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New Layer of Red Tape From FHWA Threatens to Delay NYC Bike Projects

The Federal Highway Administration is seeking to impose a new layer of bureaucratic review on New York City bike projects, which could significantly delay the implementation of street redesigns that have proven to reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

The Federal Highway Administration wants to impose a level of bureaucratic review that could delay projects like the Kent Avenue bike lane by one to two years. Photo: NYC DOT

According to a source in city government, FHWA wants the New York State DOT to review each individual NYC bike project design before releasing federal funds for implementation. This would be a major departure from the existing practice in which the state DOT approves a package of bike projects for funding simultaneously, without performing design reviews of each one. If the state DOT starts reviewing every single NYC bike project going forward, it could dramatically slow down the addition of new bike lanes, delaying each by up to two years, the city official said.

Currently, NYC DOT pays for many of its bike projects using funds from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program. These CMAQ grants have laid the foundation for the city’s bike network expansion over the past six years. The federal grants first pass through the state DOT, which then releases the funds to the city.

According to the state DOT, the state has to review federally-funded projects classified as capital construction. NYC bikeways are implemented primarily through contracts that involve striping but not capital construction, and the state DOT confirmed that for years most bike lanes have been built without being classified as “construction projects.” FHWA now wants to reclassify bike lanes, triggering the more time-consuming review procedure.

While the impetus to reclassify bike lanes appears to have originated with state DOT sometime earlier this year, the agency has since backed away from the idea. The feds remain intent on pursuing the much more time-consuming process, however, with FHWA saying it is applying review protocols established by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.

The city official says the review procedure is flexible, and there is no need to reclassify bike lanes. The current, streamlined review procedure has led to the implementation of projects all over the city with demonstrable safety benefits, routinely lowering the rate of traffic injuries by more than 25 percent [PDF].

Street safety advocates are alarmed at the prospect of a much lengthier bureaucratic review for New York City bike improvements. “The current process is working well, and has dramatically improved safety for bikers, pedestrians and motorists alike,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Such onerous red tape would add cost and delay and would effectively put lives in jeopardy while making it virtually impossible for Mayor-elect de Blasio to achieve his goal of increasing bicycling and reducing fatalities and injuries.”

The American transportation agency with the most extensive track record of installing bike lanes on urban streets is NYC DOT, and the safety record of the agency’s bike projects is unequivocally positive. One reason that New York City has been able to deploy bike projects as quickly as it has is the lack of interference from agencies higher up the funding pyramid. Other cities haven’t been so fortunate.

FHWA is seeking to impose needless oversight that will tie up sustainable transportation projects in the name of “environmental review” — how perverse is that?

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Council Transpo Committee Passes NYPD Hit-and-Run Transparency Bill

The City Council transportation committee passed a bill today that would require NYPD to issue quarterly reports on hit-and-run crashes and investigations.

Originally, Intro 1055 would have had NYPD report to the council every two years on hit-and-runs resulting in serious injury or death. The language of the bill was tightened after sponsor Leroy Comrie and other committee members heard testimony from transportation experts and family members of victims earlier this month.

In its current iteration, the bill would mandate that the department report in writing every three months on the total number of “critical injury” hit-and-run crashes, the number of crashes that resulted in arrest, and the number of crashes for which no arrest was made. ”Additionally,” the bill reads, “the department shall provide to the speaker of the council in writing a brief description of what steps were taken to investigate each such incident, noting the cross streets of the incident.”

The bill defines critical injury as “any injury determined to be critical by the emergency medical service personnel responding to any such incident.”

The bill passed with an unanimous 11-0 vote, with no abstentions. It is expected to be voted on by the full council tomorrow, at the last stated meeting of the year. The law would not take effect until July of 2015.

NYPD did not show up for the December 4 hearing. Streetsblog has a message in with the public information office asking if the department has a position on the bill.

Said bill co-sponsor Peter Koo: “Today’s piece of legislation will increase transparency and accountability, ensuring NYPD is using all the tools at its disposal to investigate hit-and-run accidents.”

