Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Bill de Blasio had made a convincing case for being pro-innovation when it came to New York City's evolving streetscape.
But his answer during Tuesday night's debate on pedestrian plazas in Times Square and Herald Square indicated that when it comes to urban planning, his instincts aren't exactly modern.
(UPDATED WITH DE BLASIO REMARKS ON BRIAN LEHRER 10/24 -- FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW)
After doubting the Prospect Park West bike lane, opposing congestion pricing, and calling NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan "a radical" he argued that on urban planning issues he'd come around to a more progressive stance. He even promised, if elected, to increase biking eight fold.
But at the debate, when moderator Maurice Dubois of WCBS-TV asked him, "Would you take out the tables and chairs from Times Square and Herald Square and re-open Broadway?," De Blasio answered, "I have profoundly mixed feeling on this issue. I'm a motorist myself and I was often frustrated -- and then I've also seen on the other hand it does seem to have a positive impact on the tourist industry.
"For me the jury's out on that particular question. I think its worth assessing what the impact has been on traffic what the impact has been on surrounding businesses. I would keep an open mind." (His Republican opponent in the mayoral race, Joe Lhota, agreed with him on this one.)
Now, I myself have been frequently frustrated by lack of information from Mike Bloomberg's DOT, and have written about that in this space. But this is one area where the data is in, publicized, and long-settled.
Since the two squares have undergone their pedestrian-friendly designs, traffic and pollution are down, commercial rents are up, and business satisfaction in the neighborhood is way up.
It's important to keep in mind that when urban planners come to New York, they're impressed by bike lanes and bus bulbs and pedestrian islands and all the other innovations the Bloomberg DOT has installed. But Times Square -- it's their mecca. It's sacred ground. Sadik-Khan is called "a goddess" for turning the Great White Way into "Broadway Boulevard." It's seen as the ultimate re-thinking of street space. Mayors and transportation commissioners from San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago have dished out praise, and are copying it.
So to activists and planners, the remarks weren't just some off-the-cuff debate comment.
"Last night de Blasio betrayed a troubling lack of understanding about what has actually happened on our streets in the past five years,"said Transportation Alternatives Chief Paul Steely White. "Car traffic is as bad as it ever was, though there is some data to suggest that it flows better as a result of recent changes. We are now striving to bring the facts to his attention. Putting pedestrians first is clearly saving lives and boosting business, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Times Square."
He added: “In Bill de Blasio’s New York City, hopefully pedestrians will rate as high or higher than horses.”
Tim Tompkins, who heads the Times Square business improvement district, says that on safety and economics, the plazas are a proven success.
"While there is absolutely a need to address traffic congestion in midtown, the most important feedback we get is from the employees and New Yorkers who are here every single day, 80 percent of whom support the Broadway plazas, "Tompkins said.
Tompkins said since the plazas were installed, asking rents have risen and a number of new retailers have opened on Times Square.
Appearing on the Brian Lehrer show on Thursday, de Blasio stressed his commitment to pedestrian plazas in general, but re-iterated his intent to re-examine the Times Square and Herald Square plazas:
"I simply said that in my experience which includes my experience – which includes my experience as a as a motorist -- we need to look again and see if those are configured as well as they could be. We may find there are some improvements we can make."
"I am concerned as always about impact on surrounding businesses and job creation but the core concept on pedestrian plazas I am absolutely committed to. And in some places we may work to improve them but we’re going to continue the commitment to them because its part of pedestrian safety." (Full transcript at end of the post)
De Blasio has been an advocate for a car-free Prospect Park and for the Ninth Street bike lane in Park Slope, aides pointed out. And he's been vocal on issues of safety. His campaign is calling for zero pedestrian and bicycle fatalities from collisions.
And -- to be sure -- it isn't unusual for a mayor's position to evolve. Bloomberg once threatened to have my bike confiscated during the transit strike, and averred after his 2005 re-election that congestion pricing wasn't on the agenda. Initially, when asked about bike share, his response was "New York is not Paris."
Bloomberg has reversed himself on all of those issues. So positions evolve, as Barack Obama famously said about gay marriage.
At a forum last May in Park Slope, I asked de Blasio about the PPW bike lane: "If you were mayor would you have installed it?"
His answer: "I was dubious of it in the beginning. I want to be very straight forward. I live in this community. I have for 20 years. I was not part of the community board process so I literally started experiencing it for the first time without a whole lot of notice and I found it a little perplexing."
