New York City is 13 times the size of DC and its greater metro region 3½ times as big. Political fights there are also far larger, including ones over bicycle lanes and public spaces, as a New York Times profile on Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan details.
It explains how Sadik-Khan has pushed forward with many innovative projects including closing parts of Times Square to traffic and building separated cycle tracts, which have gained worldwide praise and passionate fans in New York.
At the same time, some of the projects have irritated some people who want to influence what goes on in New York and want to be consulted on projects. And a few missteps, such as seeming dismissive or brusque toward stakeholders, may have contributed to the tension.
There are many parallels to Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee and Gabe Klein in the way people talk about Sadik-Khan (and Mayor Bloomberg) in the article. There are also many clear ways DC is different, besides the fact that cronyism was never a factor with Bloomberg.
For example, one of the aspiring mayoral candidates, Congressman Anthony Weiner from Queens, seems to have decided to ride a wave of anti-bike lane sentiment even though he once supported increasing cycling, including with bike lanes. Yet he changed his tune by the time he attended a dinner with Mayor Bloomberg last year:
“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”
Here in DC, even amid a very contentious mayoral race, both candidates insisted they supported retaining the existing bike lanes and building more. Despite criticizing the 15th Street bike lane recently, Jack Evans also maintains he supports keeping it.
People can argue whether those sentiments come from heartfelt beliefs or from realizing what’s politically unpopular to oppose. Even if it’s partly or largely the latter, that means that livable streets has a political currency that leaders ignore at their peril. The 2013 mayoral race may well reveal whether that’s also true in New York.
For DC (and Arlington), having small jurisdictions is a blessing; if New York were just Manhattan and Brooklyn, for instance, there’d be little political gain in Weiner’s stance. He would instead be running for Nassau County executive, which would probably be a better job for him.
In any jurisdiction, though, there is indeed value in listening to communities and building consensus and support for a project. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer built broad support for an Upper West Side bike lane by fostering a dialogue over specific complaints and how to fix them. Sadik-Khan’s first revolutionary change, pedestrianizing Times Square, had strong support from area businesses.
DDOT has been doing more listening of late, scheduling meetings on the Circulator, the Anacostia Streetcar, and more. Its livability studies in various neighborhoods have garnered broad praise from most neighborhoods.
Some people will oppose projects regardless. Others will complain they never were consulted no matter how hard an agency works to reach out. Despite well over 150 public meetings on the zoning rewrite, the same people showed up at the DC Council oversight hearing on the Office of Planning for the third year in a row to complain that OP wasn’t communicating enough.
But with good community relations, these voices will be few, supporters more numerous, and aspiring elected officials will know that winning cheap applause by feeding on a fear of change won’t ultimately pay off. Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, remains strongly supportive of Sadik-Khan and her initiatives.