After New York’s Mayoral Election
Taking stock of the challenges facing New York City in a second de Blasio term
|Re-civilize the Streets|
|Public Order Makes City Life Possible|
|De Blasio and Cities Without Civitas|
|Mugged by Reality on Homelessness|
|The de Blasio Housing New York Plan: An Assessment|
|Congestion Pricing and de Blasio’s Mean Streets|
Re-civilize the Streets
Crime is down, but Mayor de Blasio deserves little credit.
Heather Mac Donald
Homicides and shootings continue to drop in New York City, even as the city unwinds key policing policies responsible for its record-breaking crime drop since the 1990s. Under pressure from race advocates, the New York Police Department has dramatically cut its pedestrian stops in high-crime neighborhoods. Arrests for public possession of marijuana have fallen by half. Summer 2017 brought the most radical changes yet: the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys announced that they will no longer prosecute most turnstile jumpers. And a city council law to waive criminal penalties for public drinking and urination, littering, excessive noise, and the violation of public-park curfews was slated for implementation.
Because this rollback of proactive policing has not yet affected New York’s ongoing crime decline (which defies the national post-Ferguson crime increase), critics charge that public-order enforcement is a dispensable crime-fighting tool. They are wrong. The decriminalization of public-order violations, also known as Broken Windows policing, has not yet been in place long enough to have had an effect on public safety. The NYPD has remained fully committed to its revolutionary data-analysis system known as CompStat: the weekly meetings in which top brass grill precinct commanders about crime patterns on their watch. The maintenance of CompStat accountability is the primary reason that crime remains low. But New York’s crime decline is now being carried along by another factor: gentrification, which occurred only because of the policing induced crime drop.
Given the demographics of street crime, driven by vastly different rates of out-of wedlock childbearing, an alteration in white–black population ratios will inevitably affect crime rates. And the demographic numbers are startling. In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, the number of white residents rose 1,235 percent from 2000 to 2015, while the black population decreased by 17 percent, reports City Lab. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, the number of whites rose 610 percent over that same decade and a half; the black population was down 22 percent. Central Harlem’s white population rose 846 percent; the black share dropped 10 percent. In 2000, whites were about three-quarters of the black population in Brownsville-Ocean Hill; by 2015, there were twice as many whites as blacks. In 2000, whites were one-third of the black population in Crown Heights North and Prospect Heights; now they exceed the black population by 20,000.
But it would be foolish to gamble that CompStat and gentrification can overcome the loss of public order maintenance. The next mayor—polling data favor de Blasio’s reelection—should demand that district attorneys again punish fare-beating, the key gateway to criminality in the subways. No mugger uses a MetroCard. And the sight of youths jumping turnstiles sends a clear signal that lawful authority is breaking down underground, leading to more crime.
The mayor should also pick a fight with the city council over its own decriminalization policies. If council members listened to their law-abiding constituents, rather than to the anti-cop activists, they would know that the most pressing concern of the thousands of hardworking, upstanding residents of high-crime areas is public order. The people who have to traverse corners dominated by guys drinking, urinating, and fighting understand that those knots of disorder lead to shootings and stabbings.
Broken Windows enforcement is a moral and civil rights imperative, since it equalizes the living conditions among different neighborhoods and social strata.
Though the city’s official crime numbers have not yet worsened, signs of increasing disorder are everywhere. The city is filthy; any mayor should be ashamed to have European tourists witness our inability to keep the streets free of trash. Vagrants are multiplying. The solution to colonization by beggars and addicts is not more taxpayer-subsidized housing, which the city already provides in massive amounts at the expense of basic public services. The solution is enforcement of the law and willingness to insist that the mentally ill stay in treatment.
The legacy of New York’s former commitment to public order will not last forever. The next mayoral administration must commit to re-civilizing the streets.
Public Order Makes City Life Possible
In a culture that no longer teaches civility or citizenship, police have a greater burden than ever.
Two summers ago, a sobbing relative called to say that she’d just seen one youth stab another in the chest outside her front door in gentrifying Harlem. As she spoke, she noticed that the blood had splattered her shoes. The victim didn’t die, thank heaven, but staggered across the street and got help. It was a neighborhood annual reunion—barbecues blazing, salsa music blasting—and the victim and his assailant, simmering with decades’-long loathing now heightened by drug-dealing rivalry, exploded. I e-mailed my friend Bill Bratton, then still police commissioner, to say that a lack of quality-of-life policing in that neighborhood, including an official blind eye to petty dope traffic, clearly contributed to the do-what-you-want mind-set that prevailed in that precinct, whose former corruption once dubbed it the Dirty Thirty.
