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Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership (Part One)


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(photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


Bus Ridership in New York City is on the decline despite innovations such as Select Bus Service (SBS). Newly appointed New York City Transit (NYCT) President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan will not reverse this trend unless its focus is changed to make it more passenger friendly.

The plan states (page 34) that the bus route network will be redesigned within three years “based on customer needs through a process of customer consultation and analysis of travel patterns.” NYCT will also “Rationalize bus stops in consultation with local communities and the NYC Department of Transportation to reduce travel times, including eliminating under-utilized stops and consolidating closely-spaced bus stops” (there is no definition of “closely spaced”).

There are several priorities NYCT must have in undertaking this work, and lessons that can be learned from past planning.

Warning Signs and Inclusive Planning
If the recent elimination of 25 Q22 bus stops in the Rockaways is any indication, walking distances to bus stops will be a half-mile or more in some cases. Also, those changes were opposed by the community, but implemented anyway (and there was massive confusion afterward due to inadequate notice). So, what does Byford mean that changes will involve community consultation?

Bus stop removal does not necessarily speed buses. The Q22 averaged 15 mph west of Beach 116 Street.  There was no need for these buses to travel faster. Further, since the eliminated stops were very lightly used, most of them were usually skipped anyway, so no meaningful time was saved by eliminating them, but total travel time for travelers was increased due to extra walking and a greater likelihood of missing the bus. Saving a few minutes on the bus due to fewer stops is not an improvement when those minutes are instead spent walking extra to and from the bus, and it may even increase trip time. 

Longer walking distances disproportionately harm the elderly, handicapped, those with temporary injuries, e.g. those on crutches, or have health issues such as sciatica which makes walking exceedingly painful. Fewer bus stops can also be categorized as a cut in service.

People carrying packages, women accompanied by small children, or lugging shopping carts, pushing baby carriages, or pulling suitcases are also not willing to walk long distances. Weather is also a factor.  Most would not want to walk half a mile in a snowstorm or pouring rain to get to a bus stop. When there is a choice between the bus and train, many choose the bus because they cannot walk stairs.

Bottom line: Planning should not be done by only considering able-bodied riders on good weather days.

Why is Bus Ridership Declining?
There are many reasons. The city Comptroller says its due in part to a fractured management system. Buses are often late, slow, and otherwise unreliable and sometimes overcrowded, and some routes do not take passengers where they want to go. They often involve indirect travel and one or more transfers requiring long waits. Alternatives do exist besides driving, and bus riders are increasingly switching to them. There is walking and cycling, taxis, car services and app-based services like Uber, indirect subways, and of course the decision not to make discretionary trips. 

Riders want as much direct service as possible and are willing to tolerate one bus transfer except when service is very infrequent. Two transfers usually involve an extra fare for those without unlimited passes, another system deterrent. Passes do not make sense for those who cannot afford them and those who use the system less than five days a week, such as many college students. Approximately half the passengers do not have unlimited passes. Total trip time, personal safety, and cost are the primary factors determining mode of travel. Yet the MTA does not measure total trip time. It is more concerned with time spent on the bus and increasing average bus speed. Any plan which necessitates additional transfers will fail.

How Do We Reverse the Trend 0f Declining Ridership?
We can look at what has already worked for clues. 

November 12, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the Southwest Brooklyn bus re-routings, which I designed at the Department of City Planning (DCP). We studied eight interlinked bus routes and redesigned them to improve their effectiveness.

Most notably, we proposed a new 86th Street bus route (designated as the B86) replacing four separate routes that covered different portions of the street. The old routings caused unnecessary complexity making the bus system difficult to use. Three transfers and multiple fares were required to travel between Bay Ridge to Manhattan Beach. Four or five buses were required from Bay Ridge to Brighton Beach. 

Rather than using such a cumbersome bus system, mass transit travel between those neighborhoods usually involved three indirect subways via Downtown Brooklyn. That was replaced by making many more one and two-bus trips possible. A portion of that proposal was accepted and the new route was designated the B1. Today, the B1 has good frequencies and is the seventh most-heavily utilized route in the borough. The routes it replaced were all moderately or lightly used with poor frequencies. Service gaps were filled and connections were vastly improved. 

Redesigning the City’s Bus Routes
The Fast Forward Plan to redesign the city's bus routes within three years is a necessary and monumental task. Will this redesign result in increased ridership? It is difficult to tell because few details have been released.

We know routes will be straighter, with fewer bus stops. There also will probably be fewer routes since one of the goals is to eliminate what is considered duplicative route segments. What is really duplicative? Are two routes operating on the same street serving different destinations duplicative? Is a bus on the same street as a subway duplicative or do they serve different purposes? Will eliminating one of them increase the number of transfers that are necessary to complete a trip? These questions need answers.

Successful route planning that increases ridership cannot merely be accomplished by studying a bus map and eliminating turns making routes simpler and easier to understand. Certainly, simple routes are desirable, but making them simpler can also make them less useful by increasing walking distances.  

Operating costs appear to be the prime factor in determining the MTA's decision for how to restructure bus routes and bus stops. The single goal appears to be to have buses operate faster to reduce operating costs. In that regard, during the past decade, the MTA has converted many revenue miles into non-revenue miles for partial trips to and from depots because they regard non-revenue miles as more productive and efficient than miles where passengers are carried. Some buses even make entire trips not in service.

