Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the fifth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.
This piece originally ran on November 10, 2011.
This is the fifth post in a series examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first, second, third, and fourth installments.
For a few months in the beginning of 2011, hardly a day went by without some political figure or media pundit inveighing against bike lanes and the Department of Transportation. The attackers ran the gamut from Staten Island Republicans to Democrats holding citywide office, from tabloid editorial boards to columnists for highbrow glossy mags. The story swirling in the middle of it all surrounded a bike lane about a mile long on Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West, which had the backing of most local residents but irritated some powerful neighbors.
PPW bike lane opponents including former deputy mayor Norman Steisel, left, met with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in February. A month later De Blasio sent a letter to NYC DOT criticizing the agency's evaluation of bike, bus, and pedestrian projects.
Even the most rational observer had to question, at times, whether the multi-pronged attack on the city’s bike policy was really a coincidence. And it turns out that in fact, the self-proclaimed “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” had several previously unreported connections to the bikelash of 2011, according to email communications obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request.
Former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall and former NYC personnel director Bob Linn tried to trade on their contacts inside the Bloomberg administration to undermine the PPW bike lane and NYC DOT.
In some cases, NBBL joined up with other bike lane foes after observing them from afar. In others, they had a direct hand in ginning up bad press for bike lanes and DOT. Sometimes they got what they wanted out of their political and media connections. Other times their gambits seemingly went nowhere. And on occasion their efforts completely backfired. We’ll explore these connections in two posts: This one deals with their political and professional contacts, and the next one with their media contacts.
The picture that emerges of NBBL’s behind-the-scenes lobbying contrasts starkly with the process that led up to the installation of the PPW bike lane. While the neighborhood advocates and civic groups who supported the bike lane gathered signatures and helped shepherd the project through the community board process, the opponents traded on their extensive Rolodexes and high-level connections to undermine the bike lane in a secretive and sophisticated campaign.
Two major NBBL players should be familiar if you’ve been following the story: Iris Weinshall, former DOT commissioner and wife of United States Senator Chuck Schumer; and Norman Steisel, sanitation commissioner for Ed Koch and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins. The constellation of former city bureaucrats who put their government contacts to use opposing the Prospect Park West bike lane also includes Bob Linn, city personnel director under Koch, and Connie Christensen, a former arts commissioner.
Note: Streetsblog has already covered NBBL connections to Senator Chuck Schumer, former deputy mayor and Gibson Dunn partner Randy Mastro, City Council Transportation Committee Chair Jimmy Vacca, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. They are for the most part not included in this piece.
NBBL Spoke With the Public Advocate, City Council Members, Borough Presidents and City Hall About PPW Lane
NBBL leaders Steisel, Louise Hainline, and Lois Carswell, as well as their attorney, Jim Walden, attended a meeting with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio on February 9 (Weinshall was out of town). The meeting was “to discuss bike strategy” according to a confirmation message from de Blasio scheduler Ellyn Canfield Nealon. De Blasio’s office has not returned an inquiry about who called the meeting and what was discussed.
One month after that meeting, however, de Blasio sent a letter to Janette Sadik-Khan calling DOT’s evaluations of its own projects, including of the PPW lane, “rubber stamps.” Impugning the integrity of DOT’s project evaluations echoes a major theme in the NBBL lawsuit. The Post picked up de Blasio’s letter a week later, when DOT publicly abandoned plans for the 34th Street separated busway.