Democratic Mayoral Candidates Talk 'Future of Transportation' in New York City
Leading Democratic candidates for mayor discussed their ideas and beliefs on the future of transportation in New York City at a forum on March 25th, 2021.
Watch the full forum here:
“Safe, Equitable, and Accessible Streets: A Mayoral Forum on the Future of Transportation” was co-hosted by transit advocacy groups Riders Alliance, Transportation Alternatives, Regional Plan Association, Straphangers Campaign, Families for Safe Streets, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and StreetsPAC. The forum was moderated by Dana Rubinstein, a New York Times reporter who has covered transportation and politics for years.
The event was divided into two hour-long panels with different groups of candidates. The first panel featured Maya Wiley, Dianne Morales, Shaun Donovan, and Andrew Yang. The second panel included Eric Adams, Scott Stringer, Kathryn Garcia, Art Chang, and Joycelyn Taylor. Some candidates, such as Garcia, Stringer, and Donovan, have already released robust transportation plans, while others have released sketches or minimal policy platforms on the subject. A few of the candidates either came late or left early due to another forum happening somewhat concurrently.
Questions spanned the future of the Vision Zero road safety program, transportation access for people with disabilities, control of the MTA, and more.
David Shephard of Families for Safe Streets, whose fiancée Sonya Powell was killed in 2009 by a speeding driver in a crosswalk in the Bronx, asked the candidates what they would do to further implement Vision Zero and “make the streets safer for all New Yorkers.” Mayor Bill de Blasio launched Vision Zero in 2014 to stop all traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2024. While traffic deaths have dropped since 2014, crashes and injuries have risen, and there have been jumps in recent years in certain categories of fatalities, such as bike-riders and pedestrians. Rubinstein followed up on Shephard’s question by asking the candidates whether they would “commit to fulfilling” de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan by 2024 and whether they see it as a reasonable goal.
Donovan said that as mayor he would “focus on infrastructure to calm and slow traffic” rather than policing to make walking and bike-riding safer. Touting his federal experience, the former Obama housing secretary and budget director added that there is “potential” with the Biden-Harris administration to “accelerate that work and re-envision our streets” by securing federal funding. He committed to meeting the 2024 deadline.
Morales said she would target reducing car reliance in the city, which she called “the majority of the cause” of traffic accidents. She would accomplish this by improving the subway and bus systems, adding bus and bike lanes, expanding the Freedom Ticket program and the use of greenways, and focusing on reducing car reliance in “areas more subject to transportation apartheid than others.”
“We need to do everything we can to reduce and disincentivize the use of cars,” said Morales, who added that she would implement the 2024 Vision Zero deadline.
Wiley said that “enforcement shouldn't be held by the New York City police department” and Vision Zero implementation should be in partnership with local communities to “make them safer and in the ways communities need.” She also said expanding public transportation and solving transportation deserts were key, adding that solutions “need to be localized.”
“That's the mayor I will be,” Wiley said, about securing the input of local communities in street redesigns and Vision Zero projects. She also committed to the 2024 Vision Zero goal, adding, “if we lose a life we can't get it back. It's not a question, it's an imperative.”
“We need to see each accident as a tragedy and an opportunity,” Yang said, calling for reducing speed limits, greater traffic camera enforcement, and eliminating incentives from vehicle companies for delivery drivers to rush. He also said of the NYPD and traffic enforcement, “they don’t understand the issues,” and that their role in investigating traffic crash sites should be moved to the Department of Transportation (a move that appears to be happening through City Council legislation).
Unlike Donovan, Morales, and Wiley, however, Yang demurred from supporting a 2024 Vision Zero timeline, saying, “I want to say something that's going to be difficult to hear. Come 2024 we are almost certain to have someone die in a vehicle accident that year in New York City.” Rather than committing to the elimination of all traffic fatalities and serious casualties by 2024, which he said is in essence impossible to achieve that year or ever, Yang would focus on “avoidable and preventable” deaths, because “The goal is reducing injuries and fatalities and then say we did do everything in our power.”
Adams said that he would use “redesign and reinforcement” to target streets identified by data as dangerous for traffic crashes. He sees the 2024 deadline as “feasible and real,” based on “proper allocation of enforcement, redesign, and making our streets safer for pedestrians.”
