Standing Up to the Naysayers: Tales of Livable Streets Leadership From NYC

Re-shaping city streets almost always runs up against some level of opposition — it’s part and parcel of physically changing what people often see as their territory. Whether residents get to have safer streets, however, often comes down to the elected leaders who stand up to the naysayers.

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger
When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

In San Francisco lately, we’ve seen a lot of smart transportation projects get watered down or stopped without a supervisor or mayor willing to take a stand. In the absence of political leadership, city officials and agencies too often cave to the loudest complainers, who fight tooth and nail to preserve every parking space and traffic lane, dismissing the empirical lessons from other redesigns that worked out fine when all was said and done.

It’s not unusual for elected officials to be risk averse, but mustering the political courage to support safe streets and effective transit can and does pay off. Just look to the political leadership in New York City, where Streetsblog has covered several major stories involving City Council members (the equivalent of SF’s supervisors) who faced down the fearmongering and shepherded plazas and protected bike lanes to fruition.

These leaders suffered no ill effects as a result of their boldness. They were “easily re-elected” last year, said Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s NYC-based editor-in-chief. If anything, Fried says these politicians gained more support — not less — “because they had won over this very engaged constituency of livable streets supporters.”

In the battle over NYC’s Prospect Park West redesign, a group of very well-connected neighbors filed a lawsuit against the city for converting a traffic lane on the street into a two-way protected bikeway. City Council Member Brad Lander defended the project, which is now held up as one of NYC’s flagship street transformations.

Pointing to data showing that the bike lanes reduced speeding and injuries, as well as polls showing strong public support, Lander called the opponents out in March 2011:

A small group of opponents have chosen to bring a baseless lawsuit in an effort to block further safety improvements, to eradicate the lane, to go back to three lanes of traffic on Prospect Park West, the speedway that it was before, and essentially to impose their will on the community through a lawsuit.

In the 2013 municipal elections, Lander’s position was so strong that no one challenged him, and he now occupies the second most-powerful position in the City Council.

In New York, as in SF, livable streets projects tend to be met with opposition from merchants, but they often come around once the changes are on the ground. The conversion of a block of 37th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, into a car-free plaza was initially opposed by a group of business owners in 2012. They later turned around and formed a stewardship group to maintain the plaza after Council Member Daniel Dromm convinced them that with the proper attention, it would attract foot traffic rather than drive it away.

City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito championed protected bike lanes on First and Second Avenue in East Harlem, at one point countering a misinformation campaign from two merchants who were opposed to any removal of parking or motor vehicle traffic lanes. This year, Mark-Viverito was chosen to serve as the council speaker.

These kinds of stories should sound familiar. On Polk Street, a merchant group used fearmongering and misinformation to fight protected bike lanes, and at this point, they’ve largely gotten their way. Whereas NYC’s Mark-Viverito stood firm, Supervisor and Assemblymember hopeful David Chiu abandoned his pro-bike talk, letting the parking-obsessed merchants dominate the Polk planning process with irrational claims.

There was no evidence to support the merchants’ assertions that the bike lanes would ruin their business, not when the data showed that 85 percent of people on Polk arrive without a car. A city survey that came out later in the process showed that pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements were by far the top priority for people who use Polk — not car parking. But rather than showing leadership, Chiu made a political bet that it would be better to appease the vocal naysayers.

The SFMTA’s efforts to put a rational price on parking by expanding meters have also been largely gutted by the supervisors themselves. With no elected official stepping up to back the principles undergirding SFpark, anti-meter populism has taken such a strong hold at City Hall that Mayor Ed Lee was able to repeal Sunday meters, one of the agency’s smartest reforms in recent memory.

The initial Muni improvements planned for the Transit Effectiveness Project have also been watered down, as city electeds seem to think neutering transit and safety upgrades to save a few parking spaces is sound political math.

Supervisor London Breed stood out with her leadership in support of the Masonic Avenue overhaul and Fell and Oak bike lanes, two crucial safety redesigns for which she said she took “a LOT of fire,” mostly due to parking removal. But as of late, even she has espoused the idea of placating the angry parking-first crowd to win support for transportation funding at the ballot.

An aide for Breed argued that “as with any democratic process, it’s a balance, a matter of finding consensus.” But that implies that each side in any debate is equally valid, and there are several pitfalls to that approach.

It undermines the city’s Transit-First Policy, which was democratically approved by the Board of Supervisors in 1973 and reinforced by voters in 1999 when they added pedestrians and bicyclists to it. It’s demoralizing to San Franciscans who do want safer streets and better transportation options, and have participated in a public process that later collapses. And it encourages opponents — who can actually be won over after improvements are made — to keep at it, as small groups learn they can impose their will and override public support.

