Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Dana Tyler: Mayor de Blasio is expected to sign legislation making open streets permanent.
George Hahn: The guy in the Escalade thinks that where he needs to go is more important than where the person crossing the street on foot needs to go.
NYPD Officer: Cyclists don't follow the laws like they're supposed to. That guy just went through a red light, you see the motor vehicles going through the red light? No you don't.
TikTok User: Friendly reminder that you don't hate cities, you hate cars.
Shabazz Stuart: I want to live in a city where kids can play on the street without fear of getting hit by a car.
Edward Norton: New York was run by basically a Darth Vader-like figure and he made every significant decision about the way that the modern infrastructure of New York was built.
Jason Haber: New York needed a Robert Moses, instead we got the Robert Moses.
Janette Sadik-Khan: The notion that streets are for people is a very powerful concept.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. This is a big week for New York City, we are reopening. After more than a year of closures and shutdowns, the governor and the mayor, and public health experts say it's time to get back in the streets. For this week's show, we're going to do just that.
Kai on tape: Okay, let’s get at it. Sun is shining.
Kai: I'm one of those hordes of people who found biking during the pandemic, so I decided to go out and record a bike ride to start tonight's show.
Kai on tape: So on my trusty steed here I go. [music] Boy, is it a gorgeous day out here and everybody is out, we're tired of being in our houses in New York City.
Kai: There's also a lot of anxiety about it all. How's this going to go? More than eight million of us cramming back into these streets together after so many months of so much distance. How are we going to share the space? Roughly 8,000 miles of streets, not to mention all the parks and sidewalks and plazas. Are we going to do anything different with all that space? We've got a chance to reset. I know that my own relationship to the streets have certainly changed now that I've got this bike.
Kai on tape: I’ll say that I am not in a bike lane, I am in the middle of a street.
Kai: I live in Eastern Brooklyn in an overwhelmingly Caribbean neighborhood, almost entirely people of color, and the neighborhood is pretty well surrounded by major traffic thoroughfares, including one big expressway.
Kai on tape: I'm just below the Jackie Robinson Parkway and right here is turn off that leads up to the on-ramp for that expressway. It's sort of the big divider between our neighborhood here in Eastern Brooklyn and the bottom of Queens, Ridgewood. We are divided by a highway. That said, I'm not alone as a biker. I mean there's a guy right in front of me. There's always bikers on these streets, it's part of what makes it feel safe- ooh watch the potholes. The terror is of course getting doored, that's what everybody always told me before I became a biker is that one of these cars that are parked alongside me, is going to fling its door open. Oh, here we go, so now there's the double Park FedEx truck. We got a couple inches of space here, a couple feet of space here to bike in. There's always some dude who wants to double park in that space.
Kai: I rode a couple miles over to another neighborhood, Brownsville, to meet a guy who was going to take me on a biking tour of Brooklyn streets.
Kai on tape: Hi.
Dave: How are you doing.
Kai on tape: I'm Kai.
Kai: Nice to meet, Dave. We met on a corner by a community garden. Some people like to think of New Yorkers as hostile and unfriendly, but this is the most sociable place I have ever lived, especially in neighborhoods like Brownsville. If you stand on a corner for 30 seconds, somebody is going to stop and speak.
Speaker 10: Hello people.
Dave: Hi, how's it going?
Kai on tape: Hello, how are you?
Speaker 10: Fine, how are you?
Speaker 10: You're good, it's all right.
Dave: Have a good day.
Kai: Dave Colon grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. When he moved into the city as a young man, he became a dedicated urban biker.
Dave: I'm an all-year cyclist. What you'd have to do to make sure that you still have your legs when the nice weather comes around because otherwise, you're going to get back on the bike in April and you're going to just wonder why it's so difficult.
Kai on tape: That's me.
Kai: He's a reporter for a website called Streets Blog, New York City, which is all about livable streets, or public spaces that are designed around something more than just cars.
Kai on tape: What's the coolest thing you ever saw on the streets in New York that wasn't somebody driving a car?
Dave: One time on Bedford Avenue, I saw a guy riding his bike, sitting on the seat backwards somehow, blasting music and texting his friend. I don't know how he was doing.
Kai on tape: Riding backwards on his bike.
Dave: Yeah, I don't know how he did it. But god, the things in the city, I feel like it's all very fleeting. It's like you don't even think about it.
Kai on tape: I love that the fleetingness, the ephemera of moments of New York City, on the streets, not in a car.
Kai: But not everybody loves it, as Dave has learned while writing about the truly heated debates over how the streets are used.