Bottom line: If the needs of the passenger are not the primary focus, the bus route redesign will fail to increase ridership and most likely will result greater ridership declines. 

That is not to say that every bus stop is needed and no portions of routes can be eliminated successfully. Operating costs must of course be a consideration, but not the primary one. Improving reliability, reducing crowding, passenger total trip times, and transferring must be prime areas of focus.

Increased reliability can be accomplished by maintaining long routes but scheduling more service appropriate to the demand. This can in part be done by having many buses not operating end to end, but serving only the areas of the route with the highest ridership, more closely matching service to demand.

Shorter trips increase reliability because a delay at one end of the route will not affect all buses throughout the entire route. Merely splitting very long routes in half, as the MTA has done, greatly increases the need to transfer and reduces the amount of direct travel. It is better to split very long routes so that there is some overlap.

The personnel in charge of reliability should be adequate and dispatchers need to be properly trained. Bus schedules should also reflect realistic road conditions. Some bus operators have complained that some trips can routinely take them nearly twice the allotted schedule which means that all scheduled trips are not provided.

Creating exclusive bus lanes with little enforcement has not significantly improved bus reliability according to city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. These lanes have slowed down other traffic in many cases, increasing trip times for those not in buses, a factor the MTA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) have been ignoring. 

The MTA must realize that increased service results in increased ridership and not believe the two are unrelated. The 2010 massive service cuts assumed there are alternatives for every eliminated route and route segment, and that ridership will not decrease. Ridership, of course, did decrease.

Bottom line: The MTA must be willing to invest in service enhancements to reverse the trend of declining bus ridership and not continue to insist that all changes to bus routes be cost neutral with no examination of latent demand.

Service is not planned with latent demand in mind but only for existing riders. The assumption is that increased service will not improve ridership. Operating costs and current patronage should not be the only variables in the decision whether or not to increase service.

Service gaps must be filled with an emphasis on reducing the need for transferring. In order to understand how to do this, in Part 2 of this series, I will examine the Southwest Brooklyn changes more closely and compare them to past MTA studies that have not achieved their desired results. And Part 3 of 3 will discuss routing changes that are still needed for Brooklyn and discuss measures to reverse the decline in bus ridership.

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Allan Rosen, former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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Amazonian Lessons for Urbanists


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Gov. Cuomo & Mayor de Blasio announcing Amazon deal (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


As soon as Amazon announced last year that it would be opening a second headquarters to house 50,000 new employees, cities across the country feverishly competed to lure the colossus retailer. With promises of tax breaks, infrastructure upgrades, employee training and just anything they thought would work, local politicians courted billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos hoping he would deem their town worthy of his high tech presence. The bragging rights alone seemed well worth the price.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio overcame long animosities as they ran victory laps around Long Island City to celebrate winning even half the prize.

To Cuomo and de Blasio’s surprise, not everyone is so elated.

Local legislators howled when they heard that the state would circumvent the city’s land use process and deny community residents a more full opportunity to review and comment on the development. Queens residents raised concerns that Amazon’s arrival would accentuate ongoing problems of displacement and gentrification. A skeptical New York press parsed through whatever information was available to figure out what the state and city were giving away to close the deal. The very smart people who write editorials for the New York Times concluded it wasn’t New York bagels that attracted Amazon to Queens.

The entire episode can be instructive for those who care about the future of cities and the people who live in them. There is plenty of blame to go around, and it does not stop in New York. What follows is four major lessons to move the conversation along.

1. Nobody knows
It was bad enough that the entire deal was negotiated in secrecy. But even with more information available, it is difficult to definitively assess the costs and benefits of such complex arrangements with any measure of certainty.

Sometimes, we don’t discover the consequences until it is too late. Last week, a study completed by researchers at the New School’s Center for Economic and Policy Analysis estimated that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “self financing” Hudson Yards project will cost taxpayers $2.2 billion. In the Amazon case, most of the exceptional tax breaks are being absorbed by the state. The city has not negotiated away any special financial benefits beyond those contained in existing laws – except, of course, an opportunity for affected communities to have a real say in what happens where they live. The latter is a matter of state law.

New Yorkers, like most Americans, are cynical about the political process. When people don’t know all the facts in a complex situation like this one, they assume they are being short-changed. They usually are.

2. Politicians are tone deaf
The United States has the widest disparity in wealth and income of any major country in the free world. New York City is a worst-case example of how concentrated wealth is localized. Much of the growing disparity is a result of federal regulatory and tax policies that have functioned to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Economists have been tracking this trend for decades.

Most Americans more or less understand what is happening and they are angry. They express their anger in the voting booth, but many politicians don’t seem to get the message. A relatively unknown candidate named Bernie Sanders almost derailed Hillary Clinton’s taken-for-granted Democratic Party nomination in 2016 when he candidly told voters that the political system is “rigged” against them. Donald Trump, unfortunately, capitalized on voter discontent to defeat Clinton in the general election.

Local politicians contribute to the overall distrust in government when they make sweetheart deals with corporations and real estate magnates. People, especially those struggling to make ends meet, don’t like to be had and they know it happens to them all the time.

3. Our political leaders live in a bubble
Didn’t decision-makers understand that handing over nearly $3 billion in incentives and grants to the richest man in the world so that he can make more money would stir resentment? Whose brilliant idea was it to allow CEO Jeff Bezos to build a private helipad just down the road from stops on a crumbling subway system and public housing projects where people are living under substandard conditions?

