DOT: We Just Don’t Have Enough Staff to Make NYC Streets Safer
But the DOT Commissioner isn't asking for more resources.
6:38 PM EST on February 14, 2023
New York City is failing to reach its goals of installing more bike lanes, bus lanes, and other traffic calming measures, and it's not clear how the chronically understaffed Adams administration will make up the difference.
On Tuesday, the Department of Transportation released a legally mandated report showing how the City is implementing legislation passed in 2019 that created a Streets Master Plan—a series of benchmarks that are supposed to "revolutionize" how we get around.
Unfortunately for the city's millions of daily bus riders, the DOT installed just 4.4 miles of protected bus lanes in 2022, far shy of its 20-mile target, and embarrassingly short of the 30-mile average it's supposed to maintain through 2026. Only 14 bus stops out of 500 were upgraded.
Protected bike lanes fared a little better, with 26.3 miles out of 30 targeted, but that's still barely half of the targeted average of 50 miles a year.
In testimony before the City Council's Transportation Committee on Tuesday, DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez mostly blamed staff shortages for the City’s failure to meet these goals. The agency has nearly 800 vacancies; 4 percent fewer employees than it did in 2019, but more than 14 percent fewer staffers in the Transportation Planning and Management division. (The commissioner also subtly pointed out that it's not just mayoral intransigence that stalls much-needed bus and bike lanes: City Councilmembers have been good at killing these projects themselves.)
But in the same testimony, Rodriguez also claimed the resources at his disposal suited him just fine, that the problem was really a "national" one, and that he held a job fair with recent college graduates that he was hopeful about. The commissioner also refused several opportunities to ask the council for a bigger budget.
"So you're fine with the resources you have, but also there are challenges with the resources being implemented because the staffing isn't there? Am I following that correctly?" committee chair and majority whip Selvena Brooks-Powers asked.
"One thing that I learned in my 12 years, after my 12 years in the council, is that New York has limited resources," Rodriguez replied, referencing his time as the council's Transportation Committee chair, though he added that he wouldn't turn down more money if it was offered to him.
Brooklyn Councilmember Lincoln Restler pointed out the obvious contradiction in the commissioner's position. "I know your heart's in the right place commissioner but you can't do the work if you don't have the staff," he said. "And I am deeply troubled by this administration's commitment to financial austerity and shrinking the size of government at the expense of achieving the goals that you are espousing and intending to actually implement."
Manhattan Councilmember Gale Brewer said that she had the answer to the DOT's hiring woes. "You should pay people more—that's more of a collective bargaining issue sometimes, but for God's sake, make it hybrid," Brewer said, referring to Mayor Adams's refusal to allow hybrid work, and the predictable loss of talented municipal workers to the private sector as a result.
The most effective way of stopping traffic violence in New York City is to have fewer drivers on the road. But since that seems to be too radical of a concept for many public officials in the year 2023, New Yorkers must settle for the next best thing: slowing them down.
Speed cameras and traffic enforcement help (NYC's cameras have racked up a total of $500 million in fines from 2014 to 2021, according to the DOT) but physically changing the streets is even better. Specifically, research shows that bike lanes and bus lanes make roads significantly safer for everyone, in addition to getting lots more people where they need to go.
In 2022, 255 people were killed on city streets, which is an improvement on 2021's 275 deaths, but is still higher than every other year aside from 2014.
The hearing was also held to discuss a package of extremely modest bills. (Restler's bill that would allow New Yorkers to report drivers who park illegally and reap some of the bounty will get a hearing, likely in the first quarter of the year, Brooks-Powers said.) Included in the legislation: a study of traffic bollards across the city, a study of dangerous driving, a requirement for the DOT to daylight 100 intersections every year, and the installation of traffic-calming measures near senior centers.
The DOT politely refused to support any of these measures, instead arguing that it needed "flexibility."
Brooklyn Councilmember Alexa Avilés, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would require the DOT to study traffic crashes every three years instead of five, wondered why the agency would oppose such a measure.
"Every five years is a tremendous disservice to our communities," said Avilés, who added that low-income neighborhoods of color across New York City have higher rates of deadly crashes. (The DOT replied that perhaps every four years would be a welcome compromise.)
Before the hearing, several members of Family for Safe Streets, a group of people whose loved ones were killed in traffic crashes, stood outside City Hall and urged elected officials to do more.
Monique Williams said that her father Jerry Spriggs was killed by a truck driver in the Bronx in November of 2020. The driver, who fled the scene, claimed he didn't see the 71-year-old, and was released without any consequences.
"My dad should still be here. Being with his family, being with his grandchildren, his great-grandchild was born in December," Williams said.
"We need that [Streets] Master Plan to be implemented…Why are we failing to hit the mandates, the requirements?" Williams asked the television cameras pointed at her. "What are we doing to get back on track?"
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