Greater Greater Washington

New York sees similar bike and communication debates as DC

New York City is 13 times the size of DC and its greater metro region 3½ times as big. Political fights there are also far larger, including ones over bicycle lanes and public spaces, as a New York Times profile on Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan details.


Photo by nickdigital on Flickr.

It explains how Sadik-Khan has pushed forward with many innovative projects including closing parts of Times Square to traffic and building separated cycle tracts, which have gained worldwide praise and passionate fans in New York.

At the same time, some of the projects have irritated some people who want to influence what goes on in New York and want to be consulted on projects. And a few missteps, such as seeming dismissive or brusque toward stakeholders, may have contributed to the tension.

There are many parallels to Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee and Gabe Klein in the way people talk about Sadik-Khan (and Mayor Bloomberg) in the article. There are also many clear ways DC is different, besides the fact that cronyism was never a factor with Bloomberg.

For example, one of the aspiring mayoral candidates, Congressman Anthony Weiner from Queens, seems to have decided to ride a wave of anti-bike lane sentiment even though he once supported increasing cycling, including with bike lanes. Yet he changed his tune by the time he attended a dinner with Mayor Bloomberg last year:

"When I become mayor, you know what I'm going to spend my first year doing?" Mr. Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. "I'm going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes."
Here in DC, even amid a very contentious mayoral race, both candidates insisted they supported retaining the existing bike lanes and building more. Despite criticizing the 15th Street bike lane recently, Jack Evans also maintains he supports keeping it.

People can argue whether those sentiments come from heartfelt beliefs or from realizing what's politically unpopular to oppose. Even if it's partly or largely the latter, that means that livable streets has a political currency that leaders ignore at their peril. The 2013 mayoral race may well reveal whether that's also true in New York.

For DC (and Arlington), having small jurisdictions is a blessing; if New York were just Manhattan and Brooklyn, for instance, there'd be little political gain in Weiner's stance. He would instead be running for Nassau County executive, which would probably be a better job for him.

In any jurisdiction, though, there is indeed value in listening to communities and building consensus and support for a project. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer built broad support for an Upper West Side bike lane by fostering a dialogue over specific complaints and how to fix them. Sadik-Khan's first revolutionary change, pedestrianizing Times Square, had strong support from area businesses.

DDOT has been doing more listening of late, scheduling meetings on the Circulator, the Anacostia Streetcar, and more. Its livability studies in various neighborhoods have garnered broad praise from most neighborhoods.

Some people will oppose projects regardless. Others will complain they never were consulted no matter how hard an agency works to reach out. Despite well over 150 public meetings on the zoning rewrite, the same people showed up at the DC Council oversight hearing on the Office of Planning for the third year in a row to complain that OP wasn't communicating enough.

But with good community relations, these voices will be few, supporters more numerous, and aspiring elected officials will know that winning cheap applause by feeding on a fear of change won't ultimately pay off. Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, remains strongly supportive of Sadik-Khan and her initiatives.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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One unique NYC dynamic that's probably worth noting:

When Sadik-Khan started at DOT in 2007 in the middle of B'berg's second term she believed she only had 2.5 years to make her mark on the agency and the city. Her entire strategy and aggressive, fast-moving project plan was based on that very compressed timeline.

Suddenly, after B'berg rammed through the term-limits modification and wound up staying another four years, JSK finds herself operating on a very different timeline (and in a very different political and press environment as well -- the mayor is no longer untouchable).

If Sadik-Khan knew at the start that she had 6.5 years to do this job, we'd have seen a very different kind of project plan and much different kind of political operation to go with it.

That being said... anyone who tries to do major reform in a big, complex city like NYC or D.C. is going to create a lot of friction and pay a price. The JSK - Rhee parallel is apt.

by Marty Barfowitz on Mar 5, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

Cycle tracts? Are those the little pamphlets that cyclists give out to motorists when they get cut off?

by Mike on Mar 5, 2011 4:04 pm • linkreport

Meh. I must have missed something from this article, but it seems like a real inside baseball piece about how JSK has annoyed various politicos in New York. This shouldn't be surprising.

