Wanted: Visionary Leader for NYC DOT

After seven years as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, Iris Weinshall has resigned and decided to move on to be a Vice Chancellor at the City University of New York (CUNY). While it is generally agreed that Weinshall provided excellent administrative skills in professionalizing an agency that had corruption and performance issues before her tenure, she failed to lead the agency into the new century and embrace policies of innovation around creating real pedestrian and bike friendly infrastructure.

New York needs leaders that can do more than simply fill potholes and keep cars moving on the roads.

Photo by Geofffox

It also needs thoughtful leaders that recognize the potential of the city's streets (both road and sidewalk) as public spaces that serve the community around them, not just those passing through in automobiles.

Mayor Bloomberg has launched his sustainability drive, looking at ways to transform NYC's infrastructure (not society or people, just the physical plant around us) to become more sustainable. There is no greater potential to improve New York's sustainability than to transform the way streets are designed. Just before Weinshall's resignation, there was a fairly apt NY Times opinion piece that discussed how NYC was losing it's innovative edge when it came to creating a walkable city to stereotypical auto-centric cities like Grand Rapids, Atlanta and Indianapolis.

It is up to Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff to find a new DOT leader who can bring the agency into step with the sustainability initiative and bring NYC's streets and bridges into the 21st Century.

Wasting no time in staking out what a new DOT Commissioner should focus on, Transportation Alternatives released a statement late today titled: "Iris Weinshall upheld the cars-first status quo at a time when New York City streets desperately needed innovation and change."

Here is the full press release from TA:

Iris Weinshall upheld the cars-first status quo at a time when New York City streets desperately needed innovation and change.

To her credit, Commissioner Weinshall stabilized an embattled agency that just prior to her arrival had seen four commissioners in a period of six years. Commissioner Weinshall filled potholes better than her precedessors, and made pedestrian safety improvements to some of the city's most dangerous streets. But these successes were eclipsed by Commissioner Weinshall's failure to redress the enormous economic, heath and quality of life costs imposed by the City's outdated car-based surface transportation system.

To reduce the cost of congestion and meet the challenges of growth and global warming, New York City needs a new cadre of expert transportation planners led by a progressive-minded DOT Comissioner who can institutionalize and apply modern street management practices that will shift driving trips to cleaner more space efficient modes. The Mayor should look to London and other big cities for the right candidates.

Road pricing, parking reforms and streets redesigned to maximize walking, biking and surface transit are solutions that the new commissioner needs to make happen if New York City's 6,000 miles of streets are going to perform better for residents and business alike. Tasks that the Commissioner should tackle:

* Adopt new universal street design standards that would make traffic calming, pedestrian, bicycle and bus improvements the routine rule, not the ad hoc exception
* Expand annual data collection to better understand how New Yorkers travel, and what they need to drive less and walk, bike and take transit more.
* Begin a comprehensive study of how variable road pricing can be effectively and fairly applied
* Reform on-street an off-street parking policies to reduce unnessary driving and traffic
* Improve community based planning and outreach to make streets work for residents first and through-traffic second.

Says Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, "New York City needs a new DOT commissioner with a new mandate. The old mandate was to move as many cars as quickly as possible. The new DOT commissioner must figure out how to move the most people around the city, using all of the available tools including mass transit, walking and bicycling."

I would add that every bridge and tunnel in the City should be evaluated for it's potential for either light rail, trolleys or dedicated bus lanes. This would bring these bridges back to the capacity for moving people back to levels not seen since the early 20th Century.

Apparently the interest in this topic is underwhelming.


you said "Apparently the interest in this topic is underwhelming."

I would differ. But I think that many people realize that it is an extremely complex topic, and feel if they are not a "technocrat" or policy wonk, anything they say will be carved to pieces. They take seriously the recent mood that has taken hold on the blog that if you are not an expert in the subject you have nothing to contribute.

I however, suffer from no such inhibition, having been carved up on many occasions, and never allowing my lack of being a full or fool expert keep me from commenting! :-) The other issue is of course the regional bias of the particular subject, since many folks see the string as relating to a "New York" only discussion. I find New York fascinating, being a country boy, the sheer scale of the place is both alluring and daunting!

So, New York transportaton. What to do, what to do?
Most New Yorkers feel that this city more than any other is one of the hardest in the U.S. to own and operate a car in. Yet, many folks try, and this should be a lesson/warning/inspiration (depending on what camp your in concerning the evils or joys of the automobile) about how hard it is to stop people from driving. The sheer concentration of cars has done more to dissuade car ownership and driving in New York City than the NY DOT could ever do, and yet they try! If the goal is to reduce private car ownership, then the best bet would be simply to let gridlock continue to take it's course. Gridlock is a far greater enemy of automobiling than peak oil.

So if the privately owned car is reduced as a mode of transport, what will take it's place to move people about? The next most obvious choice is the publicly shared car, i.e. the taxi. And of course, New York's hoards of yellow taxi's are infamous, as much a landmark of the city as Times Square or Central Park.
Has there ever been an effort to make New York's taxi's modern, exciting, interesting, and humane? The only efforts I am aware of has been to try to make the drivers at least non criminal in their conduct, and even that has met with only marginal success. But let's look at some other examples in the world:

The black London taxi's have a special kind of appeal. I have always wanted to ride in one, if I ever get a chance to get to London. They are charming, interesting, and with the Perkins Diesel engines, efficient.

