Q&A With City Council Transportation Chair Jimmy Vacca

This January, Bronx City Council Member Jimmy Vacca took over the transportation committee from outgoing chair John Liu.

VaccaInterviewPic.jpgVacca sketches out a street in his district where speeding is a problem. Photo: Noah Kazis

Vacca represents an eastern Bronx district where car ownership is higher than the New York City average, and he's come in for some criticism here on Streetsblog for supporting the five-minute grace period for parking violations. But he also has a long history of advocating for safer streets and slower cars, going back to his days as a district manager for Bronx Community Board 10. He will tell you that his number one transportation concern is safety.

In addition to serving as a gatekeeper for legislation, the transportation committee chair can exercise oversight of city agencies and use his bully pulpit to encourage or obstruct street re-designs. Since taking over the committee, Vacca has appeared with Speaker Christine Quinn several times to take positions on issues like transit cuts and making streets safe for seniors. We recently wrote about his performance during a public safety committee hearing, where he chided NYPD for not releasing crash information to the public.

Last week, Vacca and his spokesman, Bret Collazzi, sat down with Streetsblog for a conversation about how the City Council can support safer streets and better transit. We also talked a little bit about parking.

Here's the first part of our interview, with more to come tomorrow.

Ben Fried: When you were a district manager for a community board, you were a big booster of Safe Routes to School, and last week you were out with AARP lobbying for complete streets legislation...

Jimmy Vacca: Yes, twice.

BF: What can the City Council do to support street safety programs like Safe Routes to School, Safe Routes for Seniors, and the growth of the bicycle network?

"Cycling has become a growing thing in New York City, and where individual communities want that kind of support, I want to give that kind of support."
JV: Well, I want to work with the Department of Transportation. I oftentimes think that they respond to citizen requests for traffic calming measures, while I would like DOT to be proactive more and identify where neighborhoods would benefit from street calming measures. If I want a speed bump in my district, I go to DOT and tell them I have a complaint from Mrs. Smith: her block has speeding, can you put a speed bump here? Maybe what DOT should be doing, and we have to see if we have the capacity to do it, is do a network survey of neighborhoods, not just blocks, where we know we’ve had safety issues and see if signage, build outs, painting, speed bumps, whatever, could help.

I had Commissioner Sadik-Khan come to my district two weeks ago. We’re looking at two specific stretches, both near schools. And we came up with a plan where we’re going to be doing painted center medians so that cars have a narrower girth, so to speak, and hopefully that will slow them down. We’re going to see if that is going to work, and if not, I have to come back to the table with more stuff. So I’m very much committed to the pedestrian safety issues. It rings true in my neighborhood, and throughout the city. I think that we’re going down the right path.

But I think it will help people, and I’ve told this to DOT, if they’re willing to speak to community boards about their warrant necessities: what triggers their saying no and saying yes. I may have a hearing on that at a certain point. If you asked me right now, “Jimmy, when do they say no to a speed bump?” -- well, the criteria I’ve been told is that it cannot block a driveway, and it cannot go on a bus route. Yet I know other cases where they’ve been rejected and their answer is “because it’s too far away from the intersection.” If that’s the case, why don’t I know this? What do we have in writing that tells me so I can challenge DOT? As John Q. Public lobbies for street calming measures, I think the city has got to tell us universally what is their policy.

But I will tell you that the biggest thing I hear from people in my district, as a local councilman more than as a chair for the transportation committee, is the reality that traffic is too fast, and that they have difficulty crossing the street, and that we’ve got to reduce the speed of cars. So I think traffic safety is very, very high on my plate.

BF: Let’s talk about the enforcement side of things. The Post just this weekend ran a story about how speeding is really common among cabbies. Can the transportation committee exercise some oversight function of the police department?

JV: Yes. I’m worried about speed too. I think TLC has a role to play. I’d like to know where their inspectors are. We’re going to be working on a whole bunch of TLC issues and I think that the police and the TLC have to do more.

I don’t think it’s limited to cabbies, I think there are a lot of people who speed, and sometimes they’re going nowhere fast. It’s not an emergency for them, it’s just par for the course. Speeders have got to say, “Hey, this is not a crisis,” and understand that they’re part of the problem.

When I was district manager, there was a very, very vulnerable street in my district for speeding. No stop sign for like 12, 13 blocks, you could just go through. So what I had DOT do, I had this electric speed indicator and it would tell you how fast you’re going. I had it out there for about five weeks, and people came to me and said, “Jimmy, we’re sorry, we didn’t know.” They were doing 40 and they never realized it. And I know that we can’t have these speedometers on every street in the city of New York, but I thought that this was very helpful. So I often bring this up, and I say, “Let’s not complain about everyone else, let’s see what we’re doing.” It’s got to be an education process.

BF: Deborah Glick has a bill in the State Assembly that would allow for a speed camera enforcement demonstration program in New York, like our red light camera program. Is that something that the transportation committee and the council could issue a resolution in favor of?

