Advocates on Both Coasts Call Bragdon a Smart Choice to Lead PlaNYC

BragdonBikeShop.jpgDavid Bragdon, the new head of New York City's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, announcing a set of regional trails in the Portland area. Photo: BikePortland/Flickr

In appointing David Bragdon, the president of the Portland-area Metro Council, to run the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Mayor Bloomberg turned to an established elected figure with a track record of progressive planning. What will he bring to New York City?

Streetsblog spoke to livable streets advocates on both coasts to find out.

"We're going to be sorry to have him gone," said Rob Sadowsky, the executive director of Portland's Bicycle Transportation Alliance. "He's got a real strong, rooted sense in policy, particularly around transportation, sustainability, and environmental stewardship."

Jill Fuglister, co-director of the Coalition for a Livable Future, agreed. "David's vision and values have been very focused on sustainable transportation," she said.

Fuglister said that Bragdon made transportation one of his two top issues, along with the creation of an interconnected regional park system called the Intertwine, after his 2002 election to the top post in the Metro Council, Portland's regional government and planning organization.

Sadowsky highlighted cycling-friendly achievements under Bragdon's watch, like the creation of a Metro Active Transportation Council, which brings together stakeholders from across the region to support walking and biking. Bragdon also facilitated the expansion of transit in Portland, said Sadowsky, helping the region streamline its efforts to access federal transit funding. As Streetsblog has reported, Metro has also played an integral role in promoting transit-oriented development in the region.

Under the radar, Bragdon has also begun to reshape the way the Portland region writes transportation plans, said Fuglister. His administration at Metro is "at the forefront nationally of trying to reform the way that regions and metropolitan planning organizations function," by trying to move toward an "outcome-based, performance-based plan," she said. If the Portland region sets a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, proposed projects should be evaluated in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions. "We're far from it still," she said, but called Bragdon "a part of the changemaking." 

Both Fuglister and Sadowsky warned that Bragdon's political instincts may lean too far toward avoiding conflict, though. "Under his leadership," Fuglister said, "Metro has moved away from looking at how you might use regulatory strategies towards a more consensus-based, voluntary approach." While Metro could require local jurisdictions to comply with the regional plan, she explained, Bragdon hasn't used those powers as much as previous administrations. 

Similarly, Sadowsky saw a desire to reach consensus as being at the root of Bragdon's position on the controversial replacement of a bridge across the Columbia River, which would widen the road from six lanes to ten. "There are some parts of the proposal that we'd rather not see," said Sadowsky, which gained traction "because he's bringing freight to the table and business leaders to the table." Of course, he added, that approach could serve Bragdon well in a job that requires coordinating a slew of independent city commissioners. 

Sadowsky expects that advocates will need to hold Bragdon's feet to the fire. "Individuals are only as good as the community that can inspire them and keep them accountable."

New York City transportation advocates praised the appointment, reading it as a sign of renewed support for the goals of PlaNYC within the Bloomberg administration. The city's sustainability agenda is due for a mandated update next Earth Day. "Mayor Bloomberg's appointment of David Bragdon to lead the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability bodes very well for the continued growth of a greener, healthier New York City," said Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White. His experience as an elected official, continued White, will serve him well as he takes on the tasks of making New York more walkable and bikeable, improving transit service, and reforming New York's parking policy.

"David Bragdon has impressive credentials," said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Associate Director Veronica Vanterpool, "and his appointment to head the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability is an encouraging sign. By conducting a nationwide search for the best candidate, Mayor Bloomberg sent a strong signal that PlaNYC will remain a priority in his third term." Vanterpool highlighted transit funding and traffic congestion as among the biggest challenges Bragdon will need to tackle during his tenure. With the state legislature's failure to enact congestion pricing, those issues stand largely unaddressed.

Joan Byron, who runs the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center for Community Development, saw promise in two pieces of Bragdon's resume. "He has a background in freight," said Byron, referring to his five years working at the Port of Portland, "which is an area that a lot of us are hoping that the next PlaNYC will pay attention to." The Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel, which would connect Jersey City and Brooklyn, "would be the biggest thing we could do to make a dent in truck traffic," she said.

What's more, running Metro meant Bragdon was in charge of the Portland region's urban growth boundary, which strictly regulates where growth can occur. "There's a lot that is really laudable in PlaNYC," explained Byron, "but it's not really a plan. It's really a checklist. It doesn't make hard choices." Portland's plan, in contrast, actually forbids development in some places. Bringing in that perspective -- knowing how to craft a plan with teeth -- could help push an updated PlaNYC toward a more comprehensive and enforceable form, she argued.