Still, supporting changes to our streets isn’t completely up to City Hall. “Grassroots advocacy has to be part of it too,” said Fried. The leaders in NYC “are great, but they might have folded if they didn’t know that there were a lot of regular people that had their back.”

  • Aaron, this is a very relevant and important topic. Thanks for writing about it.

    Now, what can we actually _do_ about it? Every Supe except Wiener seems to have retreated to the back seat on these issues, as it were.

    Any ideas? I’ve written David Chiu and the Mayor, spoken to David in person about such things, but the signs are all pointing the wrong way.

  • Fran Taylor

    David Campos stuck up for the Potrero streetscape plan in the face of virulent opposition. His aide came to testify for the project at its final MTA hearing, where it was approved by unanimous vote despite cries of doom from several neighbors.

  • murphstahoe

    For this echo chamber he’s still batting about .100

    Voted against raising tolls for the GGB to fund transit
    Voted against 1050 Valencia
    Worked against SFPark in the 17th Street area

    And the Potrero plan was still watered down if my recollection serves – please correct me Fran because that is low on my radar – similar to Polk. From that standpoint, Polk is still going to be “better” than it was before, just a watered down version.

  • NumbersAreHard

    As always, Aaron fails to mention that the same Polk St. survey showed that 94% of the people there arrived without a bike. The other survey also lumped bicycle and pedestrian improvements together. The cyclists simply don’t have the numbers.

  • the_greasybear

    A tale of two cities. The general public in San Francisco is no less supportive of safer, more complete streets than in New York–the failure to produce the best outcomes here is entirely the fault of our dithering and dishonest politicians. Whereas New York has actual leaders in their political class, in San Francisco we have only followers who pathologically indulge the vain effort to appease the implacable cars-first/cars-only minority. We seem to be falling backward with each pointless, craven capitulation. And on this score, no San Francisco ‘leader’ has shown less leadership or honesty than the mayor who promised never to run for mayor.

    Excellent write up.

  • Mario Tanev

    David Campos is one of the most despicable politicians in my book. And this is not based on ideology, since I like the ideologically close Avalos and Kim. The clearest example for me was the Northeast Mission SFPark proposal.

    The outreach that the SFMTA did there was unprecedented. It took a year to revise the proposals after the first outcry. They created a parking policy document to guide parking decisions, that went through the public process. They then performed block-by-block detailed observations on use and a fine-tuned plan for where to place meters and RPPs according to their policy. Yet in light of all of that, Campos, like a concern troll continuously kept legitimizing the false refrain that SFMTA was steamrolling this through the neighborhoods, and kept saying SFMTA should do more outreach. Well, at some point it becomes unsustainable – some were arguing SFMTA should go to every house and speak to every resident. That is as intensive as the census and is never done in any other public sphere. It’s an unreasonable standard and Campos should know that. So despite the fact that Campos pretended to be in the middle, his meddling killed the project.

    So he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s a saboteur. And that makes him far worse than the coward that is David Chiu.

  • RD Frazier

    While I do not live in SF my wife and I use our bikes as our primary means of transportation here in the East Bay. And it really saddens me to see ped and bike improvements get watered down or shelved altogether because spineless politicians like Lee and Chiu continue to back down to a small but vocal minority despite facts to the contrary.

    Despite the fact that 85% of people arrive at Polk St without a car, the plan to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists was scaled back to a ridiculous level.

    And despite the fact that Sunday metering made parking easier in the business districts and would bring in much needed revenue for the City it was repealed.

    Apparently politicians like Lee and Chiu do not want to make decisions based on facts. The “City That Knows How” does not know how anymore and has not for many years.

  • Dave Moore

    Could the pedestrian improvements have been separated from the cyclist improvements? What improvements were there beyond the cycle track? Maybe those could have been passed if they had not been tied together. Because while it is true that the report claims that 85% of the people did not arrive by car, the same report says that 94% didn’t arrive by bike.

    The second report also combined the question about cycling improvements together with pedestrian improvements, so there’s no way to know how many people are in favor of each.

  • murphstahoe

    No – because the SF Pedestrian Coalition doesn’t have the moxie to get it done. If the SFBC has to do all the work, then cyclists get some of the value.

    Not to mention the endless stats that show that the cycletracks have side effects on traffic that result in pedestrian safety.

