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NYC’s New Budget Fails to Fund More Low-Cost Vision Zero Street Redesigns

It’s July, which means the city’s new fiscal year 2016 budget is in effect. This spring, the de Blasio administration touted early funding for street repaving and reconstruction of four arterial streets under the “Vision Zero Great Streets” program. But the final budget the mayor’s office negotiated with the City Council fails to beef up the city’s efforts to quickly reduce deaths and injuries on its most dangerous streets.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces the fiscal year 2016 budget deal with the City Council. Photo: NYC Council/Flickr

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces the fiscal year 2016 budget deal with the City Council. Photo: NYC Council/Flickr

The most promising way to get fast results from street redesigns is through “operational” projects that use paint and other low-cost changes to calm traffic, rather than waiting years for the city to design and build an expensive capital project. But the final budget sets aside funding for just 50 of these operational projects, DOT said, which does not represent an increase in the city’s commitment.

The $5.2 million pot of money for those 50 projects, which can be as small as a single intersection, also covers safety education, signal retiming, and replacement of faded pavement markings.

To put that amount in perspective, the de Blasio administration set aside an extra $242 million this year to ramp up its street repaving efforts. Devoting similar resources to expanding the city’s program for quick and effect street redesigns could save dozens of lives each year. Without that commitment, it’s hard to see how New York will come close to achieving de Blasio’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2024.

There is some good news in the final budget, but it came in small packages:

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Team de Blasio Makes Its Case for a One-Year “Uber Cap”

The scene at today's transportation committee hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

The scene at today’s transportation committee hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

The de Blasio administration made its case for temporarily restricting the growth of licenses for ride-hailing services like Uber at a City Council hearing this morning. With congestion in Manhattan getting worse, City Hall’s plan is to cap the number of new for-hire vehicles on city streets for the next year while it studies the impact of the industry on traffic.

Today, the city splits most car services into two categories: medallion yellow taxis and for-hire vehicles (FHVs), which include green boro taxis, livery services, limousines, and drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft. Each has different rules and regulations.

Yellow cabs, which are the only service subject to a surcharge that helps fund the MTA, are limited by the number of medallions. The number of boro taxis, which are supposed to pick up passengers outside the central areas of the city, is capped by state law. But the city has no mechanism to limit the number of black cars, hence City Hall’s need for legislation introduced in the City Council by Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez and Steve Levin.

Since the advent of Uber and other app-based services, the number of FHVs on city streets has boomed, growing 63 percent since 2011. Nearly three-quarters of trips made by the new FHVs originate in Manhattan south of 60th Street, according to DOT, and the city is worried that these trips are a major factor behind the recent increase in congestion in the center of the city, which in turn may explain why bus ridership is dropping faster in Manhattan than in the outer boroughs.

“This decrease in traffic speeds is happening at the same time that overall traffic into the Manhattan CBD has fallen,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. While traffic in 2014 was 9 percent slower in the Manhattan central business district than it was in 2010, the number of vehicles entering the CBD each day had dropped 6 percent over the same period. The implication: The spike in for-hire cars circulating Manhattan has more than offset the reduction in other vehicles driving into the city center.

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Council Calls on de Blasio to Double “Great Streets” Redesign Funds

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Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez says Mayor de Blasio should increase the city’s budget for major street safety redesigns.

The City Council wants Mayor de Blasio to double funding for DOT capital projects to overhaul the city’s most dangerous streets and save more lives, faster.

At a council budget hearing last week, transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez called for additional funds in the executive budget for the “Great Streets” program. As of now the mayor’s budget proposes $250 million for safety improvements on streets selected for the initiative: Queens Boulevard, the Grand Concourse, and Atlantic Avenue and Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. Motorists killed 34 pedestrians, and seriously injured 215, on those four streets from 2009 to 2013.

In April, the City Council’s preliminary budget called for a much larger “Great Streets” allocation of $500 million. Rodriguez and the council reiterated that demand in a statement published by the Daily News today. “With $250 million additional dollars we can more than double the amount of redesigned roadways,” said Rodriguez. “Though the executive budget was a good start, the more money we put in, the more results we will attain.”

De Blasio has shown some flexibility in budgeting for streets. Last month, the mayor announced an accelerated DOT repaving schedule at a conference on Staten Island, but did not mention Vision Zero.