He went on: "I think in practice it has worked in the end. I think it's better than bikes being on the sidewalks. I think expanding bike use is ultimately the right way to go for this city. What was not done right is a deeper consultation with community residents. This has been an endemic problem with the Bloomberg approach to bike lanes."
Bill de Blasio has been spending much of the general election campaign fundraising. The night before the debate, Hillary Clinton hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio at the Roosevelt Hotel at 45 & 5th -- just a few blocks from Times Square. Hundreds attended the closed-press event. The minimum donation was $1,000, and those giving $25,000 were invited to be "Chairs" of a "Private Reception."
Wealthier folk -- those who are driven around in black cars -- don't have much use for pedestrian plazas, and they're not shy about saying so, leading to some speculation that de Blasio's been getting an earful on some of Bloomberg's transportation innovations. Jim Walden, the lawyer against the Prospect Park West bike lane, is a major de Blasio fundraiser.
On the Brian Lehrer show, de Blasio said: "Again, I simply want to give it a look given some of the concerns I have heard from people in the surrounding areas. I want to give that a look and make sure its being done right. I don’t think every specific way the Bloomberg administration handled different policies is sacred, by definition.
When asked about whether he'd seen the previous studies, de Blasio answered "Obviously on pedestrian safety, on bicycle safety, on bike lanes, on Citi Bike but the point is we ought to keep looking at specifics and in certain specific instances we may find there are tweaks we want to make or improvements we want to make and I think that’s what a mayor should be doing, is looking to make sure the implementation is going the way its supposed to and making changes where they find problems."
His spokesman, Dan Levitan, said in an email: "Bill has laid out a comprehensive transportation vision for New York City that will dramatically reduce injuries and fatalities. This includes implementing Vision Zero, and installing more bike lanes, traffic cameras, reduced-speed zones and traffic calming to keep us safe. Pedestrian plazas are, and will remain, a part of that approach."
The email continues: "There is nothing wrong with continually examining projects to find ways to make them better for business and more effective at managing traffic. Bill's top priority is safety, and that's what he'll use as our guide in planning and shaping our streets."
Full transcript of Brian Lehrer's interview with de Blasio on pedestrian plazas:
Brian Lehrer: I was surprised to see you in the debate the other night identifying yourself as a motorist, when you said the jury’s still out on the pros and cons of pedestrian malls in Times Square and Herald Square. Do you think transportation policy has become too anti-car under mayor Bloomberg?
Bill de Blasio: No I would not say that I actually think -- and I’ve said this in my platform -- a lot of what the mayor’s done is right in this area. Sometimes I think he did it in a way that was less consultative with communities than it could have been and I’ve laid out very specific ideas to consult better and make sure the plans are right from the beginning. But I have to say, the core of it I agree with fully. We have to focus on pedestrian safety, we have to focus on bicycle city. The vision zero approach which I subscribe to literally the goal is to have zero fatalities amongst pedestrians and bicyclists. And we have a lot of the tools we need to fundamentally change our approach to safety.
I do believe in the bike lanes we have and in expanding them further. I do believe in the traffic calming measures. Pedestrians plazas are part of that. In the case Times Square and Herald Square, I simply said that in my experience which includes my experience – which includes my experience as a as a motorist -- we need to look again and see if those are configured as well as they could be.
We may find there are some improvements we can make. I am concerned as always about impact on surrounding businesses and job creation but the core concept on pedestrian plazas I am absolutely committed to. And in some places we may work to improve them but we’re going to continue the commitment to them because its part of pedestrian safety.
BL: From what I’ve read traffic and pollution are down, commercial rents are up and business satisfaction in both places is way up -- Times Square and Herald Square -- is that not you’re understanding that that’s kind of settled as far as those two locations are concerned?
BdB: Again, I simply want to give it a look given some of the concerns I have heard from people in the surrounding areas. I want to give that a look and make sure its being done right. I don’t think every specific way the Bloomberg administration handled different policies is sacred, by definition. For example on public health I overwhelmingly agree with the Bloomberg administration approach and would continue it. On environmental matters, on resiliency, overwhelmingly agree and would continue it.
Obviously on pedestrian safety, on bicycle safety, on bike lanes, on Citi Bike but the point is we ought to keep looking at specifics and in certain specific instances we may find there are tweaks we want to make or improvements we want to make and I think that’s what a mayor should be doing, is looking to make sure the implementation is going the way its supposed to and making changes where they find problems.