  • Sprague

    That is the purpose of these projects: to enable people to feel safe (and be safe) when they bicycle and walk and to grow bicycle’s mode share. If 6% of visitors traveled by bike, that’s pretty impressive for a street that continues to be fairly hostile to non-motorized transportation. Imagine what the bicycle mode share could be if Polk Street had the protected bike lane that it needs to truly become a “complete street.”

  • M.

    Excellent piece, AB. ‘Grassroots advocacy has to be part of it’ YES! Politicians have to know they’ll be supported for being real leaders and stewarding our best interests.

  • M.

    T-r-a-f-f-i-c C-a-l-m-i-n-g. Everyone wins. Past time to drop the monomaniacal obsession w/ bikes v. everyone.

  • M.

    Ask merchants you frequent in any of the hot spots (like Polk St.) to write letters of support. Allow them to be anonymous or just interview them and write your own letter with your findings. If you do this on Polk, we’ll add it to our others, some of which will be read aloud in public meetings. Send to: folks@folksforpolk

  • Gezellig

    Exactly. 6% is above the citywide bike modeshare average, even considering the shoddy current state of most of Polk for bikes. This shows how important a route it is for bikes. Imagine what it could be if the infrastructure were best-practice (cycletracks) all the way up and down.

    The “only X people bike here so why build anything” is logically akin to saying we shouldn’t build a bridge because only X people swim the river crossing per day.

  • Filamino

    That is why what is reported here is misleading. Only 6% arrive by bike, but 17% arrive by car. The rest is mix of transit and walking. Streetsblog’s bad/biased reporting leaves much of the good details out in order to create this bulls**t outrage. Among them are:

    1) The pedestrian improvements ARE being built. Parking spaces at corners will be lost to create large bulb-outs – some of which will have seating and landscaping. Other places will get daylighted by red curbing a parking space at the corner.

    2) The 6 blocks that retains parking WILL have a bike lane. It is a “floating” or part-time bike lane. The bike lane is in effect from 7am to 10am during the morning peak times. Otherwise, it’s metered parking. Businesses along these blocks are ones that rely more on drivers, but you won’t hear that here. It’s also flat or downhill for these blocks so bicyclists can keep up with the slow (<20 mph) traffic here.

    3) Parking on one side of Polk Street was removed for TEN blocks. That's over _70_ parking spaces in front of commercial retail businesses. In SF or any other major city with high parking demand, that is a HUGE WIN. Yet, that is totally ignored by the bike extremists here.

    To most ordinary people, this is a well balanced street reallocation where everyone got a little something. Unfortunately, people here tend to be narcissistic self-centered spoiled brats if they don't get anything EXACTLY their way. Sad.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Spoiled Brats? Did you just attend a meeting of the Middle Polk Merchants Association or something? Maybe “Save Polk Street” who routinely shown down anyone who tells them anything they don’t like to hear?

    I am happy to get what we can get for now. I am still going to keep working for separated bike lanes the whole way. Because it is the right thing to do. I might get my way sooner than you think.

  • Filamino

    No, it’s people like YOU who routinely shout down anyone who tells them anything they don’t like to hear! This time, the merchants are actually standing up to people like you and giving you a piece of what they always receive from people like you.

    Nice dreaming. The truly balanced well thought out plan is going in.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Point me to a few buddy, I need them in my list of talking points.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I don’t raise my voice, I get things done.

    You bullies won’t mind 15 MPH speed limits on Polk Street right?

    http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/06/25/san-francisco-examines-potential-speed-limit-reductions-to-achieve-ending-pedestrian-fatalities/

    The sad truth is, car drivers cannot play nicely with anyone else who uses the road, you insists on speeding and threatening, injuring and running people over. So we have to take action.

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2013/05/03/debunking-the-misinformation-propagated-by-save-polk-street/

    There is video after video of you screaming, shouting and threatening anyone who disagrees with you. You are like children throwing a temper tantrum and demanding that you get your way.

  • Filamino

    Great. Another person stereotyping all drivers are out to kill pedestrians. Ugh. Look who is talking about throwing a temper tantrum.

    Cheryl Brinkman is only saying that because she is on the losing end of this debate. There have been other “livelier” meetings just like this, but the only difference is that she was on the winning end of the debate.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Car drivers are selfish and egotistical and could care less who is harmed by their actions. Their neighbors are harmed every time they turn on their engines.

    Car drivers directly and indirectly kill 100,000 people a year. What do you do to mitigate the risk you pose to everyone around you every time you drive?

  • Filamino

    I stand my case.

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