New York City might soon have some new leaders — the kind that could convince you to step out of your car and get around in a way that is more friendly to the environment.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez has teamed up with colleague Carlina Rivera to propose two new departments within the mayor’s office responsible for “active transportation” and pedestrians.
As the council focuses more on breaking “car culture” and reducing the city’s reliance on private vehicles, the emphasis on helping pedestrians and cyclists feel safer while being able to better navigate the city has increased. If the bills pass, the two departments will become key fixtures at City Hall.
“As the chair of the transportation committee, I have made it my priority to ensure that all pedestrians and cyclists are safe from the dangers posed by vehicles,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “These bills will finally centralize issues concerning pedestrians and cyclists to specific offices within city government.”
The two offices would work side by side as a sort of liaison between the mayor’s office and the various city agencies that handle bike and pedestrian issues. That’s necessary, said Jon Orcutt, communications director at Bike New York.
“DOT is a proactive force on bike issues,” he said. “It’s all the other agencies that are the problem.”
He cited the transportation department’s struggles to install barriers along “skinny” bike lanes as an example. When a barrier is installed, the skinny bike lanes are too narrow for the sanitation department’s street sweepers to enter. That means that only wide bike lanes — which are far less common on tight New York City streets — can have the extra layer of protection for cyclists from cars.
Barriers keep bikers separated from car traffic, and can prevent cars from parking in the bike lane. DOT has pushed for the sanitation department to buy smaller sweepers, Orcutt said, but no progress has been made. Without someone to communicate between the two departments, though, the issue has remained unresolved for years.
“The police department, obviously, park in the bike lanes,” he said, citing another department he says is difficult to work with. “Chronically, freely, ubiquitously. We just need somebody to spotlight that who’s not us, and who can bring the power of the mayor’s office to that.”
Even coordinating between city agencies and state government is necessary, as the state’s larger projects — like a recently opened bike lanes on the Kosciuszko Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Queens — still need city cooperation. While the new lanes are good, Orcutt said, the city was “flat-footed” on building connections to the bridge from the existing bike lane network.
The push to create the departments by Rodriguez and Rivera has received support from their colleagues, including Councilman Andrew Cohen.
“I think that it is a good idea,” Cohen said. “I think that we’re trying to integrate alternate forms of transportation besides the car into our city landscape, and as a policymaker, I can tell you it has been very challenging.”
The existing network of roads, which were designed for cars, has been difficult to adapt for bikers and pedestrians, Cohen said.
“In our community right here, many places where the street design is literally to move a car as fast as you can from Point A to Point B — that’s not always consistent with people walking, and riding bicycles, and using buses,” he said. “I think having many eyes on the problem is a good idea.”
Beyond that, Cohen said, cars simply don’t work any more in the city. His drives back and forth from the Bronx to City Hall are “the worst part of my job.”
The office could work as an educational tool in communities, Cohen said, teaching people why certain changes need to be made to enhance pedestrian and cycling experiences, and how to improve safety. Making those changes without taking the time to educate on the need for such improvements can lead to misunderstanding and backlash.
Such pushback has been felt on recent DOT pedestrian safety projects like the surface changes on Kappock Street and Hudson Manor Terrace, as well as the bike lane installation on the northern part of Broadway last year.
Earlier this year, Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz called for a study of Riverdale Avenue after a man and his daughter were hit crossing Greystone Avenue. And with neighbors asking for alterations on Cannon Place and Orloff Avenue set to be heard at next week’s Community Board 8 traffic and transportation committee meeting, new pedestrian projects are likely in the works.
“Our own local community board is often skeptical of DOT ideas and proposals, and there might be a way to build a broader coalition for these kinds of things,” Cohen said. “It’s partly educating the public. The community board is often responsive to what they perceive as the community attitude. There could be ways to get the word out and build consensus around more pedestrian-friendly thinking.”