Street Fighter: Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Congestion-Pricing Plan Failed in New York City, His Transportation Commissioner Has Taken a Piecemeal Approach to Reclaiming Streets from Cars

Article excerpt

On Sept. 17, Colin Beavan was riding his folding bicycle down Broadway in Lower Manhattan, near City Hall. Beavan, a writer known as "No Impact Man" for his attempt to reduce his carbon footprint to zero, did not use toilet paper for a year. But let's not get distracted. On that day, Beavan was simply on his bike, making a routine attempt to steer clear of moving traffic and avoid car doors flying open in his path. That was when, by Beavan's account, a black Mercedes veered precariously close to him, prompting Beavan to alert its driver to his presence by knocking on the car's window.

The Mercedes stopped and the driver rolled down the window. "Get your hands off my ear, you fucking asshole," shouted Jeff Klein, a New York state senator who represents the Bronx. The story gets better. Klein just happened to have been, last spring, one of the most vocal opponents of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's congestion-pricing plan for New York City. That plan, which died in the state Assembly, would have charged drivers $8 to bring their cars into Manhattan below 60th Street and was enthusiastically supported by environmentalists and public-space advocates nationwide, including Beavan and the nonprofit on whose board he sits, Transportation Alternatives.

No-Impact Man, a first-rate self-promoter, milked the confrontation for all it was worth. He publicized a letter he wrote to Klein, eventually securing a meeting with the state senator. There, Klein apologized to Beavan for his bad language and pledged to revisit the issue of congestion pricing and consider other proposals to make New York streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

A happy ending, to be sure. Yet the bitterness of Beavan and Klein's initial encounter is typical of debates between transportation reformers, caricatured as car-hating, overeducated hippies, and their opponents, who portray themselves (sometimes in spite of luxury automobiles) as representatives of the common man. It is ironic, then, that the new national face of the movement to reduce driving and reclaim streets for pedestrians and cyclists is Michael Bloomberg, the finance titan and one-time Republican who spent $75.5 million to become New York City's mayor.

In his first five years in office, Bloomberg was hardly seen as anti-car. But in 2007, his administration rolled out an ambitious plan to reduce New York City's carbon emissions. The city reclaimed auto lanes, turning them over to pedestrians and cyclists, and swore to put every resident in walking distance of green space by 2030. On the transit front, New York is expanding express bus service, creating dedicated bus lanes, and opening several new ferry routes on the East River. Even longtime New York lefties, the sort of people who have decried Bloomberg's fortune-fueled reign for seven years, are impressed.

On the national level, Mike Bloomberg is now recognized as a progressive reformer, and his history as a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, all for political gain, is largely overlooked. But New Yorkers, whose memories are longer, could hardly have predicted that the most recent iteration of their mayor's chameleon career would be the promotion of a bikeable, walkable city. What even most local observers don't realize is that the Bloomberg administration's unexpected commitment to these issues is due less to ideological conviction than to the influence of one woman: Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation.

Sadik-Khan's policies have attracted national attention from transportation reformers, and she has been discussed as a possible transportation secretary in Barack Obama's Cabinet. Last April, state legislators in Albany dealt a body blow to the Bloomberg agenda by scrapping congestion pricing. But Sadik-Khan has pressed on with a slate of piecemeal reforms that are transforming, however slowly, the landscape of New York.

As Ron Schiffman, a former commissioner of New York's Department of City Planning, puts it, "She's a guerilla bureaucrat. …

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