“This is not the first time the council has heard testimony from families of individuals who feel they have not received enough information,” said James Vacca, who was chairing his last transportation committee meeting of the current term.

Of his chairmanship, Vacca said, ”This has been a wonderful experience. Transportation affects everyone.”

It is not known if Vacca will continue to occupy the transportation post or move to a different committee chairmanship. ”I want to continue doing something here,” he said, “and we’ll see what that is.”

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Doctors Relate the Horror of Traffic Violence at Pedestrian Injury Summit

Medical professionals and transportation experts convened Thursday for the third New York City Summit on Pedestrian Injury, hosted by Elmhurst Hospital. The day-long event brought transportation officials and advocates together with doctors who witness the destruction caused by reckless drivers in the city every day.

Queens Boulevard continues to be "a problem" for emergency physicians at Elmhurst and Jamaica Hospitals, along other area streets. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QueensBlvd-GrandAve_PedWarning_Sign-Elmhurst.jpg##Wikipedia##

Along with other streets, Queens Boulevard continues to be “a problem” for emergency physicians at Elmhurst and Jamaica Hospitals. Photo: Wikipedia

The summit is chaired by Dr. Jamie Ullman, director of neurosurgery at Elmhurst, and Anju Galer, trauma coordinator for the hospital’s departments of surgery and nursing. Elmhurst is in year two of a three-year pedestrian and cyclist injury study. Ullman said 2012 marked an all-time high in the number of injuries within the hospital catchment area, and in 2013, she said, it’s a trend that shows “no signs of stopping.”

Dr. Kaushal Shah is the principal investigator for the study. Shah noted that media reports usually offer only the barest details of what happens in a traffic crash. To illustrate, he showed a slide of a recent story that reduced the deaths of two pedestrians to one short paragraph.

When a person is struck by a motorist, said Shah, it is “the worst day of their life.” For example, the first child hit by curb-jumping driver Francis Aung Lu in Maspeth in September was in the operating room for 10 hours, Shah said. Senior Cui Ju Yu, struck by a hit-and-run driver in Corona two weeks later, died from a brain hematoma*.

Most adult pedestrians who die are killed due to trauma to the head and neck, said Dr. George Agriantonis, director of trauma at Elmhurst. Injuries to the lower extremities often lead to significant disability. Flipping through slides of x-rayed and photographed images of grievous injuries, Agriantonis said compound fractures of the legs and shattered pelvises are common.

Injury patterns depend on the speed and type of vehicle, Agriantonis said. When an adult is struck by a passenger vehicle, there are usually three incidents of impact. The front of the vehicle hits the legs, which throws the victim onto the hood and windshield. The third impact occurs when the victim falls off the vehicle and hits the pavement or sidewalk.

Small children take the brunt of a collision to the torso and pelvis. Rather than being whipped onto the hood, said Agriantonis, because of their height children are thrown forward, and remain in the path of the vehicle.

Shah said researchers are seeing an increase in sidewalk crashes. Said Ullman: “I don’t know why these people are driving on the sidewalk.”

The Elmhurst catchment area is populated by 1.5 million people, Ullman said. Pedestrians hit by drivers were the leading injury category of emergency patients at Elmhurst from 2000 to 2009, and at 296, the number of pedestrians and cyclists admitted in 2012 was the hospital’s highest ever.

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When Killing With a Car Is Murder: Q&A With Nassau ADA Maureen McCormick

Last month, the Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — upheld the murder convictions of impaired drivers who killed people in three crashes in Nassau County and Staten Island.

