Bike-lane advocate wonders where the old Bill de Blasio has gone

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A bike lane on First Avenue. (Joe Shlabotnick via Flickr)
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Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is a "radical," said Bill de Blasio, the Working-Families Party-affiliated public advocate who has been making every effort in recent weeks to cast himself as the centrist, small-business-friendly, outer-borough candidate for mayor in 2013.

De Blasio describes himself, by contrast, as a bike-lane "incrementalist."

“Incrementalism would say we want to make progress, and we have to do it with communities, and we have to be realistic,” de Blasio told the Post, adding, “It’s very clear that’s not the same approach Janette has.”

This is not the first time de Blasio has criticized Sadik-Khan, but it's certainly his most pointed words, to date.

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Among the candidates vying for the mayoralty in 2013, it places him somewhere on the more conservative side of things, near Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Borough President Scott Stringer, for example, has been a bit more vocal in his support of Sadik-Khanism

Sadik-Khan has become a lightning rod in the citywide debate over how New York City's streets should be used.  She has spent her years in office vastly expanding the city's cycling infrastructure, winning tremendous plaudits from the transportation wonks including the ones at Transportation Alternatives, whose former leader, Jon Orcutt, is now her policy director.

Her critics say she goes too far, pushing bike lanes and pedestrian plazas at the expense of automobiles and small businesses who say bike lanes make it more difficult to get deliveries.

De Blasio's application of the term "radical" to describe what transit advocates have called their "dream" Transportation Commissioner is particularly notable because he was once quite close to Transportation Alternatives. Last year, he headlined their summer benefit, and he got his spokesman, Wiley Norvell, from the advocacy group.

He also supported the controversial bike lane alone Ninth Street, in his home district of Park Slope.

Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely-White took him severely to task for the apparent shift:

Sure, Council Speaker Christine Quinn took time to pose with a Citi Bike, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer promised to make mass transit a centerpiece of his campaign. But Comptroller John Liu loves to stir up trouble when it comes to the economics of livable streets—he recently published a scaremongering report warning that bike share would generate a firestorm of frivolous lawsuits. And the candidate I know best, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, told an audience of Brooklyn donors that bike lanes are often “ill conceived” and pledged to put the brakes on the rollout of safer street designs in favor of a more “incremental” approach.

Yikes! What’s worse is that Bill is a good guy, a neighbor of mine and, until recently, a livable streets stalwart. So what happened? When did the tide change? I can’t say for sure, and I’m not convinced it truly has, but I do know that there are some well-connected, deep-pocketed people in this city who have an outdated view of our streets—and all the mayoral candidates on speed-dial.

To be fair, it's not always "deep-pocketed" business elites who oppose bike lanes. It's also old people who don't ride bikes and people with cars in the outer boroughs who resent the new accommodations for cyclists.

It's also some small business owners, a constituency de Blasio is eager to win over if he's to stand any chance of making it into a run-off after next year's Democratic primary.

"I think there are small busineses who are concerned about it taking away streets and putting plazas there," said George Arzt, a Democratic consultant as yet unaffiliated with any of the mayoral campaigns, adding, "A major plank in de Blasio's platform has been helping small businesses and that's what he's trying to do here."

The polling data on the topic is mixed.

Last year, Marist did a poll finding that 66 percent of New York City adults, including majorities in all five boroughs, approve of bike lanes. But they were far more popular in Manhattan than they were in Staten Island and Queens.

When asked about their impact on traffic, the support was less than resounding.

Twenty-five percent said bike lanes improved traffic, while 40 percent said they made it worse. Those numbers were fairly consistent across the five boroughs, but again the approvals were higher in Manhattan than elsewhere.

Citywide, 44 percent said that they didn't want further expansion of the bike lane network (versus 27 percent who wanted more bike lanes and 23 percent who wanted fewer). Support for further bike lane expansion was strongest in Manhattan (40 percent) and weakest in Queens and Staten Island (21 percent).