In my home area of central KY, in the small city of Radcliff, there was a small independent cab company that used a distinctive yellow and white Mercedes Benz Diesel station wagon. The service was good, and many would ride in the cab just because it had a kind of offbeat upmarket appeal.
Is a more modern version of this doable, and given that the cab companies are privately owned, how could you persuade them to be "modern' in their approach to marketing and efficiency?
One thinks of perhaps a version of something like the Scion as a taxi
Or a longer wheelbase four door (suicide read doors perhaps) of something like this http://www.gazeta.ru/files/447243/04zusu.jpg
with onboard electronics, such as Ipod music and telly, and the cool part, a small propane engine combined with hydraulic hybrid drive for the stop and go starts and efficiency on launch from standstill....it could be very interesting....

Now, on mass transit of the subway/bus type, there is only one thing that can do that, and that is improve the riding conditons. New Yorkers avoid the subway because it is essentially a mobile penitentiary and freak show. There is nothing wrong with New York mass transit that the lowest common denominator do not bring upon it. All the attempts to murder the auto in the world will not expand ridership on New York mass transit until the human problem is solved.

Likewise, walking. We will lay aside New York's weather, a big enough barrier to the joys of walking. We will lay aside an aging demographic, a second barrier. We will lay aside the danger of being struck by cars, which as is pointed out, a bit of redesign could perhaps make better. We are still left with the terror of crime and abuse that most people cannot easily accept, especially women and the elderly. The idea of walking New Yorks streets unless you can compete with the most merciless is simply not acceptable to many. Walking is accepted out of desperation by many, but not by choice.
Again, I will go to a smaller scale city, known to be safer than New York. My aunt had to walk to a bus stop to get to work in the city of Louisville KY. She could barely accept waiting in sub freezing temps for a bus, she could accept the strain of the walk even in her middle and upper middle years, though it often left her weary by the time she got to work. What finally made her willing to give up a big chunk of her wage for a taxi was being mugged, dragged down on the pavement, and badly bruised and battered and left terrified.

Now, I have to say this, and I do not intend it as offensive to anyone, but only the most ivory tower elitist thinkers could keep proclaiming the joys of walking for women and elderly in what are very dangerous cities. It is a danger that even young strong competitive males do not take lightly. It is a level of non-comprehension to see this as a real alternative that cannot be due to ignorance, and shows some sign of lack of normal human compassion.

Lastly, let's look at the radical approaches: A Swiss design, for the young and young at heart, to increase space efficiency, but electric for reduced pollution and quietness (noise pollution is a serious issue in NY), sell to the college age set as a hot designer item, chic:

From Denmark, the RUF system.

This is a fascinating idea that shows promise in it’s earliest design, and still has great room for improvement/enhancement. Of course, it was hated by the old fashioned “true train” fans, because it allowed for the survival of a privately operated personal mobile device.
But, given that, as we said above, trains/subways/buses will never be workable for many due to the social issues (crime and abuse while being trapped in an environment with predators from which you cannot escape) the personal unit of transport will always have a huge market as long as it is possible. Thus, the integration of the personal unit with a guideway type system.

For New York, another possibility becomes fascinating, i.e., the elevation of the guideway to create a verticalized transportation opportunity, much like the skyscraper verticalized housing and business space. This will be unavoidable. Recently a city planner in Chicago said that placing another Sears tower sized skyscraper downtown (which is being proposed with the so called Dearborn project) would be idiotic simply because there was not enough street space at ground level to get the people into and out of it every day. The Sears Tower and Hancock building already create a strain. Los Angeles has said in some studies that to accomadate the growth in cars over the next 20 years would require “double decking” every existing expressway and interstate in the city at monumental expense, because the available real estate to expand roads did not exist at any sane price. The congestion of autos is a far greater enemy to the continued growth of autos than fuel concerns. Gridlock will occur before peak oil, in fact, in many places it already has. Verticalizing and combining the independent transport unit into some type of guided and controlled “trainset” type of arrangement is one of the few workable plans to confront gridlock and fuel consumption, and still provide the essential private mobility unit, a car of an advanced type. New York City provides a perfect set of conditions in that gridlock is already critical, and density of cars/residents makes such a system workable.