Dave: People think that double parking is a birthright and you just get--
Kai on tape: Double parking as a birthright. [chuckles]
Dave: if you go to a community board meeting, man, you cover enough of them and that is what you are into. It's a little strange to me only because there are so many neighborhoods where a huge majority of people don't own cars, but then we're in Brownsville right now and almost 75% of the households here don't have a car. We're just looking around the street and there is nothing in at all that would allow people to do anything, but drive or park a car and there is really no reason for any street like that to exist in New York City—
Kai: We got back on our bikes so that Dave could show me the streets from his vantage point. I got to say, the friendly chatty world of the Brooklyn sidewalk, it pretty quickly disappears.
Kai on tape: Alright, let’s go.
[music and horns in traffic]
Kai on tape: Describe what you were just so enraged about?
Dave: You got one person who clearly can't fit right onto the intersection, you've got two people speeding through and a guy just leaning on the horn as if it helped anything.
Kai on tape: It all goes back to that there is-- I'm looking three blocks down of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Can I ask you because right now, this is the first bike lane I've been in since I left my house. Is that a function of neglect that you think or are a function of somebody somewhere has chosen to say, "They don't get bike lanes over there, but here on this lovely street, they get a bike lane"?
Dave: I think that there is a combination of political will and also the same disinvestment that you get in anything.
Kai on tape: Oh, sorry. Now I'm blocking the bike lanes.
Dave: The same disinvestment that you get in social services and street painting, is the same disinvestment you're going to get in safe streets--
Kai: Which is why Dave has been trying to take mayoral candidates on rides like this. It's an election year here in New York City, an important one, and the battle over how we use our streets has become a prominent part of the conversation since the pandemic, Dave got one of the top tier candidates to ride with him, Kathryn Garcia, who just got a big endorsement from the New York Times and he was impressed with her detailed understanding of what's happening out in the streets. He got a couple other candidates too, but none of the front runners yet, he sees these rides as a way to have big idea conversations.
Dave: What is the street? One of the mayoral candidates who I took a bike ride with, Art Chang, while we were riding, he said to me, "Everything from curb to curb, that all belongs to the city." And he was like, "What do we do with it?"
Kai on tape: Good grief, another semitruck…
Kai: I get a pretty clear idea of the current answer to that question as we biked further south into another predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood.
Kai on tape: We're in the street with the semis now. Whew. I would not bike if that was my routine.
Kai: Finally, we make it over to Prospect Park, one of the great parks of the world I got to say. We tour around in the really quite pleasant bike lanes around the park. We eventually find a bench to sit and talk about what felt like a brush with death when I was fighting those semis.
Dave: I've been run over, so I've already crossed that bridge.
Kai on tape: You've been run over, you've been hit by a car?
Dave: I have been hit by two cars and I have been run over by one.
Kai on tape: What happened?
Dave: I don't actually remember because I wasn't wearing a helmet but turns out I guess it's probably for the best because you don't want to remember something so traumatic, but the police report doesn't tell you a lot, the police report just says, "Guy is driving and he felt the thump under his car and got out," and there I was. A cop told my dad that a witness at the scene said that I was going around a double parked car and this guy clearly wasn't looking, knocked me into traffic and then I got run over by this other guy. I broke an ankle, collarbone, eye socket, I had concussion, I had some road rash, broke a tooth. It was bad.
Kai: We're sitting in front of exactly the kind of urban design that would have prevented this whole thing. It's a protected bike lane one that's separated from traffic by a series of pillars, on the opposite side of the park, there's actually a bike lane that runs between the curb and the parked cars. The cars become protection from the traffic rather than pushing you into traffic. New York was the first place in the country to use that idea. It happened during the Bloomberg administration.
Kai on tape: As New Yorkers we have-- I think, one, we're all very combative about how we should use our streets, I think, and feel very passionate about it. I certainly think so, but at the same time, I have this notion that we're way better than anybody else, what's true?
Dave: I think that we do better than a lot of places in America in part thanks to the subway and the bus network, but there hasn't been a city wide, "Here's the vision that we're working towards," and that is going to be up to the next mayor and the next city council to really put together.
Kai on tape: And it's the absence of that city wide plan that leads to the kind of inequity that I discovered when I start biking then Is that because it's catches your catch can and whatever neighborhood or streets you're on, as opposed to something that's been planned publicly and city wide.
Dave: Yes. It results in a sort of let me show you this map of what I call class one bike lanes.
Kai: I'm looking at an image of all the protected bike lanes in the city like the one we're sitting alongside now and they show up as green lines on this map.
