Photo: Anthony DelMundo / NY Daily News via Getty Images
On a map or app, New York’s transportation system looks like a tangle of colorful lines, organized to answer questions such as How to get from Eastchester / Dyre Avenue to Coney Island? (Answer: The 5 to Q, and that will take a few hours.) Actual transport scenarios, the types that politicians’ strategic plans tend to ignore, are more complex: Put the child in a stroller and pray that someone shoveled the sidewalk in front of all the empty stores, or at least left a navigable channel between the restaurant enclosures and the garbage piles. Then drop it off at the daycare and hope you can locate a Citi bike (and, if you do, no delivery truck is blocking the bike lane) because at that time of day the bus will surely be caught in traffic and you need to cycle to a metro station with a working elevator to get to work; since the knee injury you can pedal but you cannot handle the stairs.
Politics divides us into transport tribes – drivers, motorcyclists, passengers, pedestrians – but in practice we are constantly switching between them. It is therefore exciting to see a candidate for mayor, Scott Stringer, treating mobility not only as a technical and budgetary issue, but as a multi-layered set of human activities. He reflected on how to bring children to class safely (by connecting 50 high schools to the city’s cycle path network), how to keep bus riders out of the rain (more than shelters), how restaurants and stores can continue to operate outdoors while leaving room for foot traffic and wheelchairs (widening sidewalks), how to serve all those who do not make it to the office during rush hour but travel 24 hours a day, how slow walkers can cross the street without being run over by a left- turning SUV (redesign intersections).
I don’t know if Stringer would make a great New York mayor, or if he’s the best of the dozen candidates. But if whoever wins the election ends up reaching even half the agenda he established, New York will be a transformed city. In the most perfect version of our starting scenario, your day begins on a street that has been brought into business by a mixture of tax incentives and streamlined bureaucracy. The small businesses, nonprofits and arts groups that have repopulated store windows are keeping sidewalks snow free and full of pedestrians. Garbage is placed in containers parked in the street in spaces recovered from cars. Citi Bike has extended to your outskirts, cycle lanes are widened and defended by protective barriers, and buses run on dedicated lanes, turning on green lights as they pass. Trucks unload in dedicated locations along the sidewalk, instead of double parking. Whoever you are, wherever you are and wherever you go, you get there faster, with fewer curses and fewer thoughts of moving to Maine or South Carolina.
The plan brings together a slew of seemingly disparate proposals, many of which he or others have already proposed, each of which would pit narrow supporters (for buses! Cars! Restaurateurs!) Against parish community groups, and all against the gates. – Let’s tie up to Albany. It would reduce the abandoned multi-layered portion of the BQE into a truck-only conduit with a single lane in each direction and a linear park above, repairing the six-lane gash across Cobble Hill. It would introduce residential parking permits, allow metro riders free transfers to Metro-North and LIRR within city limits, and widen bike lanes to accommodate two-wheelers carrying freight. And yet, despite its multitude of bullets, the plan is not a jumble of fantasies or abstract aspirations; it’s a handy manual to get the city gears spinning again. What connects this multiplicity of ideas is clarity of vision, a hard-earned understanding that every change in the way we move also affects how much money New Yorkers make, how long they live, how easily they breathe, how fairly the system treats. them, and what opportunities they take advantage of. Transport policy = street policy = environmental policy = social justice policy. It’s crucial that the next mayor continues to hammer home this interconnection, as it’s the only way to prevent every new proposal from turning into eternal bickering over details.
Bold visions tend to trigger eye rolls. Another candidate, Andrew Yang, fhated the old dud of an idea that the city should take over the MTA; without the state’s tax collection powers, it is tantamount to acquiring a money pit. Stringer is more realistic about what he can control. “I want to be the mayor of Streets and Buses,” he says. This title sells the office short, however. I would rather he aspire to become the mayor of Getting Around.
He wants to make sure that buses and subways don’t run more than six minutes apart, all over the city, from morning rush hour to late evening. No more three-bus trailers or a 30-minute wait on an icy elevated platform in Queens. He would pay for this efficiency by persuading Albany to spend two-thirds of his gasoline tax revenues on public transit and one-third on highways, reversing current proportions. That may be too promising in the short term, but the past year has learned that even long-standing political data can change faster than previously thought.
More important for a city balancing between a pandemic-induced recession and a climate emergency, Stringer is making it clear he’s in a hurry. “We don’t have to wait 20 years to do this,” he says. His report builds on one that City Council Chairman Corey Johnson released two years ago and which the council adopted later, but it goes further, both in detail and in urgency. “Too many projects are setting the 2035 deadline. I don’t know what is so special about this year, but I will be making plans that I can achieve in two terms as mayor.
Even if these turn out to be someone else’s terms, instead of their own, I hope the next city executive embraces Stringer’s sense of mission and shares his mastery of detail. In 2012, then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio dismissed former transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan as a “radical” cycle path and labeled himself as a incrementalist. Eight years later, almost all the candidates promise to reorganize the 6000 kilometers of streets of the city, because they recognize the principle expressed in the plan of Stringer: to be able to move freely, easily and cheaply, by any means, is the very essence of New York’s New Yorkiness, and that means New York has to change.