Bratton needed no convincing: he was an even truer believer than I in the Broken Windows theory of crime prevention—the idea that if cops let minor crimes of disorder, such as low-level marijuana selling or subway fare-beating or public urination (or, these days, masturbation), go unpunished, the malicious will conclude that anything goes and do what their evil hearts prompt. He soon had a narcotics squad patrolling the neighborhood, and within months, the police had won a score of convictions of the pushers.
Bratton is retired now; the city council has decriminalized crimes of disorder by mandating civil instead of criminal summonses for many of them, resulting in no criminal record and no arrest warrant if you don’t show up in court; and the successors to the narcotics cops who worked their magic in the Three-Oh in 2015 have lost interest in the ongoing problem. They’re just low-level kids, the detectives say; they’ll soon be back on the streets—and, more than anything, as they do not say, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his city council of unemployables have decided that justice demands that the acting-out of the disorderly and the criminal, ex officio victims of social injustice, should take precedence over the peace and safety of the hardworking and civil. Out go the backlog of quality-of-life warrants of the last decade and more. Why should the wrongdoings of yesteryear weigh on the employment chances of an utterly work-unready 28-year-old—though, of course, no one would even invoke that past transgression in a case that didn’t involve current lawbreaking, just as no cop made a major fuss about small quantities of pot possession, unless some larger offense was at issue.
Fortunately, city crime continues to drop, because the virtuous circle set going by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Commissioner Bratton, and carried on by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly, has its own momentum, proving, as Adam Smith said, that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”—it takes a long time to expend the social and cultural capital that so many cities and countries take for granted. As Gotham proved, you can legislate morality, in the sense that lawmaking and law enforcement can change behavior and beliefs. But laws, morals, and manners exist in a dialectical tension with one another, and what has changed for the better can also change for the worse—and more easily, since improvement is harder than destruction. With a Black-Lives-Matter mayor, city council, and electorate, with Antifa thugs supposedly now the good guys, and with contrary views silenced by the universities and the trendy totalitarians of Silicon Valley (who, between engineering classes, learned what is right and moral from their required Stanford PC-indoctrination course), I would suggest holding on to your hat. Thanks to the age of Kindle, though, at least we won’t have book burnings.
But the reason for controlling quality-of-life disorder is not only, or even primarily, that it lowers major crime. Order is what makes urban life possible. Civility—the art of living in a city—is not innate. We have to learn not to throw sand at other kids and to learn to raise our hands to be called on, to stand in line and take our turn, not to blast music from our apartment or car, not to display too much affection publicly, not to block the sidewalk or market aisle, not to yell on our cellphones or cram pizza into our maws on the street or public transport, not to litter, not to monopolize public spaces with our “expressive” behavior, not to cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, not to bother or offend others unnecessarily. We no longer teach civility in schools: instead of the “citizenship” that my generation learned, we impart “social justice,” which teaches grievance and resentment of others; and city officials, with an Obama edict’s backing, have hamstrung school discipline, fostering misbehavior. In college, we don’t teach free and civil discussion, tolerance of intellectual differences, or respect for learning but only a kid’s right to resent microaggressions and silence politically incorrect speech as “violence.” The result will not be urbanity.
That leaves the police to stop people from disturbing the peace or committing public nuisances. Except that the city council wants them to stop doing all that; and fear of a career-ending confrontation in such an anti-cop climate makes officers all too ready to pull back. Already, boom boxes are metastasizing on the streets—even bicyclists blast them—and the homeless, who go wherever lax order-keeping and virtue-signaling left-wing generosity make them welcome, have flocked to Gotham’s dirty-again streets.
The de Blasio record is mixed, at best.
How are Gotham public schools faring in the Bill de Blasio era? The answer is complicated. Primary metrics show that schools have continued making gains that began under de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg—but these improvements may have been achieved despite the administration as much as because of it.
Test scores for New York City public school children keep rising. On the 2017 state exams, 37.8 percent of students in district elementary and middle schools met the bar for proficiency in math, and 40.6 percent scored proficient in English. These figures represent an increase of 3.6 percentage points in math and 12.2 percentage points in English since 2014.
