THE COMMUTE: On the day before he took office, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was appointing Polly Trottenberg as Transportation Commissioner. She replaced the controversial Janette Sadik-Khan who held the position for the past six years.
Trottenberg was the under secretary for policy at federal DOT for the past year and assistant secretary for policy for the three years prior. She was a former aide to U.S. senators for 12 years. She worked for Charles Schumer and Daniel Moynihan, and Barbara Boxer of California (who graduated from the same Brooklyn high school as Marty Markowitz four years earlier). You can read more of Trottenberg’s resume here and here.
The new commissioner, of course, has to follow her boss’ lead. We already have an idea where the new mayor stands on transportation issues. He has stated that he supports a “vision zero“ traffic fatality goal and will expand Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as well as the use of bicycles. Trottenberg intends to differ from her predecessor by promising a more collaborative process with communities before constructing more pedestrian plazas. She stated one of her priorities would be improving outer borough bus service.
Trottenberg really can’t make much of a difference in that regard since bus service is under the domain of the MTA. Even if de Blasio gets the 20 additional BRT or Select Bus Service (SBS) corridors he desires, it will barely make a difference since the city operates more than 300 local bus routes throughout the five boroughs. Speeding up 20 routes is a drop in the bucket. What is needed is a compete study and restructuring of the entire local bus network, improving bus reliability on all routes, as well as studying the need for BRT and SBS. Probably one in five bus routes could benefit from some type of restructuring to improve connections and providing more direct travel.
The MTA’s idea of improving bus service is adding 30-minute shuttle buses, making no changes that involve more than a zero cost, converting limited service to SBS, and not expanding our rail system in the outer boroughs. Unfortunately, the transportation commissioner has no say in MTA policy, other than as it relates to SBS.
Of course, safety is most important. However, “vision zero” for traffic fatalities is a desirable but unattainable goal, unless we close all streets to motor vehicles. Until the last few administrations, the goal of the Department of Transportation was to maintain the system’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, and reduce traffic congestion. Although there was much deferred maintenance on the roads and bridges during previous decades, we have thus far avoided a major catastrophe such as a bridge collapse.
Traffic congestion was reduced in the 1960s and earlier through the widening of streets, the building of new highways, the conversion of two-way avenues to one-way, permitting the synchronization of traffic signals on those streets (as well as on two-way roadways), thus greatly speeding up travel. Safety was always an important consideration but it never was the number one consideration. Lane markings are not replaced until they are totally worn out. There are many dangerous areas with poorly placed signage too close to the point of decision, causing unfamiliar drivers to make erratic lane changes. Finally, stretches of highways remain dark for years. The stretch along the Belt Parkway that has still has not been repaired since Superstorm Sandy, for example. Prior to the storm, other sections were dark for months at a time.
However, when the city speaks about safety, those are not the issues they address. Safety to the city means placing “School Xing” signs on seemingly every other corner, and adding traffic signals near every city school, which are in effect 24 hours a day, when more crossing guards at school arrivals and dismissals would be just as or more effective. The addition of all these traffic signals to appease communities has greatly slowed down traffic over the years and increased air pollution as well, with unnecessary stops and starts.
In the 1960s, slow travel was considered a bad thing. Now, slow traffic is considered desirable. It is interpreted as less speeding and with creating increased safety. Traffic congestion has been renamed “traffic calming.” We only consider faster trips, as it applies to buses, as a good thing, as if slow truck and auto trips do not matter.
Drivers who speed are considered villains. However, no distinction is made between speeders who are a menace to safety and those traveling a few miles over the speed limit. In most cases, the latter, though illegal, causes no danger to anyone. Speed limits are designed to be lower than what the safe speed really is because it is known that some will always speed. What needs to be addressed are proper police investigations of so-called accidents that cause serious injury and death, and lowering of speed limits on very narrow streets where drivers do not have the sense to travel under 30 mile per hour.
The priorities of the new commissioner should be to make sure that our bridges, highways, and streets remain structurally sound and safe, that lane markings are properly maintained, poor signage is corrected, and streets and highways remain lit at all times. Her first test will be how efficiently next March’s potholes are repaired. In the past, trucks were dispatched to fix potholes based on 311 complaints. Is that the most efficient way when there are three potholes on a block but the truck only fixes the one that received a 311 complaint, bypassing the other two?
As long as the mayor and commissioner have the ear of bicycle advocates and automobile haters, I don’t expect the priorities of the previous administration — the narrowing of streets in order to slow down travel — to change. The narrowing of Fourth Avenue, which was widened in the 1970s, is currently under consideration. Congestion along Emmons Avenue, which was also widened in the 1970s, has already increased by new lane markings.
De Blasio, in his campaign, has already promised more red light and speed enforcement cameras and expansion of the bicycle network. I believe we can also expect higher fines with the justification that speeders deserve what they get with no analysis of why cars ignore speed limits. That happens because in some instances speed limits are set so unrealistically low that they have become a joke. I am speaking primarily of inconsistent work zone speed limits of 35 or 40 mph in so-called highway work zones that never end.
One change the new commissioner could make would be to make speed limits realistic, so that motorists begin to take them seriously. Work zone speed limits need to be installed when work actually begins, not three months before, and removed as soon as highway work ends, not three months later, or never.
The end of a work zone needs to be clearly marked at the place where the work actually ends, not a mile later. We must not keep reducing speed limits on major arteries, such as Queens Boulevard, in response to accidents, when other measures are necessary such as intersection redesign to keep the street safe. And the goal when reducing speed limits or placing cameras should always be increased safety, not increased revenue.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
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