No Other City Has Advocates Like This One

Talking with New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg about dockless bike share, the art of building bus lanes, and why one newspaper in Queens thinks that she is the Antichrist

Cutting the ribbon on a two-way protected bike lane on Chrystie Street in Manhattan last year. Image courtesy NYC DOT.

What has changed in the past four years since you started this job?

That is a great question. I’ll talk about the things that I hit the ground running on when I started, and some of the things that have developed over time.

Transportation Alternatives was a big part of this: a few weeks into the job, we were thick into putting together the first Vision Zero Action Plan. So walking in the door, that became an enormous first priority, and in a lot of ways a really amazing experience, because it got to pull together right away the New York Police Department, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. It set a good template for a bunch of city agencies and City Hall working together, and it has proved a really durable partnership. We have our ups and downs, like any good partnership, but it unleashed for us a real period of a lot of creative thinking, and trying a lot of really interesting things.

Our first year was also our most successful year up in Albany. We got the 25 mph speed limit, the expansion of the speed camera program, and we really laid the groundwork on Vision Zero. Obviously, Vision Zero has remained constant work for us.

Another big thing that we focused on when we walked in the door was Citi Bike. I spent an enormous chunk of time on Citi Bike, because when I came in the door, Citi Bike was having a lot of challenges. We had the old operator then, Alta, who had come from Portland, and they were just not running a good program. People loved it, but it had so many operational problems. Righting that ship, bringing in the new operator, Motivate, and basically getting a new, smarter contract that was more performance based, less heavy-handed and prescriptive, really turned out to be an enormous project which I think had great results.

Now, getting on towards four years in, we are grappling with the next generation of Citi Bike, now that you have dockless bikes on the horizon. Well, they’re not on the horizon, they are here.

We are grappling with the next generation of Citi Bike, now that you have dockless bikes on the horizon. Well, they’re not on the horizon, they are here.

Seattle is doing a totally dockless system. They had a dock system that didn’t really work. We are unique in that we have a really successful dock system. But everyone agrees, the future is going to be dockless. It’s cheaper. It’s more nimble. So, for us, the challenge is integrating, and doing it in a way where we don’t lose what has worked so well, but where we continue to embrace new technology.

And then on the M.T.A., in this administration, we’ve looked for the things that we can do that are within the city’s control: continuing with Select Bus Service, building out the bike network, the citywide ferry service.

These things are not going to compare to the subway system. It is no secret that in the past couple years, there has been a lot of debate, a lot of activity, and a lot of conflict there, some of it useful and necessary. This summer has been the biggest period of focus that I’ve seen on the M.T.A., and now a debate has finally gone up to Albany about what do we do next. How do we achieve more resources for the M.T.A., while also asking, how do we make sure that they’re spending the money wisely, and from the City’s point of view, that they’re allocating enough of it to the City subway and bus riders who, of course, we think should be the priority.

There must have been a few wrenches in your plans in the past four years. Are there initiatives that you regret being put on the back burner?

I’ll talk a little bit first about the Albany experience, and the first year there. Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets were great partners. I remember when I went up there, being with [founding members of Families for Safe Streets] Ellen Foote and Mary Beth Kelly, and we are lobbying on the speed limit bill. I have a long legislative background, and I worked on Capitol Hill for many years, so I’m being the hard-bitten realist and telling them, “Listen, this is tough. I know how it’s done.”

And, you know, we got the speed limit bill and the speed camera bill. It was amazing. I just remember that I came up to them afterwards and said, “I’m about to eat my words,” because I was pessimistic. We just had this incredible legislative run.

We have been back every year since to try to continue to expand on the speed camera program. We have not succeeded.

We got closer this year. We got a bill passed through the Assembly. And again, we did a couple of lobbying days up there with Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets. I would just say that one of the enduring challenges that New York City has is the political climate in Albany.

There are so many things that we need to go to Albany to get permission for, and it is a very transactional political culture, so that’s a huge challenge. I don’t know that I would say we should do something differently, but it is definitely one of the challenges of the job.

