Torres: DOT “Abdicating Its Public Safety Function” to Community Boards

Council Member Ritchie Torres has a proposal to survey community board demographics in an effort to promote more accurate and diverse representation. Among other information, the survey would reveal the share of community board members who own cars, which tends to be much higher than car ownership among the general public.

Council Member Ritchie Torres. Photo: William Alatriste

Council Member Ritchie Torres. Photo: William Alatriste

Torres, who represents neighborhoods in the central Bronx, says getting a clearer sense of car ownership on community boards is a key goal of the bill (Intro. 1046). In fact, the legislation is the first piece in a “personal crusade” to change the way DOT defers to community boards on street safety, he told Streetsblog on a phone call yesterday. Highlighting the out-sized representation of car owners on community boards is just the beginning.

Torres said no other city agency besides DOT lets community boards decide the fate of public safety projects. With DOT letting the whims of car-owning community board members take precedence over public safety, Torres is concerned that important improvements will fall by the wayside.

In his district, he asked DOT to include bike lanes in a redesign of Tremont Avenue, which he expects to generate some pushback from the community board. But if parking and traffic are the community board’s primary concerns about the redesign, that won’t be an accurate reflection of the area’s public safety needs.

Here’s a short Q&A with Torres about his bill, lightly edited for length.

In April, at a hearing on community board term limits, you said that, “the real issue is not whether there should be term limits, but why do we allow community boards to be stumbling blocks to safe streets? We don’t require community board approval when we’re making decisions about fire safety or policing policy. It’s a matter of reminding DOT that your first obligation is not to appease the community board. It is to do what has been empirically shown to prevent traffic violence on our streets.” What drove you to propose this legislation — and to include car ownership as one of the surveyed demographic points?

When I think of community boards, the phrase that comes to mind is “personnel is destiny.” I would argue that outsized representation of car owners leads to over-representation of opponents of safe streets. I would argue that community boards have become the cult of car ownership. We have a personnel problem on our community boards.

Street safety shows that demography matters and the demographic conflict between community boards and their districts has negative effects on public safety. I don’t object to notifying community boards. DOT is so terrified of community boards that it has effectively made a policy of abdicating its public safety function under the guise of community engagement. In community boards, you have people who function as self-representatives. The premise of this legislation is that the community boards can be deeply unrepresentative of the communities they are in.

How would you like to see the city’s community board system change and how is this bill a part of that process?

Most of my ire is directed towards DOT because DOT is far too deferential to community boards. How many people have to die before the agency realizes that sacrificing safe streets makes for terrible public policy? I’m exploring a legislative strategy for eliminating DOT’s deference to community boards on safe streets. This legislation is the first part of a personal crusade.

What is your position on the mayor’s proposed elimination of parking minimums from affordable housing developments within one-half of a mile of public transit?

The dollars wasted on unused parking should go to housing. Most of my constituents who come to me care more about affordable housing than parking.