Gotham Gazette

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City Transportation Commissioner on Managing the Streets, Expanding the Subway, & More

Trottenberg de Blasio DOT

Trottenberg, middle, with de Blasio, left (photo: NYC DOT)

New York needs to rapidly build more subway stops, get people out of cars, rethink its approach to parking, and keep working to drive down historically low numbers of deaths due to vehicle crashes on city streets.

So said New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg, appearing on a recent episode of the What’s the [Data] Point? podcast to share her assessment of city transit successes and challenges and her vision for the future of transportation in New York City. In a wide-ranging discussion, Trottenberg touched on protecting bike-riders, expanding bus lanes, fighting parking placard abuse, and much more.

Trottenberg views the the sluggish pace of subway expansion as the city’s most pressing transportation problem. “Given the growth and economic dynamism of New York City, we should be opening three subway stops every year...if not faster,” she said, noting population growth over the past decades since the subway network was really built out in a signficant way.

“The biggest transportation challenge the city faces right now is we have stopped building out our subway network,” she said. “That gets into a bigger discussion of the MTA, of the governance, of the funding challenges there,” she added, pointing to current debates over governance reform and congestion pricing that are on the table in Albany as state budget negotiations continue.

“Nothing carries people like subways,” Trottenberg said.

The main reasons New York is not, Trottenberg said, are the MTA’s other urgent needs as it digs out from crisis and a lack of political will for building out subway service. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appointed Trottenberg to her post as transportation at the start of his administration in 2014, commissioned a study to extend Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue subway line in 2015, for example, but Trottenberg said it’s no longer a priority as the MTA needs funding and is dealing with a multitude of other issues related to its existing assets.

“They just don’t have the funds right now to be in the subway line-building game -- and we should get them back in that game” like big cities in other countries, she said.

Trottenberg also mentioned the need to make subway systems accessible moving forward, which is now mandated by law under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Overall, Trottenberg’s primary goals are to make city streets safer and reduce auto usage by providing trustworthy alternatives. “If you want to get people out of their cars, you’ve got to have good subway service, you’ve got to have good bus service, you’ve have to have safe, protected bike lanes so people want to hop on bikes,” she said. She didn’t go as far as to echo City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s call to ‘break the city’s car culture,’ but she cited a number of the same goals, discussing the work she’s led for more than five years that is continuing to evolve with not only new street redesign plans and an expansion of Citi Bike, but also new transit experiments like car-sharing and dockless bike-sharing.

Accomplishing the goal of reducing car usage requires robust collaboration between the city’s Department of Transportation and the MTA, especially when it comes to buses, Trottenberg said. While the MTA runs and staffs the subways and buses, NYC DOT’s purview includes traffic signals, roads, bridges, tunnels, sidewalks, bikes, ferries and more. As a result, Trottenberg explained, DOT has a lot of say over buses, including its help designing routes, but also aspects related to bus lanes and traffic signals.

Yet, when it comes to enforcing bus lanes so that there are fewer cars parked in them, for example, the city needs permission from state government to mount more cameras on the buses so that enforcement doesn’t just rely on NYPD patrols.

Trottenberg said addressing the buses is a major priority for Mayor de Blasio, President of MTA New York City Transit Authority Andy Byford, and herself. “Buses have been slowing and we’re losing ridership,” she said. “Both agencies [DOT and the MTA] are really working hard to see if we can turn that around.”

Though she said she’s had plenty of experience on the bus and is pushing bus reform, Trottenberg acknowledged it’s not as much a part of her personal transit as other methods. When asked how she gets around the city, she said, “I do every mode every week -- I try to -- subway, driving -- I oversee the roads, so I do drive -- biking when I can, and then taking the ferry when I can, I don’t take the ferry every week, but I try and ride the Staten Island Ferry when I can, too, since it’s part of what we oversee.”

Asked about the bus, which she didn’t list, she said, “I don’t get on the bus that often, I’ll admit, I”m lucky where I live in Brooklyn I’m near the subway.” Trottenberg added that as the city has put up new Select Bus Service (SBS) lines around the city, she’s ridden some of those, and rode the buses along 14th Street in Manhattan with some frequency as the city and MTA as the city and MTA developed mitigation plans for an expected L-train shutdown, “to get a sense of what we need to do there.”

The parties had been preparing to make 14th Street a largely exclusive “busway” during what was expected to be a full 15-month shutdown of the L-train, until Governor Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the MTA, swooped in somewhat last minute to upend the plans and push forward an alternative that will see major service changes, but not a full shutdown, as L-train tunnel repairs are done starting in April.

Trottenberg explained that the city and MTA are now holding a new set of community meetings in Manhattan and Brooklyn about “what to do on 14th Street” and other impacted areas. The new plan calls for many months of night and weekend work, with one of the two tubes closed and trains running much less frequently.

Trottenberg said 14th Street is still painted for the busway, and that she prefers to still implement one, but that it is one of two options now being presented to impacted communities, home to hundreds of thousands of L train riders and many others who use the main and surrounding roadways involved, in both boroughs. The busway would include “minimal vehicular access. Basically local pick up and drop off and deliveries, but no through-driving,” Trottenberg explained, a system that is somewhat complicated, she added, by the fact that the route has a lot of housing along it.