Dave: And you can see, Manhattan, you’re doing great. Even when you get up the kind of into upper Manhattan but then you look everywhere else and in the Bronx it's a joke.
Kai on tape: Wow, there's one green line all the way through the Bronx. One straight line, that's it.
Kai: New Yorkers have been fighting over space in the streets for as long as we have had streets, but it was nearly 15 years ago that Michael Bloomberg's administration began trying to reclaim space from cars for protected bike lanes and pedestrian plazas and the like, but Bloomberg's administration also oversaw rabid gentrification. And to some people, when you see stuff like new bike lanes in your neighborhood, it's also a sign that rich White people are coming to push you out. Like Robert Moses is showing up in hipster drag.
Dave: Robert Moses got to run the traffic game here for forty years or something like that. It's not all his fault, plenty of people have hid behind, "Oh, jeez did you see what Robert Moses did to this place?" but I think that in the emerging fight to make things better, I don't represent a majority and I'm fine with that, but I think that there is an understanding of people, a new generation of people who they don't say, "Park Slope has a bike lane and so bike lane is a gentrification." They say, "Park Slope has a bike lane and so I want a fucking bike." I think that's an interesting sea change.
Kai: Coming up, the long, long story of our changing attitudes about our most shared public space. I'll talk with somebody who's been studying New York streets since the 60s, as a cab driver, as a city engineer and as a journalist. This is the United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright, we'll be right back.
Veralyn Williams: Tell me one pet peeve you have about New York City streets.
Speaker 13: That they're really dirty.
Speaker 14: Some people don't pick after their animals.
Speaker 15: Bird poop.
Speaker 16: I hate people that slow down in front of me.
Speaker 17: You got to be criss-crossing and playing frogger.
Speaker 18: I hate zigzagging, just keep it moving, stop looking around and keep it moving.
Speaker 19: It's always bothered me like how much space we give to cars and how little space to give to pedestrians, especially given how many people get around by subway or by walking.
Speaker 20: Cars zooming across the double line to get around the double parked cars on the side.
Speaker 21: Because you know it's a lot of cars that don't care.
Speaker 22: Some of the sidewalks are super narrow, which is the problems. Garbage piles up, things get in the way.
Speaker 23: They blocking the sidewalk. They see you coming, but yet they won't get out the way.
Speaker 24: The limousines, they're sitting idling for hours at a time.
Speaker 25: Everybody be outside and things get hard. Everybody want to get real tough, stop that tough shit.
Speaker 26: Finding a usable bathroom has been challenging.
Kai: That's a little bit of what New Yorkers have been telling us about how we want to share our space. I'm joined now by someone who spent so much time in that debate over how we're going to use the streets, he's become synonymous with it. Sam Schwartz AKA Gridlock Sam, began driving in New York City taxi in 1967. He went on to join Mayor John Lindsay's traffic department in 1971 and served at least three mayors, maybe more, as an engineer trying to figure out how we can best share space and move around this packed town. Sam, I am so thrilled that you're joining us tonight.
Sam Schwartz: Kai, thank you very much. Nice to be here.
Kai: We got to start with your famous name. We got a lot of ground to cover, but I have to squeeze in that story. You're credited with inventing the word gridlock back when you were the city's chief engineer for traffic during the 1980 transit strike. I think the times essentially gave you that nickname. How did it happen?
Sam: I didn't even know I made up the word, Kai, I called it two words. I called it grid lock. 14 years earlier, there was a transit strike and it was a mess. The police had control of handling the city's response. In 1980. I wanted the traffic scientists to have control, so I needed to create something that city hall could be afraid of, so I called it "grid lock." Two words, and I had a grid lock prevention plan. Soon the media caught on to the word, made it one word. Before you know it, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and others started calling me, where did this word come from?
Kai: Gridlock Sam, it works for me. Let's start our tour through the history way back in time, even before Robert Moses. Who were the streets for, let's say, before the 1880s, how do people in New York City use public space back then?
Sam: It was the pedestrian, the pedestrian was king and queen. There were a lot of street cars, but even even by 1900, the turn of the 20th century, I love the quote by the police commissioner William McAdoo, who said, "The pedestrian has the first write on roadways, as well as sidewalks." For those years, pedestrians absolutely had the right to be wherever they wanted, to walk in a straight line and then along comes the early 20th century, the car starts growing and we make a pretty serious mistake and it's not just us, it's all across the US, we decide that the pedestrian is no longer king and queen and we suddenly create these rules for them.