With progress in Albany being so unreliable, can you talk about some of the ways that you are working with what you’ve got here in the city?

As someone who did spend many years in Washington, that is definitely the part of this job that is the most satisfying. In municipal government, you can dream up a project, you can dream up a bike lane, and you can have it done in a reasonable amount of time. There are so many projects like that, where you can see them happen.

We are lucky in New York. Despite the individual projects that we fight about, we have a pretty consensual and highly functional political culture in New York City right now. Between the Mayor and the City Council, this city is getting a lot done. And at the moment, the economics of the city are good, so we have real resources.

For Vision Zero, we are putting in $2.5 billion over ten years. There is no city that I know of that is coming close to that, and has the consensus to allocate that many resources to the challenge of remaking streets. That is amazing.

When you are in the thick of it, you fail to appreciate it, but maybe because I’ve had more experience on the federal level, I am able to step back. Sometimes I will say to my staff, “You should treasure this moment. The resources we’re getting; the political support we get; it’s amazing.”

We have many counterparts in other parts of the country who are in transportation departments where they’re told, “You can’t hire another person and you can’t spend another penny, and, tackle all these challenges, of course.”

Calling on Albany legislators to pass automated speed camera legislation at a Transportation Alternatives rally at City Hall last spring. Image courtesy NYC DOT.

At a recent City Council hearing, you said, “If you’re sitting in your car complaining about congestion, you are the congestion problem.” With the city’s population growing and the subways failing, how is the D.O.T. planning for future congestion?

That was a very interesting hearing. In some ways, we have problems that many other cities would kill for. Our population is now 8.5 million and growing, the most it has ever been; tourists, over 60 million last year; we created half a million jobs in an eight year period — extraordinary statistics.

The challenge we face is how do you accommodate all that growth and continue mobility, sustainability, and, something that’s a focus of the de Blasio administration: equity. We want to make sure that as those jobs are created, as that economic activity is happening, parts of the city that have not benefited traditionally are benefitting, and that also, people are not being priced out. Those are the challenges we are facing.

From the D.O.T. point of view, our goal is to try and use the streets we have as efficiently as possible — because we are not building new ones. And that is high-efficiency modes; that’s buses; that’s bikes; that’s pedestrians.

Our goal is to try and use the streets we have as efficiently as possible — because we are not building new ones

We have done a lot on Select Bus Service. Now, above and beyond that, we are trying to work with the M.T.A. in general on improving bus service overall: building more bus lanes, although that’s harder than people think; Transit Signal Priority; off-board fare collection. We are anxiously waiting to hear what the M.T.A. is thinking about in terms of a new fare media, hopefully contactless, and something that’s just on your phone. We will hopefully be going from what is now a really old fare technology to a cutting edge fare technology.

But again, we face the challenge of maintaining mobility and sustainability in a city that continues to grow in a pretty aggressive way.

You said that building bus lanes is harder than it looks. Could you elaborate?

Yeah. We have seen a lot of the discussion about how D.O.T. should just put bus lanes everywhere, but to do bus lanes right, particularly like what we do on Select Bus Service — really, a bus lane that we want to, best as it can, act as a virtually segregated bus. There aren’t many roadways that work. We are not Bogotá. There are not many roadways in New York City where you are truly going to build a segregated, dedicated bus lane.

We do everything we can to try and create that experience. But that requires really smart engineering, and a lot of really good work along the curb. You have to work with all the businesses to figure out the loading, and figure out all the traffic engineering so that the bus lane will really work, and work for everybody. People think that is just a quick and easy process, but to do it right, it’s not so quick and it’s not so easy.

We will be opening this year Woodhaven Boulevard, which will be one of our biggest, and I think most exciting, S.B.S. projects. It has been far and away one of the hardest. We have had fierce political opposition, and one thing we’ve learned is that this is the politics of bus lanes.

Opposition, often coming from local businesses and from drivers, is very focused and very strong. Support is very diffuse. Bus riders, by their nature, are busy people, working jobs, not necessarily a group that’s coming out to town hall meetings and has a lot of time to just advocate on behalf of themselves. There are real political challenges there.