The alternative under consideration, she said, is a hybrid plan centered around Select Bus Service (SBS), which would increase bus service and still allowing cars on the road.

[LISTEN: Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on What's The [Data] Point?]

While Trottenberg spoke to many of the challenges facing the city’s public transit system, she was also eager to highlight successes, namely the Vision Zero street safety program, the design and implementation of which she has been in charge of since 2014 after it was a piece of de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign.

In 2018, the number of traffic-related fatalities on city streets fell to 202, down by 20 from 2017 and down nearly a third, she pointed out, since the 299 deaths in 2013. “In that same period, nationwide fatalities went up around 14, 15 percent,” she said, calling it “a signature initiative of the de Blasio administration” and outlining the key principles of Vision Zero: “engineering, enforcement, and education” that lead to hundreds of street redesigns.

The installation of speed cameras around schools has been a cornerstone of the program’s success. “We see speeding drop by over 60 percent, we see injuries go down by 17 percent,” Trottenberg said, and pointing to the recent success in Albany where Democratic lawmakers in charge of both legislative houses just passed a bill allowing the city to install hundreds more cameras near schools. Saying that she expects Cuomo to sign it, Trottenberg said it will enable the city “to do a lot to protect New Yorkers...all over the city.”

Despite Vision Zero’s overall success, six bicyclists have already been killed on city streets this year, compared to a total of ten in all of 2018 (there were 24 in 2017), renewing calls to expand the city’s bike lane network. “This year, unfortunately, I think that number may go up,” Trottenberg said, explaining that she and other officials are “heartbroken” about the spate of fatalities early this year. “Progress isn’t always going to be linear. We want to see that the long-term trends are going in the right direction,” she said. But around the tragedies, DOT always studies where crashes occur, she said, and city is looking at places to add new "protected infrastructure," particularly in Manhattan cross-streets, where the city has added that infrastructure in several places.

Trottenberg said DOT is exploring plans to install bike lanes on 52nd Street and 55th Street, in addition to many “key connections” across the city, like the one between the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. “It’s a really short stretch of roadway, but it’s an incredibly important piece of connecting the bike network.” DOT plans to build better bicycle and pedestrian friendly connections between northern Manhattan and the Bronx, in addition to expanding the bicycle network into neighborhoods where “cycling is growing,” like Jackson Heights, she said.

DOT uses a metric called KSI, or killed and seriously injured, per mile to identify problem areas, the commissioner explained. Trottenberg said the department mapped out KSI on every city corner in all five boroughs and found that seven to eight percent of the city’s roads are responsible for half of the city’s fatalities, enabling DOT to target safety measures in key intersections. This effort has also been advanced with help from the Mayor’s Office of Operations, NYPD, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, she said.

Interagency data further unveiled a spike in fatalities during seasonal changes, particularly in late October when commuters are adjusting to the start of daylight saving time, and in early spring when warm weather brings out more pedestrians and bikers. “We’ve attempted to look at geography, at seasonality, at time of day, and then at driver behaviors,” she said. “We’re trying to tackle fatalities and crashes at every dimension.”

Trottenberg said that the levels of New York City bureaucracy and community input processes can slow the pace of the growth of bike networks. She said it’s a frequent point of contention, with some New Yorkers calling for DOT to surpass community boards, while others believe that projects should not move forward without community input. “When we can bring people along and buy them in and make them part of our Vision Zero work, I think that’s a better approach,” she said, while affirming that while she’s proud of the administration’s pace she always wants to move faster.

On car usage, Trottenberg said she favors raising the cost of parking, implementing congestion pricing and turning to a computerized system that reads city officials’ license plates to fight placard abuse.

Alternative modes of transportation like dockless bikes and scooters are “in an experimental phase,” she said. DOT is piloting dockless bikes in several places, including on Staten Island, where she said the city is talking to officials and residents about “doing a borough-wide pilot.”

She said it appears dockless bike-share is best suited to geographically confined but less population-dense areas where the bikes can be kept in a defined area and docks don’t make as much sense. Scooters, meanwhile, are not yet legal in New York City, she noted -- another issue awaiting approval in Albany, where signs have pointed to likely advancement -- adding that “there’s a lot of interest in scooters,” but many questions remain. “The jury’s still out,” she said.

Regarding her role at the MTA, where Trottenberg is about to hit roughly five years on the board, she said “we have a great leader in Andy Byford, I think we need to give him the resources and the support he needs to continue what is clearly starting to be a real turnaround in the subway system.” That requires action in Albany and support from the MTA board she said, adding that the board needs to be more transparent and accountable.

“I’d like to see the city’s priorities really considered and be part of what the MTA is focused on,” Trottenberg added. Asked how that happens, she said it relates to how the whole MTA capital plan happens, the role of key stakeholders, and other changes, not just with the board itself. “I’d like to I think see the MTA and the city work together more closely leading up to whatever happens on board day,” when the board meets and often votes on things, she said.

Of the mayor’s four representatives on the board and the importance of the city’s voice there, Trottenberg noted she had a couple of years where she was basically the city’s only representative on the MTA board, but that she was then joined by three other strong members, who have been able to influence the discussions.

[LISTEN: Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg on What's The [Data] Point?]

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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