How can public officials defend the Amazon deal after telling us that we do not have the funds to address such problems? Put aside the merits of the case. What about the optics (which do matter)? Don’t our elected officials have public relations experts around them to explain that subsidizing a private landing pad for a billionaire entrepreneur is a ridiculous idea that does not sit well with ordinary people? Can’t Mr. Bezos figure out another way to get to the office?

4. Big is not beautiful
Where is Teddy Roosevelt when we need him? There was a time when leaders who called themselves progressives broke up large business conglomerates in the public interest. They understood that supersized economic enterprises can hinder healthy competition and that accumulated wealth can give certain individuals outsized influence in the democratic process. They had the gumption to take on the likes of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil cartel. Populism was once a bipartisan progressive project. That was before professional lobbyists armed with campaign cash took over Washington.

Amazon is a prime example of how elected officials in both major parties have let businesses grow across commercial domains with little concern for the public interest. Jeff Bezos can sell you anything from a high-tech computer to a bag of grapes. When he decides to come to your town, he commands the attention of those in charge, and usually gets what he wants. Yes, including his personal landing pad.

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Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (Oxford). Note: I need to thank the students in my “Governing the City” class for their stimulating conversation on this topic.

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The Invisible Toll of Hurricane Maria


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Puerto Rico (photo via the governor's office)


The physical damage caused by Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico was undoubtedly devastating. Fortunately, homes and buildings can, have been, and will be rebuilt, but it’s often trauma from these natural disasters that leaves the most lasting and destructive mark on a community.

The psychological impact of months without electricity, access to food and clean water, and unexpectedly losing loved ones – experienced on an island-wide scale – cannot be overstated. This kind of stress and instability is shocking, and that’s why so many professionals in the mental health community have prioritized working with victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Superstorm Sandy in the northeast, and other natural disasters over the years.

It's not unusual for storm victims to have feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, or shock in the immediate aftermath of these destructive events. It becomes a problem when these feelings continue for weeks, months, or years after such disasters. Mental health professionals know that if communities are not given the proper help and support to cope with trauma from a horrific storm, they may never truly recover.

Earlier this month, political and community leaders from New York City gathered in Puerto Rico to assist with recovery, and work together to help chart a path forward. At the core of the discussion was mental health and health care – in fact, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made it the signature announcement of his trip. He and First Lady Chirlane McCray announced a $200,000 commitment to help a nonprofit health care provider hire additional psychiatrists for some of the neediest communities – including one dedicated to children.

This help could not come soon enough. While on the island myself two weeks ago, I helped deliver supplies to a Federally Qualified Health Center, which is trying to do as much as it can with the little it has. Equipment as basic as medical gloves is frequently needed, and doctors are forced to meet with patients – some even struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well – in rooms the size of large closets. All the while, quality primary and specialty care for these communities is needed more than ever before, with thousands of doctors fleeing the island in the years leading up to Maria and during its aftermath.

For too long, mental health has been an afterthought of medical care, especially in Latino communities. In a recent citywide study we conducted of New York’s Latino patients – Invisible: The State of Latino Health – we found that only one-third of Latinos think that behavioral or mental health services are easily accessible. This lack of access to care can have severe consequences, as untreated trauma can push the most vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that almost two-thirds of New York City Latinos who die from drug overdose are, in fact, Puerto Rican.

We know another Hurricane Maria will hit – it’s just a matter of when. Until then, we need governments, public leaders, and community groups to ensure Puerto Rico has the right support systems in place to help families rebuild their spirits and psyches, not just their homes. While the financial costs of these disasters may make the biggest headline splash, it’s the often unseen damage that may demand our greatest attention and action.

[Read: State of Latino Health: Dismal, and Invisible]

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Ricardo is the Chief Business Development Office for SOMOS Community Care, and the former executive director of Medicaid in Puerto Rico.

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Enact Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Responsibly


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(photo: Spencer T. Tucker/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

The Governor and the Legislature should use this once in a generation opportunity to make New York State the world leader in thoughtful and effective public protection policies that hold offenders accountable in a humane and forgiving way, and which allows those who offend to, within reason, receive opportunities to make amends and start afresh.

They could start strong by creating a grand blue ribbon commission with multiple subsidiary groups consisting of cross-partisan experts representing a broad public justice and human services spectrum.

And they should forego the impulse, admittedly hard to resist in the afterglow of strong electoral results 10 days ago, to pursue ideological approaches at the expense of posing honest questions and hunting for approaches that work.

The poisonous blue versus red state rhetoric is polluting this conversation (this is happening all over the country where more liberal states seem to relish the chance to stick a finger into conservative eyes - and the contempt is mutual): this divisive tact has no place in devising rational, humane, and effective approaches. It presents the false choice that one has to pick a side: the ACLU or Jeff Sessions. We must do better.

This is a task that is bigger than the Legislature and the Governor. Indeed, it is our political system that has bequeathed the contemporary system that is criticized from all sides. It must be stipulated that much bad criminal justice policy was the product of scare-mongering politicians of a different era seizing on anecdotal, low-probability events as grounds for enactment of draconian laws, such as ones that target narcotics possession and sale. There should have been, but frequently was not, pushback when these laws and policies were gathering steam.

Now, the danger runs in the other direction.

Advocates have commandeered the conversation and this has dangerous implications. Far too frequently, this means that several shades of only one side of an argument are presented.