Maureen McCormick argues before the Court of Appeals. Photo: ##http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Too-drunk-to-murder-4877749.php#photo-5296130##Albany Times-Union##

Maureen McCormick argues before the Court of Appeals. Photo: Albany Times Union

Martin Heidgen was driving in the wrong direction on the Meadowbrook Parkway when he slammed a pickup truck head-on into a limousine, killing driver Stanley Rabinowitz and 7-year-old Katie Flynn, whose family had just attended a wedding. Franklin McPherson drove against traffic on the Southern State Parkway before colliding with an SUV driven by Leslie Burgess, who was killed. Taliyah Taylor was high on Ecstasy and marijuana when she sped down Forest Avenue in Staten Island, striking pedestrian Larry Simon.

All three were convicted of murder, and all appealed their convictions on the grounds that they were too impaired to comprehend what they were doing. The court rejected that argument in a 5-2 decision, agreeing with prosecutors that the defendants exhibited a “depraved indifference to human life.”

“Although intoxicated driving cases that present circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life are likely to be few and far between,” wrote Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, “we find that the evidence in each of these unusually egregious cases was legally sufficient to support the convictions.”

Said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose record on drunk driving cases is recognized nationally: ”There are times when this crime is murder, and we have to be willing to call it that when we know it will save lives. Hopefully this ruling will give other prosecutors the legal confidence to push for murder convictions for the worst of the worst drunk drivers.”

Nassau vehicular crimes chief Maureen McCormick prosecuted Heidgen and McPherson, and argued their cases before the Court of Appeals. Streetsblog asked McCormick via email about the significance of the court’s decision.

It appears the Heidgen, McPherson and Taylor rulings were combined, correct? If so, how did this come to be? 

The Court of Appeals combined the cases for argument and decision because they each dealt with impaired/intoxicated driving and the application of depraved indifference. The court did not have to reach the same conclusion for each case just because it combined them for argument. They could have distinguished the cases in the decision if they believed they should not all be upheld. In this case they were all upheld.

As a prosecutor, what elevates a DWI fatality case from manslaughter to murder? Do you expect to see more murder prosecutions against drunk drivers, rather than manslaughter? 

Depraved indifference cases are intended to be rare under the law. Note the language used to instruct the jury when it is considering a depraved indifference charge:

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Every Traffic Death Should Be Investigated Like the Metro-North Crash

The buzzing from the helicopters began before 8 a.m. yesterday and did not stop until after dark. They were back before dawn this morning, and at this writing continue to come and go. I live within sight of Sunday’s Metro-North crash, the first incident to result in passenger fatalities in the railroad’s 30-year history.

The number of people injured in the Metro-North crash is a little more than the number of pedestrians and cyclists injured by motorists in New York City every day. Photo: AP via New York Times

Photo: AP via NYT

The toll from yesterday’s derailment was tremendous and awful: four people dead and 60 injured, 11 of them critically. As helicopters hovered above, an army of reporters converged at the scene. Governor Cuomo arrived well before noon. Teams of federal investigators were summoned. The train’s “black box” was recovered. Pictures and video of the wrecked train were streamed by every major news outlet in the city, and were broadcast nationwide. By day’s end there were lengthy stories from the dailies, and coverage will no doubt continue at least until the cause of the crash is known.

It’s a fitting response to a preventable crash that killed several people. What’s troubling is that the far more pervasive source of violence in our transportation system — crashes involving motor vehicles — receives such scant attention from investigators and the press in comparison.

Fatal and injurious traffic crashes happen on a scale that dwarfs train wrecks. But police investigations are kept out of view of the public, so for any given crash, there’s almost no way to tell what contributed to it and who is culpable. The Metro-North crash scene was preserved for almost an entire day; a fatal car crash is usually cleaned up as soon as possible – assuming the site is protected at all – and traffic resumes. Unless drugs or alcohol are involved, police usually call it an accident, blame the victim, and declare “case closed.”

Coverage of traffic fatalities tends to reflect the cursory attention from police investigators. While the Times, for example, assigned a cadre of reporters to the Metro-North story, which has stayed above the fold on the paper’s web site, it devoted just three paragraphs to the deaths of the three pedestrians and a cyclist who were killed by city motorists in a span of 30 minutes on the day before Thanksgiving.