JV: I like the idea, and I will look into it. I think those cameras have been very helpful, I was one of those who voted on the Council to increase the amount of the cameras we had.

BF: When it does come to street design, often what we’ve seen from DOT lately has been to make the lanes narrower and you put in pedestrian refuges at the intersections. But some projects can get expensive, if it’s a capital improvement, and it can also take a long time if it has to be put out to bid.

"Speed limit signs have not worked. They're ignored, they’re almost irrelevant."
JV: I think the DOT should be reaching out to council people, because if there’s capital money needed in their districts, each councilman has a capital budget that they allocate every year. I’ve been here four years and DOT never came to me and said, “Jimmy, we’re looking at this intersection, maybe we could put a lump sum of capital in DOT for streetscape improvements, and would you be willing to do that?”

BF: DOT can sometimes be tentative because they often get pushback when they propose something new. We saw this on Ninth Avenue, where the protected bike lane wasn't popular with everyone right away, but now most people agree it’s provided a big safety benefit. And the debate over public process has grown heated at times, even when the DOT has gone to the community board and the relevant stakeholders before a project goes in. How do you think the public process for these projects should work, ideally? Is there any way you would change the community board process?

JV: I want the community boards brought in the process very early. I understand that there may be people on some of the community boards who are resistant to change, or who think that other solutions, the more traditional solutions of traffic lights and stop signs are the answer, as opposed to some of the more innovative ideas DOT is proposing. You know I was a community board district manager for 26 years, so I know about the community board process. Sometimes people on the community boards are a little hesitant to change. I think that we have to realize that many of the attempts to calm traffic have not worked in the past, so we have to be open to other ideas to calm traffic.

BF: What’s an example of something that hasn’t worked?

JV: One thing that hasn’t worked: the speed limit signs have not worked. They're ignored, they’re almost irrelevant. Now you may say to me, “Well Mr. Vacca, that’s an enforcement issue, we need police.” But then the police will come back, and the police will say “Mr. Vacca, we do what we can, but we don’t have the manpower to sit at these locations ten hours, 12 hours a day.” Many people will say to me, “We want ‘Children at Play’ signs.” And the implication is that when a driver sees “Children at Play,” he will slow down. I think DOT stopped making those signs about four or five years ago. The reality is almost any block can have children at play.

BF: So what do you think of these newer approaches that we see where the traffic calming project will make the lanes narrower, and expand pedestrian space, often times they’ll put in a bike lane?

JV: I think it bears consideration. I think every part of our city is different. Some streets are one-way streets, and some streets are two-way streets. Do you put a bike lane here, do you put the build outs there? But I do think we have to do something about speeding, and do think that many of these approaches have.

BF: About the bike network, you told the newspaper City Hall that the city should do what it can to support burgeoning cycling communities. Could you elaborate on what that would entail?

"We do have people on community boards for 25 and 30 years, and is that fair to others who want to serve, who probably are denied a seat?"
JV: Well, cycling has become a growing thing in New York City, and where individual communities want that kind of support, I want to give that kind of support. I have an open mind about that. I’m not a cyclist myself and I don’t know how well bicycles are used in certain parts of our city, but where you have bicycles being used, certainly in Manhattan and other parts of our city, I want to be supportive of that.

BF: I think you could end up with a chicken-or-egg situation, where the parts of the city that have investments in safe bicycle infrastructure then have more cycling, and if you don’t put that sort of investment into other neighborhoods, you won’t see the increased use, because people will feel it’s not safe enough to go out and ride their bike.

JV: And that’s something I will need to look at. Certainly in my district, for example, on Tremont Avenue I put a lot of bicycle racks in because I felt that you could go shopping and you could go to the gym and you could just get on bicycles and go, and they’ve not been used.

BF: Tremont, that doesn’t have a bike lane if I’m correct, right?

JV: No. I don’t know if it’s a safety issue, or if it’s a fact that many times when people live in what I still call a two-fare zone, when you live in the outskirts and you’re not near a train, you tend to use the car. So I think we have to pursue safety in almost every respect. When it comes to bikes, car traffic, pedestrians, safety is my overarching concern.

BF: When a new bike route is introduced, it’s going to ruffle some feathers at first. So when you see these disputes pop up, as they inevitably do, do you draw lessons from what’s happened as we’ve seen neighborhoods grow acclimated to the bike infrastructure that they’ve received?

JV: Yeah. And my old experience is to try to mediate disputes. I think that with mediation and compromise, sometimes those mediation and compromises leave everybody unhappy, but they're unhappy equally, and you get progress. So that's why I believe in the community board structure, I think that's where it should start.

BF: I'm going to float one community board reform idea: term limits. What do you think?

JV: That’s an idea [laughs]. I have thought of that. Certainly when I was district manager I was successful in convincing the board to keep term limits for the chair. We had a two-year term limit for the chair. But we do have people on community boards for 25 and 30 years, and is that fair to others who want to serve, who probably are denied a seat?

BF: Is now the time to be thinking about this? It’s charter review time, right?

JV: It’s charter review time. I guess anything is open for discussion.