Now imagine yourself back in 1910, you've been walking as a biped for millions of years, you always walk in a straight line and suddenly somebody comes along and says, "I'm going to shine a red light in your face and you have to stop and then I'm going to shine a different color, a green light, and you can go and when you walk, you can only walk along buildings and you can only cross at right angles and if you don't do that, we're going to throw you in jail and we're going to call it jaywalking."
Something happened between 1910 and 1930 that was terrible across the United States, we gave up our streets to these machines. I use the word machines because that's the word that the police commissioner used at the turn of the century. He recognized these machines speeding through human bodies.
Kai: I imagine this history is long and complicated, but in that 20-year period, is that owing to the power of the auto industry? Is that owing to the power of the predecessors of Robert Moses, who we'll get to in a minute? What is that owing to that we made that choice?
Sam: We can blame, of course, the automobile industry and ultimately, they were convicted in the late 1940s of destroying transit all over the place, but the modernists, if you looked at the modernists in the 1910s, 1920s, they said, a modern city is a fast city and the car was supported, road building and the car, and faster cars by almost every major newspaper, The New York Times, by good government societies like the Regional Plan Association for disclosure of a board member, but it wasn't just the automobile industry, it was the city planners.
Kai: Who wanted to be modern and current. Well, so then along comes Robert Moses who I guess is the iconic version of that, and we so associate him with New York City, in particular, being car-centric in a way the highways cut off neighborhoods like mine. You’ve written about watching that change as a Brooklyn native I believe and what it did to the city. What was that like?
Sam: Yes. I started out in Brownsville in 1947, I grew up mostly in Bensonhurst lived in Park Slope and raised my family in Flatbush and other parts of Brooklyn. Yes, I did watch that. I watched the Galata go from a parkway to an expressway and I watched highways popping up signs saying, "This highway will be completed by 1958, 1961, 1963," and they kept their promise. As a kid, I'd loved to ride my bike in Bensonhurst to Bay Bridge and take the ferry across to Staten Island.
Then I saw this bridge going up, and I couldn't wait to take my bike across the bridge. The bridge opened I think it was 1964, and I went there on day one with my friend Gerard Soffian who went on to the bike coordinator for New York City DOT, and we started to ride up the bridge, and when we turned back, no bikes.
Kai: Oh wow.
Sam: We entered into a period if you look at every major bridge built before 1910 they were generous with pedestrians, generous with bicycles, and they all had tracks. Not a single bridge built after 1910 had tracks in New York City and it wasn't just Robert Moses, but he built most of those bridges post 1910, but even the George Washington Bridge which was planned with tracks, they didn't have tracks and they made a terrible for walkers and terrible for bike riders and the Verrazano, the last of the Moses bridges, you can't even walk across. Imagine that view that can only be enjoyed when you're stuck in traffic.
Kai: It's also interesting I've seen a stat that you cite about how many people were able to move across the Brooklyn Bridge before and after cars, do you know that off the top of your head? Can you share that?
Sam: Yes, sure. The Brooklyn Bridge when it opened was for trolleys and for people to walk across and some bike riders and there was a little carriageway on the outside in 1883 and by the way, Kai there was a toll on the bridge.
Kai: In 1883?
Sam: The bridge, in 1883 there was a toll. They were removed in 1911. People are complaining to me now that congestion pricing. We had tolls on the East River bridges until 1911, but the Brooklyn Bridge by the turn of the century was moving over 400,000 people a day, and then came the 1920s and 1930s they said, "Wait a second, this bridge needs to be modern." What is a modern bridge, "We're going to remove the tracks and replace them with car lanes." We get through doing that, by the end of the 1940s a bridge that handled 400,000 people, the modern bridge was handling 170,000 people. So much for modernization.
Kai: Yes. It's just remarkably less inefficient. You worked with Moses, or at least some of his team I believe, and you've said it's too easy to blame them alone?
Sam: Yes. In fact, because if you look around the country you'll see the same thing happened in city after city. Now, we were the earliest in a way of building a whole network and that, yes, Robert Moses is responsible and for this crazy idea and it wasn't just Moses to create highways that were for cars only and we put the trucks on the streets, and we're still suffering for that like the Belt Parkway. I'm going to say something that may sound a little bit odd in this conversation, Kai, and that is of the 25 largest cities in the United States only New York City does not have an interstate going through its central business district and we have Robert Moses to thank for that. Why?
Kai: Because why that's a bad idea.
Sam: No, no, he wanted to do it, but he activated the anti-car and anti-highway people in the 1950s and early '60s so by the time the big money came from the 1956 interstate defense network, 90/10 money was the easiest investment. Every place was building highways all over, the anti-highway people destroyed Moses’ plans for interstate highways. A 10 lane highway to go from the Manhattan Bridge out to the Holland Tunnel.
