A Transportation Engineer Weighs in on the Prospect Park West Lawsuit

Gary Toth is currently director of transportation initiatives at Project for Public Spaces. Previously, during his career with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Gary was one of the architects of the agency’s transformation to a national leader in context-sensitive transportation planning. He sent us these thoughts in response to the lawsuit filed earlier this month against the Prospect Park West bike lane.

As someone who spent 34 years as an engineer at the New Jersey Department of Transportation conducting analyses and setting the scope for public investments, I can affirm that the NYCDOT approach to evaluating the Prospect Park West project was totally consistent with industry practice. Whether or not one would agree with the PPW street conversion, most practicing engineers would tell you that there is no merit whatsoever to the lawsuit’s allegations.

It is clear that this is a well-orchestrated smear campaign by the project opponents. By inserting false conclusions about professional transportation practice into a lawsuit, they create the illusion of professional validity, and set up the tabloids to post the conclusions as fact. Since, from my early read of the legal filing, it appears that the plaintiffs have no chance of getting anyone to agree that they are right about the NYCDOT process, I can only conclude that the real intent of this suit was to set up a trial via the press.

Equally unfortunate has been the attempt to turn this into a bicycle-versus-car argument. The current NYCDOT is about improving the quality of life for the people of NYC. It is unfortunate that the tabloids want to lower this discussion to acrimony and pit folks against each other, but of course this is not surprising. Sensationalism, creating the illusion of controversy, and pitting everyday citizens against each other is how they sell newspapers.

This story is bigger than one street. The transportation profession can no longer garner political support from the American people to pay for business-as-usual projects that move traffic at the expense of other outcomes. A 2007 report to the National Surface Transportation and Revenue Study Commission concluded, among other things, that to recapture the imagination of the American people and therefore support for funding our needed infrastructure, 21st century transportation has to be about people and communities, not any specific mode of travel or type of infrastructure — not cars, not bridges, not bikes.

The Prospect Park West re-design is a 21st century transportation project, one designed to meet needs as expressed by local residents, and it enjoys broad support within the community. These types of projects — slimming down the number of traffic lanes, adding amenities for pedestrians and cyclists, and yes, moving parking away from the curb — are becoming increasingly common in American communities.

But whether you like the PPW project or not, all who follow this story need to be concerned about the attempt of the plaintiffs and the tabloids to distract people into thinking the process of implementing and evaluating the redesign has somehow been faulty. We need to remain focused on the idea that 21st century public investment should be about people, not traffic. It needs to improve our lives, and projects like PPW need to be evaluated on that basis.

Please avoid falling into the trap that the project opponents have set — it is classic divide and conquer.