Former NYPD Traffic Chief Scagnelli on Traffic, Safety, and Open Data

This interview is re-published from the fall issue of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim.

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A few months after he turned 63 and was forced to retire from a distinguished 39-year career with the New York City Police Department, Chief Michael Scagnelli testified in favor of a T.A.-backed City Council bill that would make portions of the NYPD’s traffic data available to the public. Bucking the departmental line and contradicting some statements made by his successor, Chief Scagnelli lived up to his reputation for shooting straight and speaking his mind by delivering testimony (see bottom) that won the day.

Reclaim sat down with the storied Chief — who took on cell phones, implemented TrafficStat and pioneered accident-prone location details — at a diner on Hylan Boulevard in the Oakwood section of Staten Island. The next day, he was off to hunt elk in Colorado. Suffice it to say that the conversation found its way to our common interests quickly.

Reclaim: After 39 years on the force and seven as the NYPD’s transportation chief, what’s one of the most important lessons you’ve learned?

Chief Scagnelli: You can get good information from everybody. The best source to figure out what works is to ask the people who know the day-to-day of a place. I’ve heard great ideas from cleaning people at One Police Plaza, and from neighbors, and from letters from the public that ended up on my desk. It’s not just the professionals who know best.

Reclaim: Definitely. We’re big believers in the idea of local knowledge and community process. Do you have any tips for people who feel they’re not being heard, other than moving next door to a police chief or working in the same office as one?

Scagnelli: It’s important to write letters and make phone calls, and it’s important to remember that people are human. Tone is so important. You have to have a nice tone, because people who read letters all day will dismiss the ones that are nasty. If you start out ‘You don’t know anything about this or that’ then I can promise you that your letter won’t get considered in the same way as one that starts ‘Dear person who I’m sure is trying their best’.

Reclaim: What about the Mayor and the DOT? Are they doing their best?

The State Traffic Courts are too lenient. Even when an officer writes a good ticket, a person can hire an attorney and get postponements until it’s thrown out on a technicality.

Scagnelli: I’m not here to criticize, or even to advise, but I’ll tell you what I think is a great idea. I like that congestion pricing for parking that Professor Shoup from UCLA is talking about. That’s a great idea. So much traffic — you wouldn’t believe how much, maybe 20 percent — is just looking for a cheap spot to park on the street. If you could increase the cost of meters to free up spaces or discourage unnecessary driving, that would have a huge impact across the city.

Reclaim: Since you retired, the City has been experimenting with inching the price up in parts of Park Slope and the West Village.

Scagnelli: That’s good. They should keep inching it up. It has got to be something significant. 10 bucks, 12 bucks, it has got to be up there.

Reclaim: So what about regular congestion pricing or tolls on the East River bridges?

Scagnelli: I don’t think we should toll the East River bridges. Would it help traffic in Manhattan? Sure. Would it raise money? That depends on how it’s managed. But I think it would do a lot of negative things, too: pollution; congestion; park-and-ride problems in the boroughs; unnecessary divisions in the city. I don’t believe in that.

Reclaim: OK. But what we’re doing now isn’t reducing traffic and it definitely isn’t making any money.

Scagnelli: There are ways of using pricing to incentive public transportation and carpooling that don’t draw those borders around Manhattan. The parking plan I mentioned earlier, and why not single-driver fees to use HOV lanes on something like the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel? Something where there’s adequate transit nearby? Make it $20 to use it if you’re alone in a car. You’d make money and, better, you’d encourage people to carpool and take transit.

Reclaim: In the past we’ve heard you talk about the three E’s — engineering, enforcement and education. As a former top-cop how would you change the circumstances surrounding your E?

Scagnelli: The State Traffic Courts are too lenient. Even when an officer writes a good ticket, a person can hire an attorney and get postponements until it’s thrown out on a technicality. Groups like T.A. need to urge the State Legislature to overhaul the State Traffic Court system.

And upon conviction we need more severe punishments. The amount of money we’re fining people ought to be enough to change their mind. If the punishment for running a stop sign is $250, and you’re incredibly unlikely to get caught, you might run the stop sign. But if we change one thing, if we make the punishment $10,000 and take your car away — and I’m being over the top with that — but if we did that, you’d never run a stop sign, even if you were unlikely to get caught.

Reclaim: What about automated enforcement cameras?

Scagnelli: With red-light cameras, people learn where they are, and then they slam on their brakes when the light is yellow because they know they’ll get a ticket, so they can cause problems. But speed cameras, they wouldn’t have that problem. In the right locations — where it’s clear it’s not just about revenue but about safety — that’s where speed cameras would do the city a lot of good.

Reclaim: There has been a lot in the papers lately about scofflaw cyclists. What’s your take?

Scagnelli: Just from watching bicyclists for years and years, my opinion is that the greater majority obeys the rules. Now there are a lot of couriers and delivery people who don’t. They’re hustling to make a buck, putting their own lives in jeopardy, and it’s a shame, and they need to get fined just like drivers who break the law.

Reclaim: What about the Mayor’s plan to reduce speed limits in areas around the city to 20 mph?

Scagnelli: In city centers, like in Chinatown, many parts of Manhattan, and in really dense parts of the Boroughs, in those neighborhoods it would work and save lives, but I wouldn’t do it blanket throughout the city.

Reclaim: Any final thoughts, Chief? What about your legacy?

Scagnelli: My legacy? There’s a lot more to that than this [chuckles], but I’ll tell you, whenever you have anyone in charge of anything, the person in charge has to be zealous. If you’re not, then you’re not as good as you can be. Everyone should remember that. Between zeal and sharing — sharing the road or knowledge or your honest opinion — that’s how you get good things done.

Testimony of Michael Scagnelli
Chief of Transportation (retired)
New York City Police Department

New York City Council
Committee on Public Safety
Hearing on Intro. 0120
April 28th, 2010

In the year 2000 I took control of TrafficStat and re-engineered and improved it to reverse the trend of rising accidents, injuries and deaths. The central lesson of TrafficStat is that the more traffic data is available, the more capability there is to prevent accidents, injuries and the loss of life that too often occurs on New York City streets.

When I was Chief of Transportation, if legitimate organizations requested accident, injury and summonsing statistics, I would furnish them, provided I already had the information. I strongly believe that one way to help reduce traffic injuries and fatalities on New York City streets is for the NYPD to make traffic injury, fatality and summonsing data open and available to the public. The simple fact is that this information already exists in a form that could be easily released and made available to the public and other agencies focused on reducing traffic casualties.

If this information is made public, it will surely help citizens, community leaders, health professionals and elected officials draw much-needed attention to the dire need for more traffic safety solutions to be applied on our streets. I have always been a great believer in the transparency of the police department. It can only help the police and the citizens of New York City to make all known traffic data readily available to the public. Thank you.

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