10 lanes cutting right through SoHo from the Williamsburg Bridge as well. Another eight to 10 lane highway at around 30th Street. Both of those highways were killed. They were killed ultimately by the first mayor I served, John Lindsay. Can you imagine today if we had that 10 lane highway people would say, "How can we live without it?" We are thriving without it, we had record numbers of people over four million people coming into our central business district daily right before COVID. We can manage without all these car lanes.
Kai: You worked for Lindsay, you worked for Abe Beame, you worked for Mayor Koch. He was the first one back in the ‘80s to build or try to build bike lanes, and he kind of ran out of town about it, or at least, people really didn't like it. What happened then, what compelled Koch to build those bike lanes, and why did he end up taking them out?
Sam: It was 1980 and I remember like yesterday. He had gone to Beijing, and he came back and he was saying, "I love these bike lanes," and then we had the transit strike, and New Yorkers until then it was just a few hardcore riders and kids. It was viewed as a toy. People just took out their old bikes and they were riding and we had bike lanes in Midtown going up Sixth Avenue and down Fifth and on Broadway, and Seventh, and after the strike, people said, "You guys were like heroes, you managed things so great."
Ed Koch said to me, "I want you to do some of those things." We tried some car restrictions, we were sued by the AAA and the Garage Board of Trade, the Form of Congestion Pricing, the city lost the suite, but the bike lanes we implemented. We put physically separated bike lanes, the first time anywhere in the United States. We took lanes away from cars on Sixth Avenue, on Seventh Broadway into Fifth Avenue from Central Park to Washington Square Park, and they were in for about a month and everybody was complaining about them.
One cold morning, I had called in, November morning to Ed Koch's office and he says to me, "He can't go anywhere in the city without people complaining about the bike lanes." He said, "I was just in the President's limousine," it was Jimmy Carter who was president at the time I think he maybe just lost and the governor was Hugh Carey and we're running up Sixth Avenue in the President's limousine and Hugh Carey says to the president, "Mr. President, look out the window, they're running up sixth." He points at the bike lane and he said, "Look how Ed is pissing away your money. I knew I was dead at that moment and I had to remove the bike lanes.
Kai: Oh, man. Wow. Well, one of the things you've talked about is pedestrian first planning, not bikes, not cars, not anything with wheels, but pedestrian first. What does that look like? What are some concrete things that cities can do to achieve that?
Sam: First of all, get rid of jaywalking most. Jaywalking is, first of all, it's overwhelmingly used against people of color. There was, I forget, a couple of years ago looking at the numbers over 90% of the jaywalking violations were for people of color.
Kai: Surprise, surprise.
Sam: They don't work. It turns out Los Angeles which has tougher jaywalking laws, really arrests people far more than New York and has so fewer pedestrians, more pedestrians get killed in Los Angeles than in New York City. The chaos that pedestrians offer, and the fact that pedestrians really look more carefully, we have a lower pedestrian casualty rate. I would widen a lot of sidewalks. I love the modernists in 1910.
There’s an article in 1909 New York Times, talks about how we're going to take those wonderful sidewalks of Fifth Avenue, and we're going to turn them into two car lanes-- Were carved out of the sidewalks on Fifth Avenue in Midtown to modernize. We should go back, look at where all our sidewalks were, and we'll find that they all were way out, they were much wider, and we could have outdoor restaurants or road for pedestrians, shorter distance to cross streets which means less exposure for the pedestrians, bike lanes.
We have to figure out a way to get trucks and deliveries and we could do that temporarily. There are solutions there, but the pedestrian should be returned rightfully to become king and queen. Kai, I am worried, autonomous vehicle industry is coming and it works perfectly, these autonomous vehicles, except for people. When you put people in the mix, it doesn't work. They're going to do the same thing that was done to us with jaywalking laws and red lights in our face in the next 10 years. They're already talking about it. A Princeton team said we need to wear radar shirts so the cars can detect us. MIT said we need to have some devices that let the cars know what our intentions are. Pedestrians first, but I'm worried.
Kai: We will come back to that topic in a future show. Before I let you go though, you mentioned the racial inequity and the arrests around jaywalking. What about just, in general, the inequity that I saw in my bike ride we played earlier in the show here, where it just felt like coming from my neighborhood going west, they were totally different cities to bike in? How does that come to be?