We asked the mayor’s office about the council Great Streets ask. De Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell sent us this statement:

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City Council Poised to Require Side Guards on 10,000 Trucks by 2024

The City Council transportation committee unanimously passed a bill this afternoon that would require side guards, which keep pedestrians and cyclists from being swept beneath a truck’s rear wheels, on approximately 10,000 New York City trucks by 2024. The legislation, likely to pass the full council tomorrow, mandates the add-ons not just for city-owned trucks but also for private trash haulers.

Under a City Council bill likely to pass tomorrow, city-owned and private trash trucks would be required to have side guards to protect fallen pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Douglas Palmer/Flickr

Under a City Council bill likely to pass tomorrow, city-owned and private trash trucks would be required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Douglas Palmer/Flickr

The bill would significantly expand a 240-vehicle pilot announced earlier this year by the de Blasio administration. “While I applaud the administration for this first step, we need to go further, both within our city fleet and those private vehicles with the highest fatality rates,” said Council Member Corey Johnson, who sponsored the bill.

Johnson’s bill has two parts. First, it would mandate side guards on all vehicles in the city’s fleet weighing more than 10,000 pounds, with exemptions for street sweepers, fire engines, car carriers, and off-road construction vehicles. The city owns 4,734 vehicles, about half of them garbage trucks, that are candidates for side guards, according to a report produced for the city by U.S. DOT.

The average life of a DSNY garbage truck is eight years, so Johnson’s bill delays the side guard requirement until 2024, by which point the current fleet will be phased out. Equipping new vehicles with the guards costs less than the approximately $3,000 to install them on an existing vehicle, said Louis Cholden-Brown, Johnson’s director of legislative and budget affairs. “The goal is to get these pre-made into the contracts,” he said.

The second part of the bill expands the side guard mandate to trucks owned by private trash haulers regulated by the city’s Business Integrity Commission. If private haulers don’t add side guards by 2024, they could be fined or lose their license to operate in the city.

“We know it’s coming. The first words from the leadership were, ‘We’ve got to get behind it,'” said Steven Changaris, northeast regional manager for the National Waste and Recycling Association, which represents private haulers. “It’s about safety, so you know, we want to be safe.” Changaris said his group wants to work with the city during the rule-making process to make sure companies can meet the mandate for side guards, which are currently not standard equipment on most U.S. trucks.

Requiring side guards on private trash trucks is particularly important. Private haulers not only outnumber the Department of Sanitation’s collection fleet, they also drive more, traveling an estimated 12 miles per ton of waste collected, compared to just four miles per ton for the city-owned fleet, according to a 2012 report produced for DSNY [PDF].

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Participatory Budgeting Will Fund 21 Livable Streets Projects

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A map of all 124 projects that won funding from this year’s round of participatory budgeting, via City Council.

The votes are in, and 21 livable streets projects got enough support to be funded in this year’s round of participatory budgeting. All told, 124 projects made the cut and will receive City Council funds [PDF]. In dollar terms, the streets projects will account for $5.1 million of the $32.5 million distributed by council members.

During the participatory budgeting process, New Yorkers cast 51,362 ballots across 24 council districts from April 11 to 19, the City Council reported this afternoon.

The City Council touted how the voting involves people who otherwise find it difficult to participate in civic affairs. Approximately one in five ballots, which were available in up to 10 languages, were cast in a language other than English. Nearly 30 percent of participatory budgeting voters reported an annual household income of $25,000 or below, according to a survey by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, and more than a quarter were born outside the United States.

“Across the city, thousands of residents of all ages and backgrounds came together to make their neighborhoods a better place to call home,” Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement. “Participatory budgeting breaks down barriers that New Yorkers may face at the polls — including youth, income status, English-language proficiency and citizenship status — resulting in a civic dialogue that is truly inclusive and representative of the diversity of this community and this city.”

The winning transportation projects include everything from raised crosswalks in Hell’s Kitchen to bus arrival displays in the Bronx. Here’s the rundown.

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Why Does Rory Lancman Want to Save Drivers From “Scofflaw Pedestrians”?