There is one more thought, but it would take some planning, and would still be several years off. The concept of the “horizontal elevator”. A photo of Manhattan shows a city that is dense almost to an unimaginable extreme:

One can imagine a set of horizontal elevators, connected from building to building some 4 or 5 floors up from street level. This would be able to be entered from any building they attached to, and from lobby or street level at various intervals, and would travel horizontally just as a vertical elevator does up and down. The elevator “shafts” or guides would be arranged every X number of blocks, so that a set number would cover Manhatten from end to end. Then a set arranged at cross to these to transverse the city side to side. Thus, to go X blocks north, and Y blocks east would require an elevator change, but would put the person very close to their target distination. So for example, if a trip from an apartment to a restuarant or workplace of some 40 blocks needed to be made, the traveler could walk a short 2 or three blocks to the point of entry on the elevator, then ride 35 blocks, then switch to a cross elevator and ride the last ones over to within a block or two of the destination. There would be some walkng involved, but not the outragous idea of waling 40 blocks, instead reducing it to only a few. Flat screens and internet access could tell the passenger exactly what elavators were available to where, and where to enter/exit. This elevators would provide protection from weather, and while not fast, would be faster and less exhausting than walking.

The issue is how often a person has to go down to ground floor, out on to the street, and catch a taxi or drive from one building in the city to another, park, re-enter the building and elavator back up in it. Many of these trips could be connected by a correctly designed elevator type system runing above lobby level, and keep the traffic off the street. It is radical, but it may be doable, and in the far future, a Manhattanite could be born in a hospital, travel to an apartement, go to private school in a high rise, and then city college in another one, and get to adulthood without ever touching the ground! (a bit of irony, don't take seriously!)

This brings us to one last option, and that is the integration of workspaces with living space. This is already catching on. In my area, in the city of Louisville has planned a new set of apartment/offices, and gives special deals for those who can rent both office and apartment. You could get up, shower, go to the gym for workout, back to the apartment, dress, do breakfast in a restuarant, and then go to you upmarket office to start the day. With telecommunications what it is, one can picture whole work weeks in which you never had to leave the buidling, and if you did, it could be on foot to a park across the street, to jog on the riverfront, or walk the dog. It is already starting to happen.

So for Manhattan and the world, there are going to be cars for many years. But it is becoming more a matter of choice as to how, or whether a person wants to use them. Oil is a major concern, but I repeat something I have said here on TOD before: The greatest enemy to the growth of auto usage is rapidly becoming auto usage. I have heard more people begin to shop for local apartments to save commuting mention the traffic and the fact that it is becoming impossible to get anywhere in a car without wasting half of your day than I have ever heard people complaining about the cost of fuel (and that is out in the less populated South). For efficient transportation inside of cities, the car is killing itself with it’s own success.

Roger Conner
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom.

I would worry that horizontal elevators would become rape spaces. I already posted about Pruitt-Igoe, where the skip-stop elevators were more dangerous than usual. When I was in school, we read about the Streets in the Sky ideas of Alison and Peter Smithson. Their Robin Hood Gardens project embodied those ideas, but also suffered from crime.


Ideas like that will depend on a great deal of private security.

anything they say will be carved to pieces...

Anything anyone says on this blog is subject to being carved to pieces by know-it-alls, in any event. Even when they are told they can be king of the world people are picked apart by others.

As to New York City, the problems are definitely complex.

"New Yorkers avoid the subway because it is essentially a mobile penitentiary and freak show." Really? And when was the last time you rode the subway? Because I think you have some rather unusual ideas about what it's like not based in reality. New Yorkers avoid the subway because it's crowded, and especially because it's slow. Line speeds are something like 12 mph for local trains, and when you add in the walk to and from the station, the waiting for the train, and the chance of "unavoidable delays".

Anyway, you're quite right that cars are the biggest limiting factors in how many cars can fit in Manhattan. The way to solve the traffic problem in that framework is simply to keep reducing space for cars, and increasing it for other uses such as pedestrians, bikes, buses, and streetcars. The less space cars have, the less space there will be in which to create gridlock, and the less gridlock there will be. But what if you don't want gridlock? Then you make it so that there is some other limiting factor, for example the expense of driving, via some mechanism such as tolls, congestion pricing, parking pricing, and so on.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra: Nobody rides the subway, it's too crowded.

Well what can one say?
This looks like a positive move. Up here in Toronto they're still talking of burying the QEW, a big expressway at the bottom of the city. As an avid cyclist (year round) and walker it doesn't seem like a positive idea to me. But then I don't live in Toronto and when we go there we always use the QEW to get to where we're going. Sure in the past I've taken the subway; but with kids and all of the things for them that gets awkward. Then again even with driving to TO for a dance it's 3h driving for a 3h dance....

In our town with a radial public transit system it's so painful going anywhere that we don't use it. It's a 45 min. drive to the nearest town (Kitchener -> Guelph) but 2 bus waits and changes to do it and at least 2x the time.

Anyways I can appreciate it's a hard job making everyone happy and getting a system that works. They've added a lot of bike lanes in our town - this was started around a decade ago even before the Tri-cities Cycling Advisory Committee was struck. I'm sure that NYC can't really add bike lanes but I'm a strong proponent of just a slightly wider car lane - I don't like the impression that cyclists have been shoved "over there" and that it's not their place on the road.

I recently saw a show where a light rail access point was automatically considered as being driving distance because it was all of about 1km away - but that's just a 15 min walk if I'm carrying full camping gear. In the movie SuperSize me it seems as if lots of NYC'ers do walk around already and it's a matter of encouraging more of that and not heading towards the clogged streets of cities that have much more traffic.