Chang responded to Shephard’s prompt by noting that of many problems in the city “we know about them in advance but do nothing to prevent them,” and that he would solve the problem of traffic casualties in an “integrative fashion.” Looking at “street issues, an intersection between the NYPD, the DOT, the designs of the streets” he would also use data to begin driving traffic fatalities down. Chang agreed that the completion of Vision Zero in 2024 was doable, but that “it will take huge effort and a different approach from government.”
Stringer would “look at how we design streets through the lens of 8-year-olds.” Saying that “New York City is about sidewalks and streets but we give all this space to cars,” he would add bus and bike lanes and “make the vision of Vision Zero work and invest the capital, engineer design, and the will to change the streetscape.”
Stringer also said he believes the 25x25 plan, put forth by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives to take 25% of New York City’s streets from automobile uses and give it to bus, bike, and other non-car transportation methods by 2025.
Stringer would “try to get to de Blasio's deadline but not in this incrementalist approach.” Citing the pandemic, Stringer said that this is the “one chance to rebuild our city into what we want it to be,” and that he would work with transit advocates to “truly do something big at this moment in history.”
Taylor said she would “implement and expand Vision Zero” with an emphasis on increasing communication between communities and officials and on being “proactive and not be reactive.”
“It's not enough to be punitive but we need the proper communication to keep these accidents from happening,” she said. She went on to say that “2024 from my perspective is too far along. We need to look at established best practices and use it as a means to get it done quicker. Don't wait to 2024. Let's implement what we know and get it done.”
Role of Community Boards
Moving from Vision Zero to community boards, Rubinstein asked candidates about their views of the role of community boards in road infrastructure, whether it should be advisory or come with veto power. Community boards, which often disproportionately represent car-owners, have at times held up bike and bus projects through their opposition and influence on local elected officials like City Council members.
Donovan didn’t answer directly, but referenced his recently-released Plan for the City of New York and its section on how to “restructure our community boards and make them more representative.” But the plan only says he would “work with the City Council and borough presidents to reform the appointment process and ensure that community board meetings represent an accurate reflection of the opinions of the community.”
Morales was somewhat more explicit in her view of community boards, saying, “while very useful in gathering information and representing a community, they are not the be all, end all.” Instead, she would “cast a wider net” to get input from local communities, through “education and outreach,” she said, though she did not provide details.
“These questions include community boards, but it's not about veto power,” Wiley said. “It can't be about saying no to something that will deliver.” She also said she would focus on community outreach and involvement to help inform decisions.
Yang said he would attempt to strike a balance between community feedback and actually accomplishing projects. “Two things are true. People know best what they need in their community,” he said. “The second thing is it's difficult to do a lot of things in New York City because there are different groups who can say no.”
Transportation and Accessibility
Eman Rimawi, an Access-a-Ride campaign coordinator at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, joined the discussion to ask candidates about what they would to do “to ensure cities, streets, and sidewalks are more accessible for people with a disability,” citing poor Access-a-Ride conditions, inaccessible city sidewalks and snow blocking her home as obstacles she has faced as an amputee with lupus.
Donovan said that making transportation accessible to people with disabilities is “a central part” of his plan to change New York City’s streetscape. Touting his experience working on street accessibility as a part of a Sustainable Communities Partnership he led as federal housing secretary, Donovan said that the city must prioritize “reimagining our streets, building the infrastructure for everyone to move,” although he did not provide detail on what this would look like outside of shortening Access-a-Ride wait times.
Morales gave a detailed response, committing to keeping public pathways clear of obstructions, making all subway and bus stations wheelchair-accessible, redesigning crosswalks to be safer for those who are blind, and integrating the taxi fleet into the Access-a-Ride program for on-demand service rather than the current 24-hour request window.
Wiley again provided limited specifics, instead arguing for the elevation of the voices of people with disabilities about what changes they would like to make, saying “unless we have the voice of people with a disability at the table telling us what needs to be done, we won't get it right.” As mayor, she would “elevate the power” of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. As a candidate, Wiley cited the fact that she held meetings with disability activists about what direction her campaign platform should take.
Yang concurred with Morales that accessible taxis should be integrated into the Access-a-Ride program, and that streets and sidewalks should be cleaned more quickly to increase access for those with disabilities, implying that cuts in the Sanitation Department budget were to blame and that the department’s budget should be restored. Yang then moved into his argument for a city takeover of the MTA, saying of being mayor, “You can't control how people get to work and school and you're managing the recovery?” He didn’t fully connect the points but seemed to be implying that mayoral control of the MTA would make it easier to make accessibility upgrades.