Due to frequent changes in the state exams, the best marker of Gotham’s educational progress is how city students compare with students in the rest of the state. The percentage of city students proficient in English was 3.5 percentage points below the average for the rest of the state in 2014; but in 2017, the percentage was 1.4 points higher than the rest of the state. In math, however, city students lost ground: in 2014, the percentage of city kids scoring proficient in math was 3.2 points less than their state peers, and they fell further behind in 2017, when city kids lagged 4.2 percentage points.
Charter schools are generating New York City’s most impressive results. On the 2017 exams, charter schools bested district proficiency rates by 14 percentage points in math and 8 in English. Economically disadvantaged charter students outscored their district peers by 19 points in math and 12 points in English. While Bloomberg’s administration championed charters and worked to find space for them in public school buildings, de Blasio entered office as an ardent charter opponent. De Blasio targeted Eva Moskowitz and her high-performing Success Academy, arguing that she had “to stop being tolerated, enabled, [and] supported.” This year, 84 percent of Success students were proficient in English and 95 percent in math. The mayor has toned down his anti-charter rhetoric, but the administration continues to hamper charter growth—for example, by denying most charter requests for space in public school buildings.
High school graduation rates have risen during de Blasio’s tenure, jumping from 68.4 percent in 2014 to 72.6 percent in 2016. These figures reflect a long-term upward trend in graduation rates that began during the Bloomberg years—but only half these students have met CUNY’s standards for college readiness in English and mathematics.
De Blasio has made headway on his promise to deliver expanded full-day pre-K, which now enrolls more than 70,000 four-year-olds, and he has made other efforts to expand access to computer-science and advanced-placement courses. A new literacy initiative also shows some promise.
But the administration’s two major educational initiatives—Community Schools and Renewal Schools—haven’t produced markedly positive results. The Renewal Schools program invested over $500 million in 94 schools—now down to 78, as 16 have closed—spending the money on extra teacher training, summer school, and adding an hour to the school day. The Community Schools initiative proposed to boost student achievement by providing 130 struggling schools with wraparound social services via city-sponsored partnerships with neighborhood organizations. When the city announced an expansion of the Community Schools effort this summer, the only positive metric that it could offer was a modest decrease in absenteeism. Renewal Schools did post a 1.5-percentage-point gain in math scores and 3.2 points in English—fairly modest gains for the considerable investment.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the administration’s education record is its recent announcement that it would begin forcing many teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve pool into classrooms. The ATR pool is a vestige of the Bloomberg administration’s 2005 teachers’ union contract that ended the policy of “forced placement” of teachers based on seniority. Principals could now select their own staffs, though the union ensured that the teachers weren’t fired—thus, the ATR pool, where they would still collect paychecks. The roughly 800 ATR teachers cost the city upward of $150 million a year, but instead of instituting a time limit to ATR status before initiating termination, de Blasio will compel principals to employ these unwanted teachers—half of whom no one has deemed fit to hire for more than two years.
De Blasio and Cities Without Civitas
Despite his limited energies, New York’s mayor will likely try to fashion himself into a plausible presidential candidate.
New York seems to be following in the footsteps of Los Angeles, where municipal politics has long met with collective uninterest. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who enjoys a large polling lead in his November reelection bid, took a vacation prior to his late August debate with Sal Albanese, a former city councilman little known to most New Yorkers. Earlier this year, when de Blasio feared that his mishandling of the city’s homeless problems and the multiple city, state, and federal investigations into his ethics violations might pose a threat, he concocted a new slogan for his 2017 campaign: “One city for all New Yorkers,” a pointed contrast with his winning 2013 message decrying New York’s “Tale of Two Cities.” He also announced that he would pay for the legal costs involved in his numerous mayoral shenanigans. But after federal attorney Preet Bharara decided against prosecuting him for trading campaign money for influence, de Blasio dropped his contrived slogan about unity, while also announcing that he’d changed his mind—city funds would be used to cover his multimillion-dollar legal costs, after all. A man who often naps after his morning workouts, de Blasio has dropped the pretense of working hard as mayor. Instead, he works hard at opposing President Donald Trump, even journeying to Berlin to join street demonstrators against the G-20 summit—rather than sticking around to console the family of NYPD officer Miosotis Familia, assassinated in her squad car that same week.