Bail and parole reform of some sort is a commendable pursuit, but the public must be leveled with: early release will mean that there will likely be more victims, and some may lose their lives. Will cashless bail mean that a defendant who has no skin in the game will be less concerned about skipping court appearances? This is not a reason not to embrace change, but advocates (who are often backed up by billionaires who are unelected and unaccountable and who are, themselves, and their families, unlikely to have violence fall on them) have a maddening tendency to obscure or dissemble in the face of evidence that runs counter to their objectives. When reforms are being discussed the lives put at risk are almost invariably not in affluent places.

And the voices of individual victims and communities as a whole have been marginalized or stifled altogether.

To be sure, there are daily miscarriages involving charged individuals -- people supposed to be presumed innocent -- locked up for prolonged periods, despite the presumption of innocence, in true Kafkaesque fashion. Dramatically speeding up adjudication will make much of the bail debate academic.

A blue ribbon commission can look in a sweeping and holistic way at the agencies charged with delivering justice, with a keen eye to unintended or collateral consequences to seemingly simple silver bullet reforms. It is far too easy for elected officials to succumb to sponsoring slapdash reforms that allow them to bask in the glow without considering the wider implications of the bills they sponsor.

Certainly, some legislative steps taken in the name of “police reform” have helped lead to the current death spiral of the police profession. There are a number of public officials who seem to believe, misguidedly, that it is a great accomplishment to create an atmosphere where the police avoid engaging festering community conditions. If they looked across the country before acting, they would know that urban police departments willing to take risks and bear the brunt of criticisms for defending communities against disorder and insecurity are becoming as rare as the dodo. They would also notice that police departments are struggling mightily to find someone, anyone, to put on a uniform these days. This may not seem like a pressing concern in our presently supersafe city, but what if the future sees dramatic shifts and upheavals?

The blue ribbon commission could launch its work by conducting in-depth, high-quality, sustained surveys to gauge the sentiments of people in communities (in my experience the feedback gathered will always contain surprises). And true justice would have a local flavor: it is folly to try to create one uniform, static standard in each of the state’s 62 very different counties. Indeed, even in a single NYPD precinct, there can be many different communities and seemingly, at times, as many opinions and sensibilities about safety as there are residents.

The country (and we could seek out leaders from overseas as well) has many current and former law enforcement, justice, and human services professionals who have progressive instincts but who will not forget that the duty is to strike a practical, humane balance.

We should pursue grand and workable ideas, research, and demonstration programs from all over the planet, rejecting the chauvinism and insularity that is a hallmark of a 50-state justice system.

Consideration should be given to creating a statewide super-agency, something like the Department of Community Well Being and Safety. Perhaps it should be led by a First Deputy Secretary or Deputy Secretary to the Governor.

Too often agencies continue to work siloed off from one another, law enforcement agencies separated from agencies with other portfolios, working at cross-purposes. Protecting the public and treating offenders decently demands that the education, health, employment, mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction infrastructure be central to any final package of reforms. Can the notoriously independent, aloof even, federal law enforcement community be looped into these efforts?

agenda19v2 aWe must also not ignore hard truths. It is a noble and fiscally prudent goal to urgently seek to shrink prison and jail populations. But these populations would be significantly higher if the justice system was better at apprehending those who commit serious crimes. Most of these offenders are never apprehended. Can true justice system reform ignore this reality?

And despite all the rhetoric about shrinking the punitive footprint of the system, new laws continue to be added with each passing legislative session, while existing laws are almost never revoked.

The system has to be repaired but also defended and re-legitimized. There is a widespread misbelief that convictions of the innocent are commonplace. Elected officials must embrace, vouch for, and sell the system; after all, it is their creation. In the wake of serious crimes, people are sometimes not cooperating with investigators. What do lawmakers offer as a remedy?

We need a complete blue sky review of the uses of technology to prevent crime and to track offenders so that they are getting what they need to steer clear of re-arrest. How can technology be used to vitiate the need for the police to make custodial arrests?

What is the promise for treating breaches of public peace and order in a civil, rather than criminal, context?

We need to examine the work of all prosecutors’ offices, but also the concerning trend where “progressive prosecutors” pursue or decline prosecutions or overlook laws never repealed by the Legislature on the basis of what can be spongy, unstructured, idiosyncratic whims -- that Is not a system of laws, but of ‘men.’

There is also a need to provide affirmative policy preventing and responding to mass casualty shootings and terrorist acts ranging from unsophisticated lone wolves to catastrophic uses of chemical or biological warfare in our streets.

And we need to examine big business and white collar crime anew in the face of evidence that some business bottom lines are being topped off by what can only be described as scams, schemes, and frauds.

And essentially, it must be said that this economy is not working for millions of people. Anyone who interacts with young people knows of their fears and insecurities about finding a place in this society. High turnover, insecure, minimum wage jobs represent a menace to society's well being. In her new book, "The Job," Ellen Ruppel Shell sums it up succinctly: “Good work brings stability of the sort that staves off conflict…”

It is always hard to ask political folks to soar above political considerations and to deliver evidence-based solutions to thorny problems, come what may. New York’s political establishment has a chance to rise to the challenge. Will they take it? Will they go big?