At 5 p.m. last Wednesday, 54-year-old Pedro Lopez was riding a bike in Maspeth when he was hit by the driver of a commercial truck. The driver fled the scene. At 5:15, Stella Huang, 88, was run over by the driver of a Con Ed truck at 16th Street and Avenue C in Manhattan. About 15 minutes later, a man in a Honda minivan hit and killed Marion Anderson, 47, and Lizette Serrano, 60, as they crossed Forest Hill Road in Staten Island.

An Advance story about Serrano noted that by Friday NYPD had wrapped up its investigation. The driver in the Staten Island crash was cited for failure to provide insurance information but was not charged for killing two people.

Motorists killed at least two other people in the city last week: Buddhi Thapa, struck Tuesday on the Upper East Side by a driver in a Range Rover SUV; and Kalyanarat Ranasinghe, 71, a traffic agent who was hit by a truck driver in Midtown Saturday. In both cases, the driver was immediately cleared of wrongdoing by NYPD.

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NYPD Charges 0.7 Percent of Drivers Who Injure and Kill With Careless Driving

Graphic by Carly Clark. Citation data obtained by Transportation Alternatives.

Three years after Albany established the offense of careless driving, NYPD continues to apply the law in only a tiny fraction of crashes that result in the death or injury of pedestrians and cyclists.

There were 152 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in the city in 2012, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and 14,327 injuries. Of those 14,479 crashes, DMV data show NYPD cited 101 motorists for careless driving. That’s a citation rate of less than 1 percent.

It’s also the most careless driving citations issued by NYPD in a single year since Hayley and Diego’s Law took effect in 2010, when police wrote 99 summonses. In 2011, the first full year NYPD had the new law as part of its traffic enforcement toolkit, it was applied just 87 times.

The careless driving statute, part of Vehicle and Traffic Law section 1146, is named after Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez, toddlers who were killed in 2009 when a van, left unattended and idling, rolled onto a sidewalk in Chinatown. The driver was not charged by NYPD, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, or his successor Cy Vance.

Careless driving was intended as a minimum penalty to hold drivers who injure and kill accountable, in lieu of a more serious criminal charge. Under the law, drivers who injure pedestrians or cyclists while failing to exercise due care are subject to mandatory drivers’ ed, and could be sentenced to fines of up to $750, jail time of up to 15 days, and a license suspension of up to six months.

Graphic by Carly Clark. Citation data obtained by Transportation Alternatives.

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The 2012 NYC Streetsies, Part 3

Welcome to the third and final installment of the 2012 NYC Streetsies. If you’re just joining us, read parts one and two first.

Note: The Streetsblog and Streetfilms year-end pledge drive ends at midnight, which means time is running out to enter to win a Specialized hybrid bike courtesy of Bicycle Habitat. Everyone who gives $50 or more by the end of the day will be in the running. On top of that, we’ve got some great bike-themed posters to give away to a couple of lucky donors who contribute today. Please give if you haven’t yet and help Streetsblog and Streetfilms deliver high-impact reporting in 2013.

With this post, we’re calling it a wrap for 2012. Have a great New Year, Streetsblog readers!

Elected Official of the Year

In one of the more encouraging trends for livable streets in NYC, it seems like the competition for this Streetsie gets a little more crowded each year. In the City Council, Brad Lander continued to be a strong voice for safer streets and better transit; Gale Brewer concluded 2012 with a definitive statement backing the extension of the Columbus Avenue bike lane; Tish James helped usher in some traffic-calming treatments on one-way streets in her district; and Julissa Ferreras welcomed the arrival of Corona’s new public plaza and a 20 mph zone. In the state legislature, State Senator Dan Squadron earned a commendation for leading the campaign for a safer Delancey Street.