Streetsblog also has an excellent takedown of Weiner's hypocrisy on the bike lane issue - like many politicians, his positions are about as fixed as a flag in the breeze:

http://www.streetsblog.org/2011/03/04/the-new-york-times-jsk-profile-politicos-vs-progressive-transportation/

It’s not so much a profile of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan as a 2,500-word description of her place in New York’s political firmament. The question that drives the piece forward is this: “What is it about Sadik-Khan that gets under the skin of state legislators, City Council members, and other political figures?”

A more revealing piece might have asked: “What is it about a program to make New York a better city for transit, biking and walking that gets under the skin of the city’s political class?”

by Alex B. on Mar 5, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

He would instead be running for Nassau County executive, which would probably be a better job for him.
snap. that's funny!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Mar 5, 2011 5:17 pm • linkreport

The number of bike lanes compared to space allocated to vehicles is tiny. Isn't there something more worthwhile to argue about, like garbage/recycling? Really, what's so bad about providing more transportation options?

by Vaidila on Mar 5, 2011 5:49 pm • linkreport

Not sure why Wiener would be Nassau County exec in the hipster wet dream world of Brookhattan, since Queens wouldn't be part of Nassau (unclear where the Bronx and Staten Island would also go, but apparently they're irrelevant to the hipster set).

But Weiner is a politician. Same as Fenty, Rhee and Gridlock Gabe. Politicians make promises and say things to win favor with special interests. Fenty & Co. made a calculated effort to win favor with newer residents, leading to lots of anger from older residents. And we know how that turned out. Weiner is currying interest with the blue collar New Yorkers who aren't fans of their lives being made more difficult in order to curry favor with the minority of road users who are cyclists (sound familiar?).

I find it rather silly for one special interest group to be complaining that another special interest group is getting politicians to bend to their will. How is the lobbying of officials to remove bike lanes any different than the lobbying of officials to install them? All that's different is who's ox is being gored.

by Fritz on Mar 5, 2011 6:22 pm • linkreport

@David 'Some people will oppose projects regardless. Others will complain they never were consulted no matter how hard an agency works to reach out. Despite well over 150 public meetings on the zoning rewrite, the same people showed up at the DC Council oversight hearing on the Office of Planning to complain that OP wasn't communicating enough.

Because a 'show and tell' where you don't even have the facts straight, doesn't count as a community meeting ... at least not here in DC. There's a long tradition in DC of the government working out the details of major programs and the like directly with the stakeholders ... usually in the form of city wide community meetings. And when I say a long tradition of working out the details, that's exactly what I mean. What's been happening since the last administration is what facilitators call 'getting buy in' ... They hold meetings, say a lot of platitudes, never know the details but say 'trust me', and throw the hard questions to 'the parking lot'. (This is where they say 'oh we'll have to check on that one and get back to you. Of course they never do. Like the time you had Klein in a live chat on here, and none of my questions got answered ... They were put into 'the parking lot', as we were told Klein didn't have time to answer them all but would submit answers in writing ... Which of course never happened.)

So no David, it's not that the stakeholders think they haven't had an opportunity to be involved in the changes, they haven't. And those few recommendations they have had the opportunity to make ... have similarly ended up in the parking lot.

by Lance on Mar 5, 2011 6:34 pm • linkreport

I wonder how much there actually is to that Weiner quote. It looks like the quote came from second hand sources (though I'm guessing NYT got confirmation from at least two people). But even if it is true, I wonder if it was said purely as a joke, poking fun at all the anger around bike lines. Until Weiner makes some public stand on the matter, I wouldn't get too worked up.

And the article did seem to be more about how some politicos are not to crazy about how Sadik-Khan is going about her job. In the comments section, the sentiment is mostly positive (however scientific that sample is).

by Steven Yates on Mar 6, 2011 1:19 am • linkreport

Is Lance referring to all citizens or just the real stakeholders? I wanna become one of them real stakeholders......

by rg on Mar 6, 2011 8:12 am • linkreport

@VaidilA: You said, "The number of bike lanes compared to space allocated to vehicles is tiny. Isn't there something more worthwhile to argue about, like garbage/recycling? Really, what's so bad about providing more transportation options?"