A similar mayoral dynamic can be seen in Los Angeles, where Democrat Eric Garcetti, running for reelection this year on an anti-Trump, pro-sanctuary-cities platform, won with a record 81 percent of the vote. But running virtually unopposed against a slate of also-rans, Garcetti garnered barely 330,000 votes in a city of almost 4 million people. That amounts to just 20 percent of registered voters—though that didn’t “beat” the record-low of 17.9 percent achieved by previous L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his 2009 reelection victory. Garcetti’s easy victory left him with a campaign war chest amounting to $3 million—money that will serve him well should he try, in 2018, to succeed 84-year-old Dianne Feinstein in the Senate. It’s not clear yet whether Feinstein will retire, but even if she does, L.A. mayors, no matter how popular, have never been able to win statewide office.
The civic indifference that makes such incumbent dominance possible in both cities is driven by the same source: the sharp decline of middle-class voters for whom the city is a matter of civic responsibility, on the one hand, and the mounting power of public-sector interest groups, for whom the city is a matter of financial interest, on the other. By de Blasio’s good fortune, these same public-sector interest groups, particularly the teachers’ unions, will play a major role at the 2020 Democratic convention.
In his first term, de Blasio invested his limited energies in styling himself as a leading light of the party’s progressive wing. He was slow to endorse the “insufficiently progressive” Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, though he’d served as her campaign manager in her successful 2000 Senate run. De Blasio tried to leverage the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s much-noted book on capitalism and income inequality, but he was humiliated when none of the Democratic Party presidential candidates showed up at his forum on the growing class divide.
Undeterred, de Blasio will likely spend much of his second term trying to fashion himself into a plausible presidential candidate. His campaign will be initially underwritten by several million dollars in public funds distributed by the city’s Campaign Finance Board (created to ensure that monied interests don’t dominate city politics). The 56-year-old de Blasio can argue that he’s a more attractive candidate for millennial voters than Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who will be 71, or Bernie Sanders, who will be 78, come 2020. He can also tout his progressive bona fides by pointing to, among other policies, his institution of universal pre-K schooling in New York.
But before he can focus on events outside the five boroughs, de Blasio will turn his attention to undermining New York governor Andrew Cuomo, his rival for state and national power. De Blasio has been quietly backing Sex in the City star Cynthia Nixon, who seems to be preparing a challenge in 2018, when Cuomo will be seeking a third term. Nixon, who has lobbied for more education funding, is an identity-politics triple threat: a gay female with celebrity status who will run to Cuomo’s left. Even if she loses, she could tarnish the governor, thus enhancing de Blasio’s prospects.
What comes of de Blasio’s possible presidential run in 2020 is contingent, of course, on what happens over the next two years. Will his ethical failures come back to haunt him? “Emails, obtained through a records request, show [Jim] Capalino’s stable of lobbyists were so entrenched in the minutiae of de Blasio’s first term, they formed an unofficial, additional layer of government—sometimes instructing staffers how to do their jobs—all while advancing the interests of their paying clients,” Politico reported in August. The de Blasio ethics drama hasn’t seen its last act. Meantime, what becomes of President Trump? Will Hillary Clinton try to run again? Will any Democrat emerge from the heartland? How strong is California’s first-term senator, Kamala Harris? Harris, of Indian and Jamaican descent, is already looking to 2020. De Blasio has his own identity-politics card to play: his wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American, allowing de Blasio to present himself as the candidate who closes the racial gap. Like Garcetti, de Blasio labors under a historical shadow: no New York mayor has moved on to higher office since the mid-nineteenth century. But no New York mayor has ever had a target quite like Donald Trump.
Mugged by Reality on Homelessness
Mayor de Blasio has shifted course somewhat, but serious policy changes are unlikely on his watch.
When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, castigating his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s record on homelessness was central to his “Tale of Two Cities” argument, in which he portrayed a city of deepening wealth divides. Since taking office, de Blasio has nearly doubled spending on homeless services, which now exceeds $2 billion. The results have been unimpressive, though. The numbers of homeless in all categories—sheltered and unsheltered, families and single adults—have risen on the mayor’s watch. To the extent that New Yorkers worry about a return to the “ungovernable city” days, homelessness is Exhibit A.