Bus riders, by their nature, are busy people, working jobs, not necessarily a group that’s coming out to town hall meetings and has a lot of time to just advocate on behalf of themselves.

Woodhaven is going to open, and it’s going to be amazing, but we’ve had very strong opposition every step of the way. And we’ve tried as best we can to educate, to work with elected officials, to work with the community boards, to work with the civic groups, to work with the merchants, and that’s taken some time. I am hoping that this process has produced a better product. In some ways, I know it has.

I will explain one of the examples of how it produced a better product. It might be the most challenging intersection in New York City: Woodhaven and Jamaica.

One of the things we do often to speed up buses, and to make intersections safer, is we will ban certain turns. Part of what can make an intersection dangerous is when there are too many moves going on, too many lanes going in too many directions, making it too unpredictable for pedestrians.

If you ever get a chance, go out to this intersection. You have to be out there and feel the energy of the cars and people out there, because it’s a major subway stop, it’s a major commercial area, and it’s a major traffic intersection. And as Vision Zero goes, it was just unfortunately very off the charts.

For this one, we decided to ban the left turn. And the opposition was among the fiercest I’ve ever seen. The opposition was so furious that we went back, and we rethought it.

People locally felt like it was not an easy turn to ban, because if you could not take that left, you had to, to be fair, drive a long way out of your way. There are a lot of merchants on that street, under the elevated, where it is tough to be a merchant anyway because it’s a little dark.

So, we went back to the drawing board. We found a way to basically reroute the left turning cars so that where they used to pass in front of each other, now they don’t cross. It was an amazing, elegant solution which made it way better for pedestrians, and solved this problem of not having to ban the left turn.

You can have fierce opposition to these projects, and it doesn’t mean you still don’t get a lot out of it. You can often get some really good ideas about how to make it better.

The Woodhaven Boulevard project is a pretty transformative one, and like any transformative project, very challenging. And this will be our first iteration of it. Woodhaven is such a big, complicated roadway. There will be a Woodhaven 2.0 at some point, where we’ll go back, make refinements, and make it even better.

Some said that we haven’t done enough bus lane miles this year. But these are ten of the most incredible bus lane miles, a very extraordinary project.

Walking local officials through new pedestrian safety improvements to Merrick Boulevard in Queens last summer. Image courtesy NYC DOT.

It is a hard divide. You are often arguing with numbers like, “only ten bus lane miles,” but one of those miles may have been impossible.

You make a great point. We often set mileage targets. We do it for bike lane miles. We do it for paving miles. But what’s funny is that not all miles are created equal.

There is this one little bit that we are very proud of. We just finished putting in the bike lane on that little stretch of Park Row. Now you can connect north-south to the Brooklyn Bridge and it’s going to be fabulous.

And you don’t have to break the law by going the wrong way anymore, like everyone did before.

Yes, you don’t have to break the law, and we put up an actual pedestrian crosswalk on the northern side of Spruce Street, because you’d always see these poor tourists get stranded there, surrounded by cars. That thing is like two-tenths of a mile, but what a precious two-tenths.

And by the way, it took work with City Hall, with the N.Y.P.D., with the press corps. That’s a sensitive spot for parking, important real estate.

Ditto for Jay Street. It is not that long of a stretch, but it is a transformative piece of real estate. Sometimes I’ve pushed back when Transportation Alternatives says to make the numbers higher. Quantity does matter, but so does quality.

It’s funny because we get caught in the same thing on the resurfacing side. For many years, we never would resurface the F.D.R. Drive because it cost twice as much and was three times as hard, so it wasn’t so good for our numbers. But the point is, ten times as many people use it, so when you fixed it, you actually made ten times as much happiness. You have to measure both.

Go Google me in the Queens Chronicle. There are 50 stories about how I am the Antichrist and I’m ruining the neighborhood.

