Most Candidates Endorse Traffic Reduction, But Few Offer Plans to Achieve It

Last night’s mayoral forum on sustainability at Cooper Union was the first to attract the full slate of candidates this election season, perhaps a sign that environmental issues now figure prominently in the campaigns’ electoral calculus. Organized by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, the event packed all nine registered mayoral candidates onto the stage, where Brian Lehrer of WNYC guided a conversation that touched on topics ranging from climate change to energy efficiency.

All candidates but Republican John Catsimatidis assured the audience that they believed in climate change, thought the next mayor should take measures to reduce the number of cars entering Manhattan below 59th Street, and would like to see an increase in bicycle commuting.

The latter two points came forth due to a cautious approach by Lehrer, who opted to acknowledge the touchy political subjects of congestion pricing and bike lanes while allowing the candidates to avoid an overt stance. While this put all mayoral candidates but Catsimatidis on the record in favor of the outcomes of bike lanes, bike-share, and road pricing, it left the audience without an explanation of how candidates who have stated disdain for bike infrastructure and congestion pricing would achieve these goals.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion did expand on this discussion by positioning multi-modal transit networks at the core of their sustainability platforms. Albanese renewed his call for fair tolling and the expansion of bike lanes and Select Bus Service to “get as many people out of their cars as possible.” Quinn pitched an expansion of Bus Rapid Transit and an expanded network of ferries to bring East River Ferry-style options to other waterfront neighborhoods. Carrion expressed support for more efficient bus, car, and taxi fleets and pushed for “smart growth, building vertically instead of horizontally, and transit oriented development” within a “holistic” transportation network that prioritizes mass transit, bicycling, and walking.

Meanwhile, the current and former comptrollers on stage, John Liu and Bill Thompson, offered only passing mentions of the need for improved transit infrastructure to accommodate impending population growth. Former MTA chief and Republican frontrunner Joe Lhota stepped into the discussion with a jab at the aging infrastructure he once oversaw, though he made no proposal to modernize it. This came not long after Lhota offhandedly endorsed the Bloomberg administration’s proposed rezoning of East Midtown, stating that the redevelopment of the business district would replace mid-century structures with more energy-efficient new towers. Lhota left unresolved the question of how to retrofit the aged and overloaded Lexington Avenue subway line to absorb the increased ridership that would come with the rezoning.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio steered away from transportation entirely, instead emphasizing the city’s public housing stock as an opportunity to retrofit for energy efficiency. Doe Fund founder and Republican candidate George McDonald also advanced no transportation agenda, though his announcement of his new Citi Bike membership may make him the first candidate to declare himself a bike-share subscriber.

Given the topic of the forum, disaster planning and New York’s post-Sandy recovery received scant attention. Not once was “resilience” mentioned. For the most part, candidates hewed to the no-size-fits-all approach to development on the city’s waterfront (rebuilding in some places; buyouts in others) and storm protection (hard and soft infrastructure each have their place) that has become the politically prudent stance since the storm.

In another episode of group consensus, each candidate refused to take a position on the annexation of parkland in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to make way for a Major League Soccer stadium.

While specifics did not carry the day, if the candidates follow through with policies to back up their promises, New Yorkers can expect their next mayor to pursue energy efficiency in the city’s building stock and alternative energy development. Whether the next administration’s sustainability agenda will include a progressive transportation plan is still, however, a very open question.