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On Progressive Transportation, Bill de Blasio Has Some Catching Up to Do

Tomorrow evening, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio will deliver the keynote address at the Transportation Alternatives summer benefit [1]. When de Blasio’s name was announced as a headliner, it was somewhat surprising. As a City Council member, he was an early backer of making Prospect Park car-free. But as a citywide office holder and presumed 2013 mayoral hopeful, de Blasio has not made street safety or sustainable transportation a priority.

As Public Advocate, de Blasio commands a citywide bully pulpit and can highlight just about any issue he cares to. The position was created to serve as an “ombudsperson” — someone who listens to the public and speaks up for their interests.

Pedestrian safety and traffic congestion are the top two concerns of New Yorkers [2], according to a 2008 survey by the Citizens Committee for New York City. And, as Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign told Streetsblog [3] after de Blasio was elected in 2009, the public advocate could use his office “to press for picking up the pace and scope of Bus Rapid Transit routes.”

But de Blasio has not had much to say on these issues. When he has spoken up about livable streets, he has tended to sympathize with opponents of current NYC DOT initiatives to improve bus service and bike safety.

Instead of asking the city to pick up the pace of bus improvements, he asked for more bureaucratic delay [4] before DOT went forward with the 34th Street Transitway (de Blasio’s suggestion came just before the city announced that there would be no separated busway [5] in the project). Most recently, he applauded the decision [6] not to stripe a bike lane on Bay Ridge Parkway that was voted down by the local Community Board: “This was an important step forward that shows a willingness to respect the input of residents and community leaders.” In contrast, de Blasio has not come out and said he supports the Prospect Park West bike lane, which was requested and approved by the local community board in his old district.

Past citywide office holders have raised the profile of street safety and sustainability issues. Former city comptroller Alan Hevesi called attention to rampant traffic violations with a 2000 report [7] estimating that motorists run red lights more than a million times each day in New York City. De Blasio’s predecessor as public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, who was widely considered a meek presence in the office, pointed out the folly of including so much parking [8] in the city’s plans for the Far West Side of Manhattan.

De Blasio has not yet announced a mayoral run, but the Times reported last week [9] that he raised nearly $700,000 in the first half of this year (less than Christine Quinn, about the same as Scott Stringer, more than Bill Thompson). As a big-city mayoral contender, de Blasio would have some catching up to do before he could plausibly claim to be a progressive candidate on transportation issues. The bar is high these days: Rahm Emanuel campaigned for mayor of Chicago with a strong commitment to expanding transit and bike infrastructure [10] in his platform — promises that he is now delivering on [11].

Here is an overview of de Blasio’s record when it comes to transit, street safety, and public space issues.

Noah Kazis contributed to this post.