And I understand the fixation on lane miles, but Woodhaven Boulevard, that’s not just ten lane miles, that’s a project that has not only taken a couple years, but given us a lot of gray hair. Go Google me in the Queens Chronicle. There are 50 stories about how I am the Antichrist and I’m ruining the neighborhood. I’m the Chris Christie of Woodside.

Let’s talk more about measuring by the numbers. A recent D.O.T. report found that cycling is growing faster than the city’s population. That’s remarkable, and a testament to the power of bike lanes. It raises the question: what is the ideal bike mode share for New York City?

I don’t know that I can tell you what the ideal mode share is. I can certainly tell you that I think we would like a higher mode share than there is now.

There are three things that are driving cycling. One, you build out the network. That gets people on bikes; we know that, particularly women.

Two is that Citi Bike has had an amazing effect. Now, if this next generation of dockless bikes can go an order of magnitude bigger, that is going to be transformative.

Number three is very generational. The younger generation has embraced cycling in a way that only some of the older generation has. For the younger generation, transportation is more modally agnostic, using the mode that makes the most sense. And in a city that is continuing to grow and be denser, cycling is going to make more and more sense, and car ownership is going to make less and less sense. We are helping to spur that evolution, but that evolution is happening, too; we can’t totally take credit for it.

It is hard to describe New York City as a monolithic entity. The mode share in Manhattan is going to continue to grow quite a bit. The mode share in Staten Island is not going to grow so quickly for cycling; it is a much more dispersed, less dense residential pattern. But we are trying to grow it everywhere, and we were excited by this report [Safer Cycling: Bicycle Ridership and Safety in New York City, 2017] and the growth in numbers, and we were excited by the safety in numbers phenomenon, as it were.

Despite that phenomenon, currently, we are not on track to meet Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero goals for 2024. Do you think those goals were too ambitious?

As someone who was assigned that ambitious goal, I found it daunting, I won’t lie, but I found that it was inspirational, too.

When I walked in the door, setting that goal made us partners with the N.Y.P.D. Not always the case that the D.O.T.s and police departments get to be partners together. It did spur us to put in resources and creativity and a bunch of things that, if we didn’t have that goal, I don’t know if we would have been so inspired to do it.

Obviously, we always wish the fatality numbers would go down faster. We look at the national trends, and we see in some of our sister cities that tragically, after many years of the U.S. fatality numbers going down, now they’re trending back up again. They went up 15% in the last few years, and there’s a bunch of reasons. Cheapo gas prices, economic growth; those are the macro elements that deal with fatalities nationwide.

Our fatalities fell 22% at the same time. They need to fall more, but when you look at the national trend, you know we’ve done well.

Part of what we will need to reach our goal is to have more success up in Albany. Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets had a campaign on this; we have 2,500 schools, give or take, in New York City, and we can only put speed cameras at 140 schools. And we can’t turn them on at night, weekends, or summers, which is actually when children are most likely to be killed on the roadway. We’ll need to tackle some of those things.

That’s all our questions! Unless there is something else that you want to share?

I don’t know if I can say it in a few words, but I do feel like the thing we’re trying to accomplish is sustainable mobility in a growing city. That’s our niche.

Bikes and buses are a big part of that. Bikes are very much in our control, except for some of the larger atmospherics we’re dealing with on bike share, but we will get that worked out. Buses are a partnership with the M.T.A. It is a relationship that has had its ups and downs, but that’s one area where I think the advocate community has been really fantastic.

In my previous role at U.S. D.O.T., I have been to cities all over the country. One thing that is unique about this city is the advocacy community here; it’s like none other. I don’t think any other city has an advocacy community that’s frankly as organized and aggressive and effective at this one.

Sometimes when you are on the receiving end of that, it can be tough, but in general, that is an enormous piece of why the city has been so successful on a lot of these transportation challenges. We can always do more, but in that way, New York really stands alone. There is no other city that has advocates like this one.


Polly Trottenberg has been commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation since 2014, and is currently managing 5,000 employees and a $14.5 billion 10-year capital plan. Her list of notable former employers include Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and President Barack Obama.
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