Paramedics work to save John Torson a few feet from the crosswalk at E. 61st Street and First Avenue. Photo: Daniel S. Dunnam

Paramedics work on John Torson a few feet from the crosswalk at E. 61st Street and First Avenue. NYPD said Torson was “outside the crosswalk” when he was fatally struck by the driver of the white SUV. Photo: Daniel S. Dunnam

City Council Member Rory Lancman wants to make it more difficult for NYPD to charge drivers who injure and kill people when, in his words, “accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.” But if anything, NYPD has been exceedingly cautious in applying the Right of Way Law when there’s a chance the victim was not in a crosswalk.

If there’s even a speck of doubt about whether the victim had the right of way, NYPD isn’t filing charges against the driver.

The above photo was taken by a reader after an SUV driver fatally struck 89-year-old John Torson as he was walking across E. 61st Street at First Avenue. As we reported last Friday, the day after the crash, an NYPD spokesperson told Streetsblog that, according to the Collision Investigation Squad, Torson was “outside of the marked crosswalk” when he was hit. You can see from the photo that, if Torson was not in the crosswalk, he was at most no more than one car length away. You can’t rule out the possibility that Torson was struck in the crosswalk and propelled forward by the force of impact.

As of today, police had filed no charges against the driver.

The Right of Way Law took effect last August. Between last September and March 2015, the latest month for which NYPD crash data is available, city motorists injured or killed over 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists. As of April, NYPD had applied the Right of Way Law just 22 times. NYPD is training beat cops to use the law, but as of now virtually all cases resulting in Right of Way Law charges are investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad — a small unit of detectives who are trained to process crash scenes, and whose work is relied upon to convict motorists on serious charges, like homicide.

With an application rate of one-quarter of one percent, and investigators declining to prosecute drivers whose victims were said to be just outside the crosswalk, it’s clear that NYPD is being very conservative with the Right of Way Law. Lancman’s proposed Right of Way Law amendment — which would absolve drivers who harm people when the weather is bad — would lead police to apply the law even less frequently.

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Rory Lancman Will Introduce Bill to Hamstring NYPD Crash Investigators

City Council Member Rory Lancman thinks NYPD is playing fast and loose with the Right of Way Law, and he’ll soon introduce a bill that would make it more difficult for police to apply it.

Rory Lancman

A key facet of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, the Right of Way Law allows NYPD to file misdemeanor charges against drivers who harm people who are walking and biking with the right of way. Lancman voted for the law, but has complained that NYPD uses it too often.

Motorists have injured or killed over 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists since the Right of Way Law took effect last August. As of April, NYPD had applied the law 22 times. As of now virtually all cases resulting in Right of Way Law charges were worked by the Collision Investigation Squad, which is trained to investigate serious traffic crashes.

In an email to fellow council members today, Lancman called on them to sponsor a Right of Way Law amendment that would place additional burdens on NYPD crash investigators, and create loopholes for motorists who harm people who are following traffic rules.

Wrote Lancman:

[I]t is unclear whether the police department is conducting a “due care” analysis before deciding to arrest and charge drivers with a misdemeanor, or what factors are incorporated into such a “due care” analysis. Indeed, the Transport Workers Union has filed a lawsuit to declare the law unconstitutional and unenforceable in part because of this ambiguity.

This amendment clarifies the meaning of “failure to use due care” by requiring the police department to consider visibility, illumination, weather conditions, roadway conditions, and roadway design as well as whether the pedestrian was in violation of any vehicle and traffic laws at the time of the accident.

Adding a provision to the bill to require an analysis of due care will penalize drivers who hit pedestrians out of recklessness and gross negligence, while sparing drivers when accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan has explained publicly that the department files charges under the Right of Way Law only when probable cause can be determined based on evidence. Given the number of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths since the law was adopted, if anything it seems NYPD is exercising excessive restraint in applying the law.

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City Council Members Ride to City Hall to Celebrate Bike Month

Seven City Council members rode their bikes to work yesterday in observance of Bike Month — up from five last year. They came in two groups, one starting from Union Square and the other from Brooklyn Borough Hall, before gathering on the steps of City Hall. Clarence Eckerson Jr. of Streetfilms was there to capture it.

Council members on bikes included Robert Cornegy Jr., Ben Kallos, Brad Lander, Mark Levine, Carlos Menchaca, Andy Cohen, and Helen Rosenthal. They were joined at City Hall by Antonio Reynoso and transportation committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez. Most of those the council members belong to the 18-member Progressive Caucus, which organized the ride with Transportation Alternatives, StreetsPAC, Citi Bike, and Bike New York.