Q1: Yes, but what is the ratio of bike lane miles for the number of bikes using them, compared with the number of miles of roads and the number of cars using them. I am all for adding bike lanes at a rate commensurate with demand for more lanes but bike lanes take away car lanes. But that is not what is happening here in DC. We are adding bike lanes at a rate far greater than demand requires and putting the squeeze on traffic. Take 15th Street NW. Through traffic capacity has been reduced 50% and those left arrow signs make it dangerous to be driving on 15th as frustrated drivers pull and cut off traffic. At any time of the day go count the number of cars going by compared to the number of bicyclists. At 15th and U the left arrow signal is set for about 25 seconds for bikes and 10 seconds for cars. Frequently cars sit while there are no bikes a the intersection and then not all the cars can make their left turn because of the 10 second time limit. This is what leads to road rage incidents. As Lance pointed out, input is neglible and dismissive if it disagrees with the plans.

by Greg d on Mar 6, 2011 8:42 am • linkreport

@rg Is Lance referring to all citizens or just the real stakeholders?

The citizens are the real stakeholders ... in addition to DDOT, the feds, etc. As David can tell you, there's nothing barring anyone from getting involved in this city's activism.

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 9:16 am • linkreport

@Greg d 'As Lance pointed out, input is neglible and dismissive if it disagrees with the plans.

It is also inherently dishonest if the purpose of the meetings is realy to gather input and concerns and incorporate but instead simply to 'appease' and be able to claim legitimacy based on the show and tell.

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 9:25 am • linkreport

They got a lot of input. Several things that I suggested ended up in the final drafts. Several things from people like Nancy MacWood also ended up in there.

They also accelerated their implementation of the front parking rules after comments from a significant number of people.

No, they did listen. The thing is that after listening, they didn't agree with some of the comments, and so they didn't follow those. That's what officials ought to do, and what I keep saying DDOT needs to do: listen, then make a professional judgment, rather than either not presenting plans at all or presenting them and then deciding based on a majority vote at that meeting (like when they canceled street furniture on 17th).

by David Alpert on Mar 6, 2011 9:30 am • linkreport

David, that may be your view. But here's how someone else involved in the DDOT matter described it to me:

'OP will constantly bring up the number of meetings that they held, but for the most part, they didn't respond to concerns raised, sometimes didn't seem to understand the concerns raised, and simply had a series of meetings, and the final recommendation, which they claim is supported by the working group was generally what they had started with. There were probably a few gross errors that Nancy and others have pointed out that were corrected (seems like David or whoever he consulted at OP either can't or won't describe them) but they have not budged from many of the most problematic recommendations.

What strikes a cord with me is the statement: 'the final recommendation, which they claim is supported by the working group was generally what they had started with.'

Is that so? Did they come out of there essentially still going forward with the position they'd entered the room holding, or were they willing to do a 180 based on what more people more experienced than them with the city's issues had told them. These guys had college text books firmly pressed in hand and were adamant to press forward with their experiments whether they were appropriate to Washington, or even wanted by Washingtonians, or not.

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 9:55 am • linkreport

@David 'No, they did listen. The thing is that after listening, they didn't agree with some of the comments, and so they didn't follow those.

Now there's a lot of ground between 'not agreeing with some of the comments' (as you portray it) and 'the final recommendation, which they claim is supported by the working group was generally what they had started with.' (which I'm hearing from others involved in the process.)

So, I have a question for you David, can you give us a specific (major) area where OP did a 180?

(incidentally, you know I meant OP in earlier post)

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 10:01 am • linkreport

Lance: Sure. They did a 180 on the parking maximums in the downtown district.

The original draft proposal said that residential below-grade parking shall be limited to 1.1 per unit in downtown areas, and that below-grade parking must be designed in such a way as to be convertible to other uses in the future.