Sam: I didn't see it, so I'm sorry. Different communities have different attitudes towards biking. Many of the bike lanes require talking to be taken. There's a saying in planning that the people who get hurt by something or post something scream louder than the supporters seem. The supporters need to get out there and they are getting out there. There's a big constituency now. The bike lanes of 1980 would not have been removed if we have the kind of constituency we have there now.
Traffic equity is really important. We've got to take a lot of traffic functions out of the police department. That started in 1973 by a Black cop, Benjamin Ward, who took a lot of the police functions and he became police commissioner when I became traffic commissioner. I had over 2,000 traffic agents with cops on loan and an enforcement body that reflected the City of New York. I think we need to go back to days like that.
Kai: Well, we got to leave it there. Sam Schwartz, aka Gridlock Sam, has been studying our streets for more than 50 years. He still writes a traffic column for the New York Daily News, among many other things he's up to. Check them out at gridlocksam.com. Thanks, Sam.
Sam: Thank you, Kai. A pleasure.
Kai: Coming up, I'll talk with WNYC reporter, Stephen Nessen, about how Mayor de Blasio has handled the streets and what the next mayor's going to face. First, here's a little more of what we heard this week when we roamed around the city with our microphones.
Veralyn Williams: What would you want those speeds to look like in your wildest dreams?
Speaker 27: Let me think. To look clean so I could have a nice walk.
Speaker 28: To look very clean and not like they are now.
Speaker 29: More open spaces for people to play in and stuff like that.
Speaker 30: A lot more open space for people to get around by foot.
Speaker 31: More skate parks, more bike parks and stuff like that.
Speaker 32: More greenery, less pavement.
Speaker 33: Community coming together to clean up this street, making the environment look nice. The trees blossoming.
Speaker 34: To have a reunion and have a barbecue and bring back old times.
Speaker 35: Arts and music, kids doing chalk on the sidewalk, or blowing bubbles.
Speaker 36: Not blocking the sidewalk.
Speaker 37: More stop signs, more bike lanes. You know what I’m saying?
Speaker 38: We have human-powered vehicles. We're going faster than people who walk, but we're going slower than people who bike. If there were just a narrow lane, just for those it would be heaven.
Speaker 39: Look at them. They're just chilling. They're walking, having a good day. He's walking his baby.
Speaker 40: Exactly. Walking peacefully.
Kai: I’m Kai Wright. We'll be right back.
Carolyn Adams: Hi, this is Carolyn Adams, a producer on the United States of Anxiety. As we re-imagine what our streets and public spaces could look like, we have to ask, how much faith do you have in the government and its ability to improve your quality of life? And what happens if or when a community is harmed in the process? In this week’s show notes, we've got two companion listens that address these questions.
One of them is called Government: A Love-Hate Story. And the episode is all about the complex feelings that many of us have about the role that government plays in our lives. So when you finish listening to this episode, check them out and let us know what you think on Twitter using the #USOfAnxiety, or email us a voice note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veralyn Williams: This Open Streets program we've seen around the city during COVID, what do you think about it?
Speaker 41: I've actually really liked the concept of outdoor dining that we have.
Speaker 42: Staying inside was a little overwhelming for the past year and some change. It's good that they opening up and everybody get to greet everybody.
Speaker 43: I've enjoyed the block party atmosphere.
Speaker 44: It’s a gift and a curse once again because I drive. Me trying to commute from certain blocks, it's harder because of the streets being blocked off, but at the same time, there's nothing wrong with good exercise so pack the car, take a walk.
Speaker 12: What differences do you notice in the streets in your neighborhood versus other neighborhoods?
Speaker 44: My side of town, like in Bedford-Stuyvesant, there’s no streets like this. You have to walk in close proximity with people.
Speaker 45: A lot of neighborhoods where we're at, you'll see garbage and for us it's normal. You go to Manhattan, it's not like that.
Speaker 46: Everybody's concerned about Queens and Brooklyn and Manhattan, but we live in the Bronx. We need more attention. We need people to focus more on us. Some people get ridiculous.
Speaker 47: You can't walk down the street without getting into a fight in certain places.
Speaker 48: The homeless population, very sad. Find homes for the homeless.
Kai: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We are talking about the streets tonight. New York City, all, but believe reopens this week. Tonight, we resume 24 hour subway service, so the city that never sleeps is back awake. WNYC’s veteran transportation reporter, Stephen Nessen, will be out there on the trains with you. Stephen, hey.
Stephen Nessen: Hey, Kai. How's it going?
Kai: I'm good. I'm worried about you. Are you excited? Are you nervous? What's your feeling about this moment of reopening as someone who's been observing just how New Yorkers get around and interact for all these years?
