One of the most insightful questions of the 2013 campaign season came two weeks ago, when WNYC’s Brian Lehrer asked Bill de Blasio if he considered transportation policy “one of his tools to fight inequality.”
De Blasio, who overwhelmed his opponents this election cycle by appealing to New Yorkers’ sense of economic fairness, gave this response:
Transportation determines opportunity, livability, business climate. For many people, the absence of affordable transportation, in outer-borough locations especially, constrains their opportunities.
Those two sentences are an excellent distillation of why de Blasio is viewed with a mixture of hope and trepidation by New Yorkers who care about livable streets.
You can tell the mayor-elect has a command of the issues. He gets that access to transit is linked to economic opportunity. Maybe he’s even taken a good long look at the Pratt Center’s maps showing the lengthy commutes that low-income New Yorkers grind through every workday.
And yet, he didn’t actually say “transit.” Intentionally or not, sticking to the neutral phrase “transportation” signaled an absence of commitment. In two sentences, de Blasio showed off his policy chops while managing to avoid the appearance of taking sides.
De Blasio’s policy book laid out ambitious goals for streets and transit, including pledges to adopt a zero tolerance stance toward traffic deaths and to allocate more street space to transit by implementing at least 20 BRT routes. By and large, though, these promises have stayed buried in campaign documents. While de Blasio stated his support for bike lanes and pedestrian plazas in interviews, it all seemed to carry less weight after the candidate said during a televised debate that “the jury’s out” on the major Midtown street reclamations.
Safe streets and quality transit never did make it into his stump speech. But once de Blasio begins governing the city, the management of New York’s streets will be one of the few areas in which he can make a noticeable mark on his signature issues — inequality and affordability.
The de Blasio campaign’s top policy proposal — raising income taxes on wealthy New Yorkers to fund universal pre-K — depends on Albany. If he pulls it off, the change could be profound, but it will take a generation for the effects to fully play out.
New York City’s streets, meanwhile, can be made more equitable while de Blasio is still mayor. Most households in New York (54 percent) don’t own cars, and households that do own cars earn more than twice as much, on average, as households that do not. Our streets, however, are designed to favor the privileged: A few well-off people in space-hogging SUVs can delay hundreds of less affluent people riding the bus. This is one thing that the mayor of New York has the power to change, if he wants to.