Apparently architects told them that the latter wasn't feasible without adding too much cost, and the former got criticism, so they dropped both. The more general parking maximum proposed is much more lenient.

In most cases, though, they didn't do 180s because they solicited feedback before making decisions. What I saw from attending the working group meetings was that they had a few general principles from the Comp Plan guiding some areas, but then mostly hadn't decided how to specifically approach an issue.

The C100 folks wanted to go in and make OP take a radically different approach. Some people supported that, some opposed it, and OP listened and ended up sticking with their general original approach. However, on many specifics, they hadn't already decided, and shaped their approach based on the input, and sometimes even reversed course mid-way through based on that input.

by David Alpert on Mar 6, 2011 10:40 am • linkreport

I don't comparing Fenty/Rhee to Bloomerberg/Khan is particularly useful. However, I do think Fenty greatly suffered from using people like Bloomberg and Daley as their models for big city executives.

There is a reason you say "you can't fight city hall." Having tin-pot dictators in charge of cities or government offices isn't a sustainable alternative. As DC, for a lot of reasons (size, congress, politically aware population) is much harder to take over in that fashion. IT what made Berry's takeover so evocative, and lets remember he rode it on the backs of a lot of big developers.

There is a lot of give and take in local politics, and those who pretend otherwise get voted out quickly.

by charlie on Mar 6, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport

"There are also many clear ways DC is different, besides the fact that cronyism was never a factor with Bloomberg."

Care to clarify?

by SJE on Mar 6, 2011 12:20 pm • linkreport

@David 'The C100 folks wanted to go in and make OP take a radically different approach. Some people supported that, some opposed it, and OP listened and ended up sticking with their general original approach. However, on many specifics, they hadn't already decided, and shaped their approach based on the input, and sometimes even reversed course mid-way through based on that input.

From hearing you and the 'other position', it's sounding like they were willing to tweak certain things and 'concede' on some matters (at least for now), but that their 'general approach' came out unscathed. And it's that 'general approach' I'm coming to believe is the bone of contention here because it's not being put on the table to evalute and possible do a 180 on.

Maybe OP's take on how the general approach to our zoning should be is a good and valid one. Maybe better than 'what has been' to date. But then why not put it out there and discuss it for what it is? There's a dishonesty of purpose when you solicit the public for meetings on issues, but aren't willing to discuss and possibly abandon the underlying issues that give rise to the smaller issues. For example, discuss whether making the city more car-friendly or less car-friendly is a good thing or a bad thing and why. And don't discuss the mechanics of it such as the parking minimums. But then, maybe OP can't do that, because those majors issues were supposed to have already been settled as part of the comprehensive plan rewrite? Maybe the problem is that OP doesn't have the authority to be changing the major assumpitions ... as they are doing by never really discussing those and instead incrementally changing them in practice by selective 'support', and outright 'undermining' in some cases, of the concepts and major assumptions and issues contained in the Comprehensive Plan?

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

Lance: My point is that it's not a matter of "not listening" if OP was just unwilling to make a complete 180 and do the opposite of what they originally planned to do.

You can say that you aren't happy with the outcome. You can try to vote for someone who will replace the people in charge (but that wasn't an option). My gripe is that you and the other C100-ers aren't saying "we don't like this approach," you're saying "OP isn't listening or communicating."

President Obama wanted universal health care. Republican leaders did not. But the Republican leaders did not say, "Obama just isn't communicating with us!" Instead, they said, "Obama's bill is wrong!"

OP is listening just fine. They're communicating just fine. They know what you think, and what I think, and what other people think. They just have decided to pursue an approach that's not what you happen to want.

by David Alpert on Mar 6, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

Lance, if I had offered comment on zoning changes arguing against the height act and in favor of dropping the Empire State Building in the middle of DC, would you say OP failed to take my comment into consideration when they would reject such an idea?

by Alex B. on Mar 6, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

Except that they're not in charge. The people of this city, who had a say in determining policy via the comp plan which the council passed, are in charge. The people who are asking to be listened to are among those who helped write the comp plan and know what was meant by what in that plan. OP isn't listening if they're implementing,the that run counter to the intentions of those who wrote the plan are they. Now if they don't like what was intended in the plan, they can wait around for the next rewrite 20 years from now and participate in the city wide meetings open to all and try to change things toward a so-called smartgrowth agenda it whatever. But in the meantime if they are to follow the law they need to defer to those who wrote the comp plan in interpreting what they meant when they wrote it . Anything shirt of that is an abrogation of the legal process.