Stephen: I'm a very cautiously optimistic. I was out this weekend and the streets were just booming with people. The mood seemed really jubilant. Looming over this subway opening, there have been a rash of random attacks and stabbings. There's been a real discussion about, "Is crime up in the subways? Is it down?" The number of ridership is way down. There's only like two million riders compared to more than five million, what it was before the pandemic.
Considering how few people there are, there are a lot of crimes happening in the subway, but the city is like, “We're open. It's safe. Get out there. Feel good. Ride the subway. COVID is on the wane.” There's the sense that people are just ready to get out and get back to their old lives as much as they can at this point. I'm excited to see what's happening. [chuckles] I'm curious who's riding the subway at 2:00, 3:00 AM other than essential workers that have been shoved off onto buses and Ubers or however they need to get around late at night.
Kai: Well, we shall. You guys, if you see Stephen out there, hit him up. Tell him why you're there. Let's talk about, as you say, COVID is waning. We've got a mayoral race coming. Let's first talk about our current mayor, Mayor de Blasio. How he has done in his tenure. One of the big changes during the pandemic has been Open Streets initiative, which allows for outdoor dining among other things. Last week, the Mayor signed a bill that makes that program permanent. How's it worked thus far? Is it considered a success, or is it making drivers nuts, or both?
Stephen: I think by and large, residents of New York City generally love it. Eating outdoors is great. It's given restaurants during the worst of the pandemic the opportunity to actually have customers eating not indoors, but the semi-outdoor, indoor thing. That's been great, I think, for a lot of businesses to keep them afloat. As far as streets go, we've definitely seen a few random cars crashing into outdoor dining structures, but it's not a persistent problem.
It happened a few random times. I think the Mayor puts some money into making it permanent. I think a lot of people would like to see more money into making it more permanent. A lot of folks point out, sure, a few parking spaces were taken to do the Open Streets-- To do the open restaurants, excuse me. The world did not collapse. [chuckles] Drivers still found a place to park their cars.
Kai: How do you think? Has the city's mood or attitude about this shifted at all in the last year you think because of that?
I think so. I think we've seen that you can remove a few parking places and room for pedestrians, it's not the end of the world, cars still have a place to park, and it makes the city more livable for more people. You can see 20 people using up two parking spaces as opposed to two cars sitting there. I think that sense of how streets are used and appreciating and respecting and not minding, that has been a cultural shift during the pandemic for sure.
Kai: What about Vision Zero which is another de Blasio initiative which the mayor has touted as a success? First off, what is it? It's not only a New York thing but for people who've never heard of it, give us a quick synopsis of what Vision Zero is.
Stephen: Sure. First of all Vision Zero, the phrase, the name, the idea is that you can reduce all traffic deaths in your city to nothing, to zero through smart street design, smart infrastructure. I believe it, the first place was in Sweden, and other cities around the world have done this. Oslo, which certainly is not the size of New York City, but I believe in 2019 they had zero traffic deaths, that means no pedestrian was hit and killed by a vehicle, no biker was hit and killed by a vehicle.
It's of this ambitious goal and for de Blasio when he launched it, he set the year 2024 as the goal for New York City to get to zero traffic deaths. I think actually Chicago was the first city in America to launch it, New York was second, but since then there have been several other cities that have signed on to this pledge. I suppose it's like a commitment, but it's like, "We're going to build towards that commitment through lowering speed limits and redesigning the streets in a way that makes them safer for pedestrians and cyclists."
Kai: As I said, the mayor has said it's been a success, advocates say it has not been a success, certainly we are not at zero we can say that. From your perspective, one of the things I'm curious, one, what do you think hasn't been a success or not? Two is there any data about where the ongoing deaths and injuries occur in terms of particularly racial and economic equity, again, I took this bike tour at the start of the show that it's very stark to me as you move from black and brown East Brooklyn through to increasingly white West Brooklyn how much more dangerous it gets coming back my direction. What does the data show us in that terms, and overall how would you rate the program?
Stephen: Oh, well, first of all before Vision Zero there wasn't an ambitious effort, like a focus on traffic safety like this. You guys talked about Bloomberg putting in some bike lanes before but as I understand it Bloomberg’s interest in creating bike lanes and safer pedestrian plazas in Times Square, that was like an environmental thing, that was something to beautify New York and make us a so-called world-class city, that wasn't necessarily a focus on traffic safety.
Kai: Which is how it became associated with gentrification instead of something for safety?
Stephen: Exactly. This idea that all traffic deaths are preventable is actually pretty radical and someone just explained it to me it's like drunk driving. Before there was Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Drunk driving was just an unfortunate consequence when someone dies of drunk driving. It wasn't something that you had to actually work to prevent. Vision Zero is this idea that any traffic death is preventable through good street design, whether it's slowing the speed limit.