In a press release, the Progressive Caucus backed more bike lanes, improved access for bikes in buildings, and the continued expansion of bike-share.

“I believe that we can find a way to balance the needs of bike riders with the concerns of pedestrians and community members,” Progressive Caucus vice-chair Helen Rosenthal said in the release, “and I look forward to increasing bike safety, improving bike access, and creating biking infrastructure to benefit all New Yorkers.”

Although they both spoke about the importance of cycling safety, Kallos and Cornegy back a bill that would exempt MTA bus drivers from criminal penalties if they strike a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way.

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Can New York City Reform Its Dysfunctional Community Board System?

New York City’s 59 community boards often serve as the sole venues where the public can assess and vet street design projects. But they are also structured in a way that inhibits any sort of change, giving de facto veto power over street improvements to a small clique who can serve for life.

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Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg called community boards “a nice bit of urban democracy” that “actually works very well.” Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

A bill in the City Council would establish term limits for community board members, but the reform would only go so far. Under the bill, current community board members would be grandfathered in, meaning they would face no term limits while new appointees would. Meanwhile, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg shows no inclination to change the agency’s policy of giving community boards the final say on its street safety projects.

The term limits bill, sponsored by Council Member Daniel Dromm, would limit new community board appointees to six two-year terms. After reaching the maximum term, people could still attend and speak at community board meetings but could no longer hold a voting seat.

Despite allowing all current board members to escape term limits, the bill is opposed by all five borough presidents, whom appoint people to community boards. A spokesperson for Eric Adams said the Brooklyn borough president is “supportive of term limits in concept” but opposes this bill. Queens Beep Melinda Katz supported term limits as a candidate [PDF] but now opposes them.

Staff of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer [PDF] joined district managers and board members from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx testifying against the bill yesterday before the City Council governmental operations committee, saying term limits would decimate institutional knowledge on the boards.

A united front of good government advocates at the hearing, including Citizens Union, New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause New York, and Transportation Alternatives [PDF], supported term limits and argued for further reforms to bring more daylight to the appointment process.

“When it comes to Vision Zero and traffic safety, we often see a large divide between members who have been serving for their entire lives and came of age when the car was king in New York City, and members of all ages who think more in tune with the modern state of urban planning and street design,” said TA’s Paul Steely White. “People are prioritizing a single parking space over daylighting an intersection, for example.”

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City Council Regresses on Street Safety, Weighs Fines for Cyclists

Less than a year ago, the City Council overwhelmingly passed a raft of bills designed to protect New Yorkers from reckless driving. Was it the beginning of a new era, where street safety is taken seriously by city legislators, or was it a fluke? The council could go either way, based on a transportation committee hearing today that considered a new bill to fight the phantom menace of cyclists on cell phones.

Council Member Mark Treyger, sponsor of the texting-while-biking bill.

Council Member Mark Treyger’s bill to ban handheld cell phone use while bicycling came up for a hearing today at the transportation committee. Texting while bicycling isn’t a safe choice, but neither has it been shown to be a significant factor in serious crashes. Most of the people testifying about the bill urged Treyger to either amend it or focus on dangers that are actually proven to kill and injure New Yorkers on the street.

“While cyclists would benefit from more safety education, drivers account for the overwhelming number of crashes that lead to fatalities or serious injuries on our streets,” testified DOT assistant commissioner Josh Benson. “The Council may want to consider ways to promote expanded safety education for drivers, which will go much farther in making our streets safer.”

Instead of taking the advice, Treyger seems intent on passing the bill after he saw a near-miss involving a texting cyclist in his district last year. But does one anecdote constitute a real problem?

Council Member Antonio Reynoso asked DOT how many pedestrian deaths are caused by cyclists on cell phones. “Zero per year,” Benson said. “We did not find any reports where texting was a factor in bike-related crashes.”

“It’s a piece of legislation that is bringing attention to an issue that doesn’t even exist,” Reynoso said. “It’s very dangerous to do that. ‘We should start asking pedestrians to start wearing reflectors when they cross the street, just in case, because they might be the problem next. The problems are not pedestrians, they are not cyclists. They are vehicles, and I just think that we are fooling ourselves with these pieces of legislation.”

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