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 5:16 pm • linkreport

So, the plan should follow the people. Not all people though, just the ones that agree with Lance. Got it.

I find your philosophical approach to these issues lacking and self-serving.

by Alex B. on Mar 6, 2011 6:07 pm • linkreport

No Alex, you have it backwards. The Comp Plan was the result of the people formulating it in forums that were open to all. Let me repeat that ... open to all. OP can't come in and advance a policy that was approved by the people ... and that is what they are doing when the people involved in those meetings tell them ... 'that wasn't what was agreed to at the comp plan meetings' where everybody was invited to participate ... everybody.

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 6:40 pm • linkreport

*OP can't come in and advance a policy that was NOT approved by the people

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 6:44 pm • linkreport

The only way your explanation works, Lance, is if you assume there is only one 'correct' interpretation of the policies espoused in the Comp Plan.

Such an assumption is contrary to human nature, of course.

Please show me examples where OP has violated the actual text of the Comp Plan. The Plan is the Plan; the Plan is not what you say it is. It can speak for itself.

by Alex B. on Mar 6, 2011 6:47 pm • linkreport

@Alex, Would you agree that the actual people who sat in the rooms where the Comp Plan was hacked out over a period of something like a year or two in city wide public meetings might know more about their intentions than a group of people who didn't even come on the scene until after the document was complete?

So, I'm not disagreeing with you that their may be more than one interpretation. But I disagee with the implication that all are equally valid. They're not. Not when you have the people who attended saying 'that's not what we agreed to'.

OP had an opportunity to influence the policy set up in the last iteration of the Comp Plan. And they did. It just wasn't the same people in OP at the time ...

by Lance on Mar 6, 2011 10:56 pm • linkreport

Lance,

Who is your favorite Supreme Court justice? What would be your preferred judicial philosophy for a Justice? An originalist? Someone who believes in a living document?

Of course there are multiple interpretations. The document says what it says. Those who were in the room might have thought one thing - that and a buck will get them a cup of coffee.

You also make it sound like translating the policies of the Comp Plan to the regulations of the zoning code is a mere paint-by-numbers exercise. I can assure you that it is not, ergo the very assertion that those who had input into the Comp Plan's 'intentions' is largely irrelevant.

If these intentions are so important, surely there's some evidence to back them up.

by Alex B. on Mar 6, 2011 11:08 pm • linkreport

Yes, but what is the ratio of bike lane miles for the number of bikes using them, compared with the number of miles of roads and the number of cars using them.

Miles of bike lane: 50
Percentage of trips by bike: 2
ratio: 25 miles:1%
Miles of road lane: 3277
Percentage of trips by car: 39.7
ratio: 82 miles:1%

I am all for adding bike lanes at a rate commensurate with demand for more lanes but bike lanes take away car lanes

Very few of those 50 miles took away "car lanes" (of which there is no such thing). Besides, by your own logic, we can triple the number of bike lanes and still be under served.

We are adding bike lanes at a rate far greater than demand requires and putting the squeeze on traffic.

No, see above. Before you act like the thing you've implied is true, you should actually look it up. Took me 5 minutes.

Take 15th Street NW. Through traffic capacity has been reduced 50%

Right. There was too much capacity and so drivers were speeding. After the change, 15th moved more vehicles, not fewer, and the percentage of drivers speeding dropped from 66% to 26%

and those left arrow signs make it dangerous to be driving on 15th as frustrated drivers pull and cut off traffic.

frustrated? Maybe. Dangerous? No.

At any time of the day go count the number of cars going by compared to the number of bicyclists.