The mayor did lower the speed limit on city streets from 30 to 25 miles per hour. Every mile per hour you reduce the speed limit and if someone is hit, there's less chance that it will be a fatal hit. Things like that. That was big. People were fighting tooth and nail over the speed limit and now it's 25 and they want to lower it even more. Speed cameras, we did not have as many speed cameras before de Blasio as we do now. It started slow with speed cameras around school zones, they were only allowed to operate during school hours, it's since expanded the number of cameras and the hours they're allowed to operate.
Those are pretty big shifts. We didn't have that before and it did do a lot to reduce traffic deaths. I don't know if they were quite cut in half, but significantly down from what they were before Vision Zero launched. In that regard, those are pretty big changes to the streetscape of New York City and making people safer.
Kai: We're a couple of weeks away from a hugely consequential mayoral election, and you have just published a story in Gothamist with an overview of the leading candidate's ideas on safe streets. How big of a deal is the mayor's office for this debate right now and for the debate over safe safe streets right now? Then, what have you learned about what leadership does and does not work from the mayor's office?
Stephen: Interesting. Well, I think having a mayor that is focused on this issue is key. It's interesting like reducing the speed limit is actually something that Albany has to approve, but it's not going to happen if the mayor isn't fighting for it. Isn't fighting hard, same with the initial speed cameras outside of schools, you have to fight Albany to get it done, but you need that push coming from the city, the backing of the city. The fact that mayoral candidates are even talking about biking and bike lanes, Kai, is radical.
I was just reading when de Blasio first ran for mayor, it was him and Anthony Weiner and it was that whole mess and you may remember that, but when they talked about bike lanes back then it was like a joke, they were like, "Oh, I think we're going to rip out the bike lanes Bloomberg put in there." Now candidates are saying, "We're going to put in 250 miles in the first four years, 300 miles." Just the fact that they're even going as far as to back the idea of bike lanes is a huge shift from where we were eight years ago.
That said, there's some daylight on the candidates as far as where they stand on bike lanes and pedestrian safety and how far they're willing to go, and how knowledgeable they are about what they can do in their job to make changes.
Kai: You can go to gothamist.com to find all of that just a full layout of what each candidate is saying on this from Steven, but quickly in our last minute, what would you say is the big contours of the race?
Stephen: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with not so much traffic, but policing, I think it has a lot to do with how we're going to treat the NYPD, there's a lot of daylight on the candidates on that issue and that does come back to street safety because a lot of people believe the NYPD should not be involved in investigating collisions at all. That they don't follow through enough so is as much of a motivation for people to not be reckless because they're not even getting penalized for the crashes or injuries they are causing.
As far as the mayor’s race, it is going to be fascinating to see where they go on this issue, and as far as policing, as far as housing, and of course, bringing the city back to life. Part of that is all those great voices you heard, people want to live in the streets, pedestrians want to be free in the streets, and have that safety and also just have that experience of being in a vibrant city, keeping the city vibrant, making sure it stays vibrant.
Kai: Steven Nessen is WNYC’s transportation reporter. We’ll have a link to that story we're talking about in our show notes, which just breaks down where all the leading candidates in the mayor's race stand on cars versus bikes versus people, and he'll be on the trains tonight so say hi if you see him. Stephen, good luck.
Stephen: Thank you, Kai.
Kai: Given how dramatic our debates over the streets can be, we figured we'd end the show with a little drama too. A snippet from a forthcoming opera called A Marvelous Order, which is about two competing visions of the urban landscape. As we were planning this show our producer Carl Boisrond just kept talking about this so we had to bring it up. It's a collaboration between composer Judd Greenstein, Tracy K. Smith who is a former US poet laureate, and the director of Joshua Frankel.
It just gives you a sense of this fight as just the stuff of myth. The opera is about the battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. In this scene, it depicts a public hearing in which Jacobs is really upset about a plan to build the lower Manhattan expressway through her home. It's performed by Megan Schubert. We leave you with an expert from A Marvelous Order.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. A special thanks to Stephen and his editor in the WNYC newsroom, Julianne Welby, they helped us think through this episode. Jared Paul makes all that incredible street tape including my bike ride. Hannis Brown makes the podcast version. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Carl Boisrond, Emily Botein, Karen Frillmann, and Christopher Werth.
Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_Wright. Of course, I hope you'll join us for the live show next Sunday at 6:00 PM Eastern, you can stream it at wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.