In May, as the city continued to fight to keep down its coronavirus infection rate, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed transit experts to a Surface Transportation Advisory Council. “These councils will provide real world guidance to ensure our plans to reopen the city make sense and keep people safe,” de Blasio said in a release.
The transportation experts submitted a long list of ideas to the mayor this summer. Among the suggestions: aggressively expand street space for pedestrians and ramp up bike lane installation with the goal of doubling ridership; come up with a plan for restricting vehicular traffic in Manhattan like the city did after 9/11, “should traffic congestion surge”; and come up with a “robust communications plan” to help New Yorkers get out of their cars and find other ways to get around.
The de Blasio administration did not respond to the panel. Nor did they respond to an open letter written to the mayor by some of its members on September 1st. According to several members of the panel, they’re not even sure it still exists, since their last meeting was in mid-summer.
“I would say that nothing is going on,” Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, and one of the experts the mayor tapped, told Gothamist. “We provided our expertise and support, and we heard nothing back, despite repeated followups.”
Harris added, “This isn’t about our desire to hear back. The mayor’s lack of action has deadly implications on our city and our streets.”
According to the Department of Transportation, overall traffic fatalities are higher now than they have been at this point in the year compared to every year going back to 2014. Of the 184 people killed on city streets so far in 2020, 19 were cyclists, and seven of them were killed in September alone, making it the deadliest month for New Yorkers riding bikes in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s two terms.
Just 10% of workers have returned to their offices in Manhattan, yet vehicular traffic congestion has returned to pre-COVID levels before the lockdowns began.
At the same time, the pandemic has spurred a boom in cycling: bike traffic across the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges has seen increased dramatically, and Citi Bike has repeatedly shattered ridership records, while the MTA is facing a historic budget crisis thanks to tanking ridership levels as New Yorkers continue to avoid tight spaces.
“More New Yorkers than ever are discovering biking during this pandemic, and we’re committed to keeping them safe,” DOT spokesperson Brian Zumhagen wrote in an email, citing the 9.5 miles of permanent protected bike lanes installed since the pandemic began, with 15 more underway. The DOT’s goal, per the “Green Wave” plan announced by the mayor last year, is to install 80 miles of protected bike lanes before the mayor leaves office in 2021. (Last year, the City Council passed a “master plan” that would require the city to build 250 miles of bike lanes and 150 miles of bus lanes over 5 years, but won’t begin until December of 2021.)
By contrast, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo announced this spring that she was immediately and permanently repurposing 30 miles of traffic lanes for cyclists, closing another 30 streets for pedestrian-use only. This was after Paris had added more than 600 miles of bike lanes in recent years.
“While steps have been taken, there is no question City Hall must accelerate a plan to reimagine our streets so they more safely accommodate the rise in cyclists and generally better serve all New Yorkers,” Tom Wright, the president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association, said in a statement.
One area in which the de Blasio administration has made progress is bus lane installation, with 20 new miles of construction pledged for this year. And even that figure lacks ambition. The MTA had asked for 60, while some city officials wanted 40.
“I think the best way for the mayor to indicate that he’s heard the transportation advisory council is to put some bold plans out there and back them up with achievable action items,” said Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director for Riders Alliance.
According to Harris, the head of Transportation Alternatives, one step the mayor could take is “doing what he’s already started to do,” which is dramatically expand the successful Open Streets program. While the mayor has said that outdoor dining will be a permanent fixture on city streets, he has not said whether he will allow drivers back on streets that have been closed to New Yorkers on foot.
“We need the mayor to take them for protected bike and bus lanes, for more restaurant space, for space for social distancing,” Harris said. “He controls the streets. He can help to control congestion by putting in HOV lanes. The city needs a champion who believes in this work, and advances the goals of his experts.”
Harris added, “The future of our streets is not about your or my ability to ride a bike. It’s that 8.6 million New Yorkers should have streets that are built for them, not the minority of New Yorkers who own cars.”
The Mayor’s Office declined to address the existence or the status of the council on the record.
“There’s more work to be done, and we’re grateful for advocate and expert feedback,” mayoral spokesperson Mitch Schwartz wrote in a statement. “But we’ve used this crisis to make sweeping and popular changes to our transportation system, and we look forward to continuing the conversation as we forge a fairer and better city.”