Taylor echoed the earlier comments of Morales and Yang about decreasing the long wait times for Access-a-Ride, saying that “If Uber can be at my door in five minutes, no one should wait for Access-a-Ride for an hour.”
Stringer said he agreed that Access-a-Ride should be on-demand and touted his experience auditing the Access-a-Ride program. He called its failures “unbelievable” in the 21st century and said he would work with the MTA on broken elevators and that as mayor, he would “manage the hell out of transportation and make sure everyone can obtain it.”
Noting that “things that benefit people with disabilities benefit everybody,” Chang said that he would look at the example of London’s “flexible bus that operates as a taxi.” It was unclear to what program Chang was referring to, but Citymapper’s experiment with a bus-taxi hybrid, Smart Ride, in London shuttered in 2019 after failing to find enough riders.
Adams would also reform the Access-a-Ride program, saying that “You should be able to get a ride when and where you need it.”
Control of the MTA
Candidates were asked about increasing the city’s influence over the MTA, which is a state-run agency under the ultimate control of the governor but with mayoral and other appointees to its Board.
Referencing Yang’s call for a city takeover of the regional MTA, which includes subways and buses in the city but also commuter rails, as unrealistic “soundbites,” Donovan said “it is completely unrealistic to say that the mayor should take over the MTA.” Donovan said instead of a city takeover, he would “put more skin in the game” by pushing for more funding of MTA projects through revenue from congestion pricing and marijuana legalization, and “would look at value capture and other innovative mechanisms” to add city funding in exchange for more power and control at the MTA.
While Morales would want city control of the subways as a long-term goal, she believes that the city would need an expanded taxing authority to do so in order to have “the revenue and the responsibility.” Morales would bring funding for the MTA to fix the subway system through the planned but stalled implementation of congestion pricing, and she would add more metered parking, and a wealth tax to also fund upgrades to the system.
Wiley talked about the need for more city “home rule” overall, and for the subways at “the end of the day,” but said “the MTA is something that Sean is right about,” and that she would focus on securing infrastructure money from the federal government as “the state can’t do it alone.”
Yang returned to his argument for a city takeover of the MTA, though he did not provide details on how it would work, how he would convince the state to give up control, or how he would fund it. But he did say “I’m the sole mayoral candidate saying that the city must control our own destiny,” and that he would ask Albany to let him “have the responsibility...have the headaches” of transit in New York City.
Rubinstein moved on to de Blasio’s ferry program, one of the mayor’s signature accomplishments, though controversial based on its limited ridership compared to other forms of mass transit and how much attention and city funding the mayor has put into it. Candidates were asked if they would keep it as is or modify it, especially with regard to the high per-ride city subsidies involved. According to a 2019 report by the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan think tank, per-ride subsides for ferry rides were $10.73 for the 2018 fiscal year, ten times higher per rider than the subsidies for riders on subways and buses, and for the ferry ridership population that is whiter and wealthier than New York City’s overall population.
Yang said he loves the ferry but that he would cut routes that go underused while supporting the routes that are in demand.
Wiley would expand the ferry system, focusing both on “where we need it to make sure we have that service because of usage...but also increase the rates like we do for express bus service.” Without commenting explicitly on ferry subsidies, Wiley said that she would consider ferries in her analysis of transit equity in the city. Morales “would not expand the ferry system,” and would “prioritize funding the systems that people use,” starting with buses and the subway system.
Donovan said he likes the ferry and thinks it’s important no matter the high subsidy, mentioning that the city also subsidizes car use and mass transit systems. He said he would focus more on other modes of transportation.
Adams said he would maintain the ferry program services, but made a vague commitment to making it more cost-effective and connecting it to transportation hubs.
Chang would be open to eliminating inefficient ferry lines, and would want to see the data about supply and demand for various ferry routes, and whether there’d be ways to increase ferry demand.
Stringer criticized the ferry subsidies saying that he’d “rip up the mayor’s contract with the ferry operator,” which includes boat purchases, and that the program was a “boondoggle like no other.” He would keep the existing service areas, but would want to completely renegotiate the contract, which he sees as bleeding money from the city unnecessarily, and would prioritize buses and other forms of non-car transportation more broadly.
Taylor quickly moved beyond the ferry subsidy conversation to transportation deserts and whether buses are more effective means of transportation than ferries.