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Eugene O’Donnell is a former NYPD officer and prosecutor in Brooklyn and Queens, and currently a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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New York Votes for a State Senate that Trusts Women


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(photo: @PPESVotesPAC)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

For years reproductive health advocates have pushed to update New York’s antiquated abortion law and increase access to affordable contraception, only to be stalled by our state Senate leadership’s refusal to consider any reproductive health legislation. That roadblock continued despite the federal administration's efforts to drastically alter our reproductive health care - including our constitutional right to safe, legal abortion.

This November, voters turned out in larger-than-usual numbers for state Senate candidates who trust women to make their own health decisions - because the clear majority of New Yorkers understand our autonomy relies on our ability to control our own reproductive health care.

New York voters consistently support access to abortion. According to a July Quinnipiac poll, 73% of New York voters agree with U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman's right to access abortion care.

However, the state Senate majority leadership refused to consider the will and values of New Yorkers. During the election, we saw the same old rhetoric to shame and stigmatize women and their providers. But we also saw an energized electorate in New York and across the nation that trusts women, supports women, and believes that everyone should have equal access to health care.

You can outlaw safe, legal abortion, but you can’t legislate away the need. More than one-in-four women receive abortion care before age 45, and 59 percent of women who obtain an abortion already have at least one child. That’s your mom, your friend, your sister, or your fellow commuter on the train.

agenda19v2 aWhile approximately 90 percent of abortions happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, serious complications can arise at any time during pregnancy. Providing access to needed abortion care throughout pregnancy simply ensures proper medical care for those who require it.

Our current laws restrict our ability to access abortions to safeguard our health and fail to consider complications throughout pregnancy. Voters saw this clearly even if the Senate leadership refused to.

Now we have a state Senate that will truly represent women, not one that seeks to control them. We expect real progress, including protecting our right to abortion in our state law and keeping essential reproductive health care accessible to all New Yorkers.

In 2019, the voices of all New Yorkers will clearly be heard, not only in the streets but in the legislative chambers. That’s a trend we expect to see continue in our state and across the nation as voters realize that they can create the change they demand by casting a ballot.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Robin Chappelle Golston is the Chair of Planned Parenthood Empire State Votes. On Twitter @PPESVotesPAC.

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The Right to Know is Law – Will the NYPD Abide by It?


NYPD officers

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

New York City recently took an important step toward police reform. The long-anticipated Right To Know Act has officially gone into effect, with important provisions dictating police-civilian encounters. The Act includes critical laws that will help end unconstitutional searches and require that police officers both identify themselves and provide the reason for an encounter – even leaving a business card in certain interactions.

After years of fighting for these reforms, we can start to rebuild the broken trust New Yorkers have in the NYPD by bringing more transparency and accountability to everyday interactions. But to do this, we need full and immediate cooperation from the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office.

The consent to search law will change the way certain police searches are conducted to help end unconstitutional searches. The new law requires that when there is no legal justification for a personal, home, or vehicle search (like a warrant or probable cause), NYPD officers must explain to the person they would like to search that they have a right to refuse the search, and their consent to the search has to be documented.

The NYPD identification law will require officers to provide basic information to the person they’re interacting with in writing, including the officer’s name, rank, command, and a phone number to be able to submit complaints or comments if no arrest is made, as well as a specific reason for the interaction. Interactions that are covered by the law include street stops, home searches, most roadblock and checkpoints, and questioning of crime survivors and witnesses.

Many people reading this might assume that such basic information provision is already a part of our policing system. But these steps were previously absent from law, which has resulted in serious problems.

This legislation is a vital part of restoring accountability and transparency in the NYPD, thus keeping communities, especially communities of color, safe from the harmful and abusive policing they are subjected to on a regular basis.

The Right To Know Act is a milestone not only for its content, but for also for its origins. This legislation started with community members impacted by police abuses and is the result of action from more than 200 organizations involved in Communities United for Police Reform (CPR). The charge in the City Council was led fearlessly by many Council members who also felt that the problem was personal to all New Yorkers.

Our advocacy was inspired by those who have been devastated by the status quo. Mothers like Constance Malcolm and Gwen Carr, who lost their children to police violence, gave us hope in their willingness to demand action. Now, children coming home from school will know that the police are not permitted to scare them, like by forcing them to open their bookbags and display the contents without reason.

But too often our work faced significant pushback from those most critical to our success, including our mayor, who has promised time and again to improve safety and police-community relations, and leaders of the NYPD. The Mayor’s Office scheduled a hearing for the Right To Know Act on the evening that Erica Garner was buried – knowing full well that many critical advocates wouldn’t be able to attend.

agenda19v2 aThe NYPD has missed countless opportunities to engage with CPR on how the Act would be implemented – in fact the department didn’t meet with us until last month, violating the law’s provision that community be consulted in advance of creating guidance and implementation. It has since refused to make any of the necessary changes to its internal guidance to officers that would bring them in compliance with the Right To Know Act and help ensure our communities’ rights are protected. Department leaders then turned around and said that we had “unprecedented” access to materials, and that they had already consulted with the community. This was untrue. And as the bill went into law, a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association spokesperson even referred to reform as a “burden” on officers.

Those kinds of comments undermine the gravity of this law and hardly inspire confidence in the NYPD’s willingness to honor and uphold its effective implementation. NYPD materials still lack clear, coherent language on some of the details required for police to implement the law. And there is mounting evidence that the NYPD is hardly trying to implement the bill in its entirety. It’s crucial that the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio focus on implementing and enforcing the Right to Know Act properly, and provide guidance and materials needed to ensure that NYPD officers follow these new laws. But regardless of their actions, CPR is prepared to educate citizens on their right to know in order to ensure that the NYPD does not violate or obstruct that right.

