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The Big Shrug — Disappearing Bill de Blasio and the Fall of New York

By: Charles Komanoff

July 01, 2020

No one today remembers Abe Beame, whose frail 1973–77 mayoralty was sandwiched between John Lindsay's tumultuous two terms and Ed Koch's combative three. Invocations of Beame's tenure inevitably invoke the 1975 Daily News' "Ford to City: Drop Dead" headline and then the 1977 Con Ed blackout and subsequent disastrous looting. Fiscal collapse. Urban decay. Beame himself, a one-time New York City comptroller, barely figures in those recollections. It's as if he wasn't there.

Now, in Beame's footsteps trudges Bill de Blasio. From racially obtuse yet immensely productive Mike Bloomberg, de Blasio inherited a prosperous and confident metropolis that presently faces financial ruin and is frightened for its future. New York's ultimate raison d'être — its ability to assemble every conceivable subgroup of humanity for any imaginable purpose — has become a font of death and doubt. As in the seventies, Gotham is leaderless.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our massive missed opportunity to use the virus hiatus — which at its peak saw as much as 90 percent of traffic vanish — to begin something stirring and purposeful: outfitting the city's streets and roads to serve all New Yorkers, not just motorists, with speedy bus routes, protected bike lanes and broad sidewalks.

Buses are going to have to take on some of the transit ridership traditionally served by subways. The obvious mayoral move in March or April was to begin replicating in all five boroughs the fabulously successful 14th Street busway, which since last fall has boosted bus speeds and ridership by double-digit percentages simply by barring through-vehicles. Didn't happen. Whether the insufficiency was too few shovel-ready plans or missing mayoral resolve, City Hall hasn't begun a single successor busway, let alone the scores needed to move lots of New Yorkers.

Bike-riding is our lone form of transport to have increased since lockdown began, and it's obvious why: subway worries, light traffic, and a hunger for fresh air. Yet the uptick in Citibikes and basement beaters barely scratches the surface of cycling's potential not only as healthful and affordable travel but also as a way to free up space on mass transit.

A mayor possessing even a passing familiarity with bicycling would have acted to install Citibike stations across the city and also generously subsidize bicycle sales and refurbishments to allow every agreeable New Yorker access to a bike, especially electric-assist models that lift drudgery and stigma from cycling. Such a mayor would also have committed to massively expanding safe cycling infrastructure along the lines sketched in the Regional Plan Association's new 425-mile Five-Borough Bikeway Plan linking New York City's gamut of "scenic greenways, wide boulevards, car-choked commercial streets and quieter back roads."

That too didn't happen here. But other cities and mayors haven't stood still. Early in lockdown, Oakland, CA began barring through-traffic from 70 miles of city roadways. Seattle, Denver, Pittsburgh and Boston followed suit. Here, two weeks would elapse before de Blasio even announced "a commitment" to his own open streets which, unsurprisingly, were piecemeal and under-utilized.

But it's in comparison to Paris that de Blasio's failings on transportation and streets are most starkly revealed. More than a decade ago Paris created the world's first sustained bike-share system, Vélib', and began converting the highway along the Seine to a sinuous walkway. The city official who spearheaded both programs noted in a 2017 New York Times interview that the Seine transformation "was disruptive at the time, but today Parisians and Paris lovers can't imagine this iconic landscape as a road anymore."

That official, Deputy Mayor Anne Hidalgo, ascended to Paris's mayoralty in April 2014, just months after Bill de Blasio's own New York swearing-in. On Sunday she handily won re-election on her pledge to put a bike lane on every Paris avenue as an element of what she calls the Ville du quart d'heure (the 15-minute city) in which shops, parks, schools and health centers are just a walk or bike ride away. (See map.)

Paris proposed changes map

Contrasting Hidalgo's execution and vision to de Blasio's big shrug became somewhat of a cottage industry this year, culminating in Vice reporter Aaron Gordon's cri de coeur, "Be My Mayor, Anne Hidalgo Our current mayor can't handle this. Please save us." Just as telling was Hidalgo's 2017 Times interview, headlined "A Big-City Voice on Climate Change," which showcased the immense sweep, from granular to global, of her commitment to urban livability and global sustainability.

Mayor Hidalgo spoke then of both "Paris Respire" (literally, Paris breathes), the reclaiming of the city's streets "to give Parisians the opportunity, for the first time in living memory, to experience a healthier and more peaceful city, breathing a cleaner air"; and the Paris climate agreement, then scarcely a year old, whose enactment she credited to women campaigners and diplomats. What was her New York counterpart doing around the same time? Making a big show of divesting from fossil fuel companies, but declining to exercise his governing authority to combat New York's climate-damaging, cyclist-killing car culture.

By now, their differences are entrenched. Hidalgo the bold, proactive, urbanite Parisian; de Blasio the bunkered, bystanding Brooklynite. We'll give Streetsblog editor Gersh Kuntzman the final word on our guy:

De Blasio's choice of transportation [chauffeured SUV] insulates him from the experience of the vast majority of his commuting constituents. He never has to tell his boss he was late because the No. 6 train went out of service at Hunts Point Ave. He never gets doored by a driver on Smith St. He never has to tiptoe around bags of trash that overflow on sidewalks every night. He never waits 20 minutes for the M14 bus, only to have three arrive at the same time.

Gersh's assessment, in a Daily News op-ed, predated Covid by a full year.

Though a foot taller than height-challenged Mayor Beame, our current mayor has shrunk in stature to that of the earlier mayor. His disappearance from public life in a year and a half can't come too soon. But where is our own Anne Hidalgo, come to save us?


Policy-analyst and activist Charles Komanoff, a lifelong New Yorker, directs the Carbon Tax Center.

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