The second runner-up is Assembly Member Joseph Lentol, who responded to the bike-ped crunch on the Pulaski Bridge with the sensible suggestion that a safe, protected lane for cyclists should be carved out of the roadway. It looks like the idea could have some legs. First runner-up is Council Member Daniel Dromm. Facing a barrage of withering coverage of the 37th Road plaza in Jackson Heights, Dromm stayed steady and brokered an agreement in which the merchants who’d been shredding the plaza in the press turned around and agreed to take ownership of it.

The winner and Streetsblog’s Elected Official of 2012 is Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. This was the year that the East Harlem representative’s persistent advocacy for safer streets in her district finally paid off, when the first protected bike lane above 96th Street was installed on Second Avenue. From speaking on the City Hall steps in 2010 to facing down the misinformation campaign against the project in 2011, Mark-Viverito was at the center of the effort to bring complete streets to East Harlem. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken a stand for livable streets, either. Mark-Viverito was the council’s clearest voice for congestion pricing in 2008, and she’s a big proponent of Bus Rapid Transit. If every City Council member was so willing to embrace change, progress would come to NYC streets a lot faster.

Worst Elected Official

There were a lot of contenders for this one too, but in the end it was clear who deserved the honor: City Council Member Inez Dickens. The appalling vehicular violence on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard — 11 deaths since 2006 — demanded action. But Dickens was nowhere to be found when DOT proposed a traffic-calming redesign for 35 blocks of the avenue. While neighborhood institutions like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Abyssinian Development Corporation endorsed the changes, the local community board (with its many Dickens appointees) stonewalled. Dickens continued to say nothing and let the proposal wither on the vine.

DOT eventually went ahead with a scaled-back version, leaving many blocks untouched until next year at the earliest. With those safety upgrades still on the table and major bus enhancements potentially in the works for 125th Street, Harlem’s streets could start functioning much better for everybody pretty soon, but the neighborhood’s change-averse political leadership isn’t helping.

Activist of the Year

With so many New Yorkers in the trenches fighting for livable streets, picking one honoree for this award is never easy. So this year we’re picking two. The Bronx Helpers and Make Lafayette Safer share the 2012 Streetsie for Activist of the Year.

The Bronx Helpers rally for pedestrian safety. Photo: Transportation Alternatives

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In Memoriam

When the book is written on the fight for traffic justice in New York City, an entire chapter might well be devoted to 2012.

This was the year when Commissioner Ray Kelly’s NYPD revealed to the City Council that only a handful of officers are assigned to investigate serious traffic crashes. The public learned that, per department policy, the majority of crashes are handled by precinct cops who are trained and authorized to fill in boxes on a form, and nothing more, effectively denying the possibility of justice to thousands who suffer life-altering injuries at the hands of motorists each year. That this policy is in violation of state law apparently mattered not at all to the police commissioner, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or Albany.

In 2012, victims whose lives were ended by reckless drivers ranged in age from 2 to 92. Two small boys were fatally struck as their horrified and helpless parents looked on. A high school football player with college prospects was run over by two drivers while riding his bike. A veteran UPS man on his regular rounds was crushed to death on a sidewalk. A grandmother of 22 who survived Auschwitz was killed by a driver in pursuit of a parking spot.

It was a landmark year for institutional failure. A spike in traffic fatalities coincided with a marked drop in NYPD enforcement. Criminal cases against killer motorists were wrecked by policeprosecutorsjudges, and juries. Standing on a city street corner, the U.S. secretary of transportation wrongly blamed most pedestrians for their own deaths. The National Guard contributed to the toll wrought by Hurricane Sandy. NYC DOT admonished pedestrians to look out for careless drivers, yet made a mockery of that advice by refusing to own up to a DOT driver’s alleged responsibility for a fatal crash.

Because it must, the story continues. Some day the City Council will take up the proposed Crash Investigation Reform Act, which among other measures would form a task force charged with assessing NYPD crash investigation practices and recommending reforms. In the meantime, individual acts of vehicular violence have gained the attention of council members. Though results have been mixed, the city press corps is finally acknowledging the dangers of unsafe streets and virtually non-existent enforcement. Attorneys are advancing the cause of traffic justice in civil courts. Everyday citizens press on for improvements that are known to make neighborhoods safer to walk, bike and, yes, drive.