233 bikes for every 4382 cars

At 15th and U the left arrow signal is set for about 25 seconds for bikes and 10 seconds for cars. Frequently cars sit while there are no bikes a the intersection and then not all the cars can make their left turn because of the 10 second time limit. This is what leads to road rage incidents.

No it isn't.

by David C on Mar 6, 2011 11:50 pm • linkreport

Well I think there are a lot accuracies and inaccuracies in the comments and no one particular commenter would I deem fully accurate.

1. The Comp. Plan process was no more public than the Zoning Rewrite process. It did start out with position papers which I think was a good thing. There were lots of opportunities for input. Still, most people didn't participate. The advisory committee didn't have tons of what we might call alternative perspectives represented. There were a number of hearings. And at the approval phase, the land use bar and the well connected got extra normal opportunities to reshape the process in ways that the unconnected did not.

All in all the Comp. Plan is a good document that could have been even better (some of these broad points I made in suggested Comp. Plan amendments in 2009-2010, although all were rejected).

2. There were scope constraints in how OP conducted the evaluation phases of the Comp. Plan that limited interpretation and evaluation and learning.

3. After the Comp. Plan, OP has begun instituting a process where all input on particular processes is tallied in a master document and the official response listed. They did this for Florida Market, the Brookland Plan, and for the Comp. Plan amendment process. I haven't tracked it in other planning processes. I don't think DDOT does something similar.

4. And like David said, there are some things people will like and some they won't. And the level of what you like determines how you feel about the process.

5. But I think it's rewriting history to argue that the Comp. Plan input process was particularly open or great. For many years, preceding the Comp. Plan process, Offices of Planning, DOTs, etc., have instituted a way of leading planning discussions in a manner that constrains input (see the book _Nimby Wars_ for a discussion of how this is done).

6. I don't think the Zoning Rewrite process is particularly heinous, I don't think it's particularly great. (On a number of issues they aren't doing the best most thorough and progressive job if you ask me.) That being said, there were working groups and papers for each topic area. All the meetings and documents were open to the public. Again, the overarching advisory committee is reasonably conservative and stacked with business interests.

7. But the biggest problem is that there is so much to cover, there can't be enough time to possibly cover all the areas, or to remain conversant with the major threads.

8. Plus, OP took for granted that the Comp. Plan process and document was understood as the major foundation for the rewrite, but didn't take the time to recap that process in a public way, E.g., public meetings by area about the comp. plan after the comp. plan was approved, in a manner that would truly build a common foundation of understanding, before proceeding with the Zoning Rewrite.

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2011 8:06 am • linkreport

and those left arrow signs make it dangerous to be driving on 15th as frustrated drivers pull and cut off traffic.

frustrated? Maybe. Dangerous? No.

When my 4 year old gets frustrated, she'll throw herself to the ground, sometimes hitting her head, or a limb. This makes her even madder, and she'll point her finger at me and yell, "YOU DID THAT!!!"

It's no use telling her the tantrums are her own fault. Eventually, as she gets older, I assume she'll develop greater self-control that comes with maturity.

by oboe on Mar 7, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

Bottom line: C100 and other exclusive clubs have traditionally held a stranglehold of sorts on forums where community input is solicited. That's why they exist.

So when Lance says, "Everyone can participate!" that's both true and false.

As far as "The people of this city, who had a say in determining policy via the comp plan which the council passed, are in charge" I would argue that it's ultimately the elected officials who represent the "people of this city." They're held accountable at the ballot box.

This is certainly much more effective than letting a handful (or in this case a "committee of one-hundred") dilettantes
hijack the process simply because they have no conflicting work or family obligations.

Obviously, the democratic nature is one of the reasons C100 members find GGW so threatening.

by oboe on Mar 7, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport

When someone claims to represent "all citizens" when they do not have a clear "stake" in the outcome of a project, the term is not "stakeholder" but "special interest." Trying to cover for this by then claiming, "that's just how we do things in DC" is disingenuous in the extreme-- it's a way for people like Lance to push for his special interests outside of the interests of the actual stakeholders.

by JustMe on Mar 7, 2011 12:35 pm • linkreport

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