The Fate of the BQE
Rubinstein asked candidates their thoughts on renovating the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a Robert Moses-era project in need of renovation and perched on cantilevers below the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Its rebuild has been delayed due to significant tensions over what direction those renovations should take and its potential impact on the promenade.
Calling the original BQE renovation plan “a terrible idea,” Adams would want to take a regional approach and would “look at using the space for a park space.” Saying that he “completely agreed with Eric,” Chang sees the BQE as key for trucks to have access to the industrial waterfront and would want to incorporate more parkland and community input into the final BQE design.
Stringer, without giving details, said that he has a plan he likes for the renovation but will need federal dollars. The city “doesn’t understand that we can’t replace the BQE with another super highway,” he said, but he did not describe his vision.
Taylor believes that replacing the cantilevers as “nice to have” but that the city doesn’t “do anything for communities that are disproportionately affected” by transportation access issues in the neighborhood.
Bus Access and Bike Lanes
On the question of how to prioritize buses, candidates took varying approaches.
Yang would want to build on the successes of programs such as Select Bus Service and Bus Rapid Transit corridors. Wiley would expand bus lanes, expand rapid transit, and to “focus on where the commute times are the longest and to connect folks to where they have to get to and where they have to get home.”
Morales joined Wiley and Yang in calling for expanding busways, express lanes, and Bus Rapid Transit corridors, but would want to do so in a way that “prioritizes low-income and transit apartheid communities and neighborhoods specifically.” She would also expand the Fair Fares program to ensure economic as well as physical access to transit routes. Donovan, calling himself the only “transportation wonk” in the group, agreed with the other candidates on Bus Rapid Transit and bus lanes, but would want to “solve these issues more broadly” by working with the MTA to add more priority signaling for buses and implementing bus route redesigns.
Taylor would speed bus service by providing bus-only space during peak transit hours. Stringer cited his “19-point plan to massively expand buses and make them faster” without giving many specifics, though he did say he is in favor of dedicated bus lanes, and changing bus routes due to the diverse places and times for which people use the bus system.
Garcia, who was late coming from another panel, joined in time to answer this question. She said that she would expand Select Bus Service, add protected bus lanes, and give priority signaling for buses. Chang said he would use cell-phone data to determine how New Yorkers use the bus system to commute, and then modify the bus system to help them get there.
Using most of his time to discuss his bus usage growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, Adams said he would expand bus lanes and rapid bus service.
On bike lanes, Garcia touted her explicit commitment to build 250 miles of protected bike lanes. “We can’t depend on driver behavior to keep people safe,” she said, and argued that paint on the ground is not protected, that bike-riders need to be separated from cars by barriers.
Stringer promised 350 miles of bike lanes, and to give Citi Bike access to all high schoolers.
Taylor, on the other hand, argued for more community involvement in locating bike lanes so that they go to the places with the most need.
Commuting Plans, Cops in Subways, BQX - The Lightning Round
During a lightning round of brief questions with brief answers, Rubinstein asked if the candidates would if elected mayor commute to City Hall by one of bus, bike, or train; whether they would reduce the city speed limit to 20 miles per hour from 25; if they would change the number of NYPD officers in the subways; if they would support eliminating minimum parking requirements at new housing developments; and whether they would attempt to salvage de Blasio’s stunted BQX light-rail proposition for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront.
The first panel saw departures by Donovan and Wiley just before the lightning round, leaving only Morales and Yang. Morales would take the subway, while Yang would ride his bike. Yang and Morales would support lowering the speed limit, kill the BQX project, and eliminate parking minimums. Morales and Yang split on the NYPD question, with Morales saying reduce NYPD in the subways and Yang saying that the NYPD should not be ticketing turnstile jumpers but that at times like now more police presence is needed in the system.
Adams was the only candidate to leave before the second lightning round. All candidates in the second panel committed to not using a car to commute. Taylor and Garcia would not lower the speed limit to 20 MPH while Stringer and Chang would. Garcia was the only candidate in the second panel to advocate for more police in the subway — all other candidates argued to decrease the number of NYPD officers, with Stringer saying it is important to send more mental health professionals into the system. Chang, Stringer, and Taylor but not Garcia would eliminate the parking requirements. The second panel candidates all agreed to “cut bait” on the de Blasio light-rail proposition.
by Grace Getman for Gotham Gazette