While the law going into effect is certainly something to celebrate, we clearly have much more work to do. The final version of the police identification bill included numerous carve-outs and exclusions that were universally opposed by the Right to Know Act coalition of more than 200 organizations. This legislation is one step of many in the path to true safety and justice for all New Yorkers. Passing reform-oriented legislation is crucial, but we must also critically examine and abolish harmful and unjust legislation. For instance, laws like ‘50A,’ which continues to protect the officers who killed Eric Garner, need to be repealed to achieve the goal of full transparency.

Today, the Right To Know Act is a symbol of the work we have done, but also of how far we still have to go. We are grateful to the community and the City Council, to New Yorkers for raising their voices, and to those who will continue to speak out against unnecessarily harsh policing. Together, we’ve made history. Let’s continue to do so.

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Monifa Bandele is a member of the steering committee for Communities United for Police Reform. She is also Senior Vice President and Chief Partnership & Equity Officer at MomsRising. On Twitter @monifabandele.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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New Yorkers Decided They Want More Democracy, But What Does That Mean?


community meeting

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


On Election Day, New Yorkers passed three ballot measures intended to strengthen local democracy. One of the approved plans is for the city to create a Civic Engagement Commission that will have several key responsibilities, including a new citywide participatory budgeting (PB) program, assistance to city agencies and nonprofits for their engagement efforts, and support to community boards to make them more participatory and representative of the communities they serve.

The passage of these ballot measures -- which also include lowering campaign contribution limits and instituting term limits on community board members -- is in line with a larger trend taking place across the country and the world. Citizens want more responsive governments. People want more choices, more information, and more of a say. While the new commission gives some local definition to this broader impulse and will be tasked with implementing the aforementioned changes, among other tasks, New Yorkers should also be aware of key issues and questions facing the commission.

First, citywide PB could take several forms. Up until now, it has been a district-based process, where City Council members engage their constituents in deciding how to spend roughly $1 million to improve their community. However, under the ballot measure, PB would be implemented citywide, making New York the first major United States city to do so. While the undertaking is a notable one, several questions arise.

Should this process allow citizens to provide input on the entire city budget, generate ideas for a special central fund, or both? Should it follow the example of the Paris PB process, which relies on digital crowdsourcing and voting, or also include the face-to-face meetings that have been part of PB in Brazilian cities (and New York City Council districts)? Research has shown that in many places, PB has had positive impacts in reducing poverty, improving public health, and raising trust in government – but which PB strategies would best help achieve those impacts here?

Second, helping agencies and nonprofits collaborate in their engagement efforts is both a laudable task and a complicated one. Various organizations and city departments define engagement very differently: for some it means encouraging volunteerism, for others it means advocacy and community organizing, and for still others it simply means disseminating information. Partly because there is no common definition of engagement, there are no commonly used metrics or tools for measuring, tracking, or benchmarking it.

New Yorkers are often not clear on what they’re being asked to engage in and why it is important. The new commission could create a coherent, comprehensive system for engagement in the city – one that has citizen needs and goals at the center, and a full range of organizations supporting people to achieve the impacts they want.

Finally, the commission should help community boards, and the New Yorkers they serve, decide how to honor the contributions being made by existing board members while also revitalizing boards for a new era. Many U.S. cities have struggled with community boards; for example, Seattle recently scrapped its board system because the board members weren’t representative of their communities and weren’t able to engage residents effectively. There are many new tools and practices boards can use, going beyond traditional meetings to bring a wider array of people to the table.

There is already a great deal of civic engagement happening in New York City, thanks to lots of committed people inside and outside local government. The new Civic Engagement Commission can map and build on these assets, and also identify the critical gaps and opportunities. Armed with this information, the commission – and citizens themselves – can start to think through what kinds of democracy we want in New York City.

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Matt Leighninger is Director of Public Engagement at Public Agenda. On Twitter @mattleighninger & @PublicAgenda.

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Fix New York’s Broken Balloting and Election Laws


voting booths polling place

(photo: Gotham Gazette)


On Tuesday millions of New Yorkers attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. However, far too many in New York City were met with broken ballot scanners and hours-long lines that stretched for blocks in the pouring rain. It is encouraging to see so many citizens making the time and effort to vote, but incredibly disheartening to see our broken election system failing them.

With the impending arrival of the long-awaited trifecta of Democratic leadership in New York State (Democratic Governor, Senate and Assembly) alongside reform-minded allies in New York City government, fixing our archaic and ineffective electoral process should be the first order of business once the new Legislature is seated in January.

At polling sites across New York City there were reports of at least one – and sometimes all – ballot scanners malfunctioning. Thousands of voters braved hours of waiting and confusion just to fill out unscanned emergency ballots. Even in places where some of the scanners did work (such as the paltry two at my polling place in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn), poll sites and workers seemed overwhelmed by the dramatic turnout -- which still wasn’t even at 40% in the city or anywhere near presidential election levels.

We will never know how many voters gave up on the long lines and didn’t vote, or what the chilling effect may be on future turnout. The initial response from the Board of Elections on the scanner malfunctions is that soggy or imperfectly torn ballots jammed the machines. Aren’t these issues we could -- and should -- have prepared for? Regardless of the merit of these questionable excuses, the bigger issue is clear: our current election systems are incapable of meeting the needs of our electorate.