Here is our accounting of New York pedestrians and cyclists known to have lost their lives in traffic in 2012. In the comments, please share remembrances of those named here, and the names and stories of those we missed.

Roman Alavez, Lizardo Aldama, Clara Almazo, Rubin Baum

  • Dawn Affoumani, 42, Pedestrian, Killed in the Bronx; Hit-and-Run (Post)
  • Roman Alavez, 26, Pedestrian, Killed in Manhattan; “No Criminality Suspected” (DNA)
  • Lizardo Aldama, 89, Pedestrian, Killed in Queens; Driver Sentenced to Probation (Streetsblog)
  • Clara Almazo, 56, Pedestrian, Killed in Staten Island; Driver Charged With Leaving Scene (Post)
  • Ken Baker, 26, Pedestrian, Killed in Manhattan; Driver Not Charged (Streetsblog)
  • Amjad Barakat, 33, Pedestrian, Killed in Brooklyn; Hit-and-Run (Post, Bay Ridge Journal)
  • Rubin Baum, 80, Pedestrian, Killed in Manhattan; “No Criminality Suspected” (Streetsblog)
  • Maleka Begum, 54, Pedestrian, Killed in Queens; Driver Not Charged [NICE Bus] (Streetsblog)

Maleka Begum, Emma Blumstein, Roxana Sorina Buta, Terence Connor

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The NBBL Files: PPW Foes Pursued Connections to Reverse Public Process

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.

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The NBBL Files: Norman Steisel’s Ideas Became Jimmy Vacca’s Bills

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 fourth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 11, 2011.

This is the fourth post in a series examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first, second, and third installments.

The primary objective of most members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” was clearly to remove the bike lane from Prospect Park West. They didn’t particularly care about bike lanes elsewhere, though they privately cheered every defeat of a sustainable transportation project as a sign that they might wipe out the bike lane in front of their homes. But because the NBBL strategy relied so heavily on impeding NYC DOT bike planning and tarnishing the reputation of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, their parochial crusade ended up empowering opponents of street safety across the city.

Former deputy mayor Norman Steisel and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca.

Nowhere is NBBL’s citywide influence more apparent than in the receptive audience they found with City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. As we reported earlier this year, NBBL leaders including former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall met with Vacca in the run-up to his December, 2010 hearing on bike policy — a harbinger of the bikelash that peaked later that winter. Communications obtained by Streetsblog indicate that NBBL not only influenced Vacca’s oversight hearings, they also managed to insert their ideas into his legislation.

Messages from bike lane opponent Norman Steisel reveal a close link between his crusade to thwart bike projects with red tape and two bills introduced in the City Council this June by Vacca.

In mid-February, Steisel, a former sanitation commissioner and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins, wrote a lengthy letter to Vacca and City Council Member James Oddo on the topic of bike planning. The letter was triggered by Oddo’s proposal to subject all bike lanes to environmental review, a suggestion that environmental law experts called a waste of taxpayer money. Some of Steisel’s suggestions ended up in two bills Vacca introduced this summer, which are still under consideration in his committee.

“Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes.”

- PPW bike lane opponent Louise Hainline, December 2010

In the February letter, Steisel put forward a number of recommendations to impede the city’s bike planning process, many of which were gleaned from his personal campaign to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane. For instance, Steisel wrote that bike lanes should be planned with the “historic character” of the surrounding neighborhood in mind (the appearance of the bike lane on PPW chafed at NBBL members’ aesthetic sensibilities). At the same time, he argued that the traffic-calming effect of bike lanes should not be taken into consideration (it irked bike lane opponents to hear that the PPW redesign was implemented to reduce speeding).

Steisel’s knowledge of New York City government runs deep, and his letter reads like the wish list of someone who wants to see bike projects mired in bureaucracy for years.

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