tape over their license plates to keep them from being tagged by speeding cameras and to avoid punishment while illegally parked.

All of this is well within the mayor’s power to address. Will he?

“We have to reclaim the idea that you can do whatever you want in a car,” says Orcutt. “And we are not doing that so far in six months of Eric Adams as mayor.”
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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