It’s not just machines and preparation.

New York trails other states across the board in voting laws and procedures. One of the main reasons for the problems this past Tuesday is that poll sites were simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of voters attempting to vote on a single day – there weren’t enough poll workers or scanners. This is why 37 other states have enacted some form of early voting, which expands the eligible voting period. This both lessens the logjam on a single day and has the added benefit of giving voters more flexibility. It also can help flag issues like machine jams due to two-page ballots.

Early voting in other states over the past few weeks saw a surge in young and first-time voters, the same voters who may have given up on voting Tuesday or have already become jaded by the experience.

Relatedly, New York is the only state in the entire nation which holds its state and federal primaries on separate days, which is incredibly confusing for the average voter and fiscally wasteful. With the additional $25 million or so spent on having a second primary day, New York could make great strides towards enacting early voting. New York also holds “closed” (party-based) primaries with the earliest party registration deadlines in the nation, which caused an uproar in the last presidential election. Where other states have enacted additional pro-voter participation features such as same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, New York continues to fall further and further behind. These policy shortcomings are compounded by additional confusion such as the Brooklyn “voter purge” in 2016 and the more recent 400,000 person “inactive voter” misfire just last month. Our elected leaders at the city and state levels must take a close look at both our laws and the Board of Elections.

With all of these issues, it is truly amazing how many voters turned up on Tuesday in a state with such a dismal record. New York State has the fourth most registered voters of any state in the nation, but had the eighth worst turnout in the 2016 presidential election. Imagine how many people might vote if they had an extra day (or several) to do so, if the lines were shorter, and if they could count on ballot scanners working.

It is time for New York City and State to finally make strides on voting access and ease and catch up with the rest of the nation. Our democracy depends on it.

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Jamie Ansorge is an Attorney at Cozen O’Conner, Executive Board Member of the New Leaders Council NYC Chapter, and Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Young Professional Leadership Council. On Twitter @AnsorgeNYC.

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Vote Yes Three Times to Improve New York City Democracy


three voting booths

(photo: Mayor's Office)


A political awakening is sweeping New York City. Voter turnout during the last election spiked nearly 300 percent. More New Yorkers are speaking out and looking to engage in the civic life and democracy of their city.

Earlier this year, hundreds of New Yorkers, many of them everyday people who gave up their personal time to attend a public hearing, voiced their concerns to a New York City Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio traveling the five boroughs. The Charter Commission boiled down hundreds of hours of public testimony into three proposals that will be on the back of Election Day ballots, each in the form of a yes/no question.

Voting "yes" on all three proposals will give New Yorkers new opportunities to channel their rising political energy and hopes for a more diverse and representative government. 

A "yes" vote on Question 1 will empower everyday New Yorkers by amplifying their voices in political campaigns for local office. New Yorkers making contributions to candidates will have their small donations matched with $8 in public funds for every $1 donated. A $10 contribution will grow to $90; a $100 donation multiplied to $900. And, the influence of big money will be further slashed by reducing the maximum individual contribution by a third. This proposal will also enable more New Yorkers to run for office themselves by raising small donations from their friends and neighbors. A "yes" vote on Question 1 is backed by Reinvent Albany and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), among others.

On Question 2, a "yes" vote will enable all New Yorkers to vote directly on a slice of the city’s budget to beautify a local park, make a pedestrian crossing safer, or any number of other ideas that come from local communities. A Commission would be created to organize and connect New Yorkers to volunteer opportunities in government and the private sector, among other responsibilities to foster civic engagement and make the city better. This proposal is strongly supported by leaders in the worldwide Participatory Budgeting movement, which this proposal will expand.

A "yes" vote on Question 3 will open up opportunities for more New Yorkers to serve on community boards. Community boards provide advice on local land use, neighborhood quality of life issues, and the city budget, and serve as the level of government closest to the people. Yet, according to community board and census data, many boards consist of members who have served for decades, and do not reflect the diverse makeup and viewpoints of their neighborhoods.

By requiring community board members step down from their positions for two years after serving eight years, everybody in the community will have an opportunity to participate and have their voices heard. This proposal is strongly supported by citywide, grassroots groups like Transportation Alternatives that have decades of experience working with community boards.

A yes, yes, yes vote on the three ballot proposals will collectively harness the heightened activism of New Yorkers as robust participants in their democracy and their city. Find the questions on the back of your ballot and approve them for a stronger New York City.

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Alex Camarda is Senior Policy Advisor for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @alex_camarda & @ReinventAlbany.

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Flip Your Ballot, Vote Yes on 2 for Democracy


participatory budgeting

(photo: @pb_nyc)


On Election Day -- Tuesday, November 6 -- New Yorkers have a unique opportunity to vote for democracy. By voting “yes” on three ballot proposals, we can turn New York City into a beacon for democracy.

The ballot proposals will make it easier for ordinary New Yorkers to run for office, vote in elections, have a say in city decisions, and serve on community boards. They will make our government better and our voices stronger.

Proposal 2 is especially powerful. It will create a Civic Engagement Commission, dedicated to building a more participatory democracy, one that extends beyond any election day. By investing in civic engagement, we can create space for millions of residents to get more involved, step up as leaders, and help make decisions.

The Commission would create a citywide participatory budgeting (PB) program, giving New Yorkers a greater say in how our how tax dollars are spent. Through PB, residents brainstorm spending ideas, turn these ideas into proposals for a ballot, and then vote to decide which proposals get funded.

