Last week, Henry Melcher at the Architect’s Newspaper ran a thoughtful piece about the state of NYC DOT’s bike program that got buried almost immediately by comments from Bill Bratton and Mayor de Blasio about the Times Square plazas.
Melcher asked why DOT so often passes up the chance to add bike lanes in its street safety projects. He elicited this response from DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo:
Russo explained that while certain road diets may exclude bike lanes, they can be the first step in convincing skeptical communities that precarious streets can become complete streets. “We have to get people from A to C,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean every single street has to have a bike lane initially or when you do a project.” In the Vision Zero era, he continued, redesigning a dangerous intersection might initially get priority over a bike lane. The idea is that once a street is made safer for all users (cyclists included), the DOT can go back to a community board with a more substantial focus on cyclist safety.
At a press conference where Russo announced safety improvements at an Atlantic Avenue intersection earlier this week, Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller questioned this line of thinking. In the exchange, Russo repeatedly asserted that DOT is doing everything it feasibly can to make streets safer for biking given the local politics of community boards and City Council members.
Before I get to the specifics of what was said, it’s important to keep in mind that Ryan Russo has been instrumental to the street design renaissance that began at DOT with the appointment of commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in 2007. He played a leading role in introducing protected bike lanes to New York City streets and in major projects like the Times Square plazas. After Bill de Blasio was elected and put Polly Trottenberg in charge of DOT, advocates saw Russo’s elevation to deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management — a post second only to the commissioner — as an important sign that the agency would retain its capacity to make change happen.
And when it wants to, DOT remains perfectly capable of putting out great street redesigns — the changes this month on Queens Boulevard are proof of that. But there’s a huge gap between the de Blasio administration’s ambitious Vision Zero goals and DOT’s tentative decisions about bike infrastructure. Getting the agency to, for instance, propose a protected bike lane for Amsterdam Avenue — a major void in the bike network with a high injury rate — has been like pulling teeth, despite ample support from local electeds. There’s a political calculus behind these DOT decisions, and as deputy commissioner Russo is more responsible than ever for formulating it.