In New York City Council’s PB program, 100,000 people have decided how to spend around $40 million per year. Residents - including non-citizens and people as young as 11 years old - have developed and approved hundreds of improvements to public schools, parks, streets, libraries, hospitals, and housing. Voters have been more representative of the city than in local elections, with low-income people, women, and people of color participating at higher rates.

This engagement has broad and long-lasting impacts on our democracy. Years of PB proposals for school air conditioning and bathroom repairs sparked city-wide campaigns, which won $180 million to install air conditioning and fix bathrooms at schools across the city. PB has turned hundreds of residents into community leaders, boosting their civic skills and knowledge. It even increases electoral turnout, making people 7% more likely to vote in other elections.

The charter revision would build on this success, allowing more people to make bigger decisions. Other global leaders in democracy, such as Paris and Madrid, have successfully launched similar programs. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has committed 500 million Euros for residents to allocate - for school, district, and citywide projects. In Madrid, the city launched citywide PB and an office of participation, and 400,000 people have gotten involved (in a city not much bigger than Brooklyn).

In New York, PB voters consistently tell us that they want to make bigger decisions. City Council members and their staff tell us that they need more resources and support to engage their communities. Proposal 2 will do both.

The Civic Engagement Commission will be an opportunity for us all to shape the city’s future. While city agencies typically only report to the Mayor, in this case the Mayor, City Council Speaker, and Borough Presidents will each appoint Commission members. The ballot proposal also requires the Commission to partner with community organizations. The Commission will not be perfect (what institution is?), but it will make our city better, by inviting neighbors to decide how their tax dollars are spent and providing more staff support and resources for civic engagement.

If we want to fix our democracy, we need to expand how people can participate. Vote yes on November 6 to show your support for our democracy.

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Josh Lerner is Co-Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national nonprofit that empowers people to decide together how to spend public money. Carlos Menchaca is a New York City Council member representing District 38 in Brooklyn. On Twitter @joshalerner & @cmenchaca. (For more information, visit yesyesyesnyc.com and participatorybudgeting.org)

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Keep the Party Dedicated to Women’s Equality Alive in New York


Cuomo women's equality

Gov. Cuomo signs legislation (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Never has the time to stand up against the attacks on women and people of all races and religions been more important. Since the election of Donald Trump, it has been critically important to protect women’s rights against the barrage of attacks including assaults on reproductive rights, attempts to restrict access to healthcare, verbal abuse towards women, and the fight for representation on the Supreme Court.

The President of the United States publicly mocks victims of sexual assault. The Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate calls survivors of sexual assault and rape “clowns!”

Did you know one in five women will be raped and one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime? Annually, rape costs the U.S. $127 billion, more than any other crime. Nearly three women are murdered every day in the U.S. by current or former romantic partners. More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to violence by an intimate partner. During their lifetimes, 81% of women will experience some form of sexual harassment, with more than three out of four women experiencing verbal harassment.

During his first week in office, President Trump began issuing executive orders that reinstated the ‘Global Gag Rule.’ This Reagan-era policy bans international organizations that receive U.S. funding from providing abortion services or offering information about the procedure.

Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was expanding protections for doctors, nurses and other health care workers who have a moral or religious objection to performing abortion services. President Trump has appointed prominent anti-choice activists to high-level positions within the administration, and, of course, the appointments of anti-choice judges to the Supreme Court is the greatest threat to women’s right to choose.

But this is not just an anti-choice attack. The repercussions are serious and wide-ranging: rollbacks on no-copay contraception and maternity care are already taking place, and accessible health care for low-income children is at risk. Planned Parenthood is sometimes the only women’s health care provider in rural counties, offering maternal care, cancer screenings, and more. Those life-saving services are now being threatened.

Never before has the Women’s Equality Party of New York State been more critical. New York State Election Law provides that a party will exist if it receives at least 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate on its party line. Four years ago, Governor Cuomo created the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and received 53,000 votes on its line. The most important thing New Yorkers can do to ensure the continued existence of the Women’s Equality Party, the only women’s party in the nation, is to vote for Governor Cuomo on the WEP line this year, and help toward more than 50,000 votes on Election Day.

The Cuomo administration’s Women’s Equality Agenda advanced critical policies to protect domestic violence victims and prevent sexual assault on college campuses, legislation to remove guns from domestic abusers and to close a loophole in state law that will ensure domestic abusers are required to surrender all firearms, not just handguns.

The passage of the SAFE Act helps our children be safer in school during a time of mass school shootings.

The passage of an increased minimum wage and paid family leave is critical in lifting up the millions of women and children living in poverty, among many other New Yorkers.

These issues, along with others of importance to women and children, are detailed on the Women’s Equality Party newly launched website, which I encourage you to review ahead of casting your ballot on Tuesday.

The WEP aims to fight the policies designed to take back hard-fought rights gained over years of organizing and legislative battles. We need your help to keep our voice strong and in the fight. All of the WEP-endorsed federal, state, and local candidates will fight to protect women and children.

The 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote is in 2020. Women fought long and hard at great personal sacrifice to win this right. Now, in New York, women finally have a ballot line dedicated to their issues. We need to preserve this ballot status and grow our voice. We will march, speak up, and win political office. We will break glass ceilings everywhere. Most importantly – we will never go back!

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Susan Zimet is Chair of the Women’s Equality Party of New York State.

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