De Blasio at first dismissed criticisms of his homelessness policies but has more recently made a few changes. He let go his commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in December 2015, initiated a partial merger of the DHS and Human Resources Administration in April 2016, and, in February 2017, committed to opening 90 new homeless shelters across the city. Two other changes have proved even more significant. First, in late 2016, de Blasio persuaded the state government to tighten shelter-eligibility restrictions for homeless families—a striking reversal of his position in the 2013 campaign, when he described the city’s eligibility process as “unfair and overly punitive.” By my calculations, since making this shift, the de Blasio administration now grants 41 percent of all family shelter petitions, compared with 47 percent beforehand. The average monthly increase of families in the shelter system under de Blasio was 0.7 percent before the new screening procedures were put into place, compared with a 0.6 percent average monthly decrease since. Taking a more conservative approach to homeless policy has thus been more effective in reducing homelessness than the range of progressive policies that the administration usually touts. The Daily News aptly termed de Blasio’s course correction on shelter eligibility his “mugged by reality” moment on homelessness.
Second, de Blasio has lowered expectations about what he can achieve on homelessness. In his “Turning the Tide” master plan released earlier this year, the mayor projected a decline in the total homeless shelter census of a mere 4 percent over the next five years. At that rate, levels of homelessness in New York would still be much higher than under any administration in modern history.
In the near term, the two most important developments to watch will be what happens with the perhaps dozens of neighborhood siting controversies resulting from de Blasio’s expansion of the shelter system; and what the future of rental assistance will look like. At the core of de Blasio’s homelessness policy is a network of rental-subsidy programs. Some of these, such as preferential access to public housing and Section 8 vouchers, provide permanent benefits, but others, such as some of the “Living in Communities” voucher programs, are time-limited. This year, the progressive city council has begun a push to make the temporary programs permanent, though whether the city can find the funds for doing so remains to be seen.
Will the homeless fever ever break? During New York’s “bad old days,” mayors got reelected while presiding over murder rates that look like a humanitarian crisis from a contemporary perspective. The voting public is now at risk of settling into a similar complacency on homelessness. When a social problem gets worse after government doubles spending on it, a dramatically different policy direction would seem warranted. Serious changes are unlikely, though, under de Blasio’s progressive administration.
The de Blasio Housing New York Plan: An Assessment
The solution to New York City’s perennial housing crisis is to let builders increase the supply.
His plan to “build or preserve” 200,000 units of “affordable” housing over ten years ranks as one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiatives. Housing New York, as the plan is known, has financed more than 77,000 “affordable” homes since January 2014, including “the highest three-year streak of affordable housing production in the city’s history.” Though these include some 9,700 units priced for middle-income families (earning up to $141,000 annually), rents for those earning less than $68,000 are fixed—paid for through subsidies for the private developers who own the buildings.
More than two-thirds of these 77,000-plus units are so-called preservation units, by which the city means not physical preservation but the maintenance of subsidized rents in “expiring-use” buildings—which would otherwise have been converted to market-rate housing. The administration presents this policy as tenant protection in gentrifying neighborhoods—a sure political winner. But not all New York neighborhoods are gentrifying; far from it. In fact, many preserved units are located in lower-rent neighborhoods. For instance, not far from the preserved affordable units of Newport Gardens apartments on Lott Avenue in Brownsville, a nonsubsidized two-bedroom apartment was recently advertised for $1,450 a month—barely more than the nearby “affordable” rent in Newport Gardens of $1,348 per month. Housing New York would be wise to compare market rents with “affordable” rents before making its investment decisions, rather than prioritizing rent preservation.
De Blasio’s approach to construction of new subsidized housing has proved politically divisive. “Mandatory inclusionary zoning,” proposed for 15 neighborhoods from East New York to Inwood, offers private developers zoning permits that allow more units to be built, and sometimes property-tax abatements, in exchange for their subsidizing “affordable” units for a range of income groups. But more units mean higher-rise construction—and community groups are less than thrilled with that prospect. In response, city council members have killed proposed developments in Washington Heights and in Sunnyside, where council majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer, a liberal Democrat, led the opposition.
The prospect of a majority of units being set aside for nonsubsidized tenants has sparked attacks on the mayor from his political left—with East Harlem protesters characterizing the proposed inclusionary zoning as “ethnic cleansing” and demanding that 100 percent of new units be made affordable. That view conflicts with de Blasio’s vision of buildings with tenants of mixed income and with his model for financing the affordable units. To get a zoning change for East New York, for instance, de Blasio had to promise city council member Rafael Espinal $267 million in capital investments—“an expensive development plan,” as the Gotham Gazette put it. Such rezoning-related demands are likely to persist.
What New York needs is more housing—of any kind—to prevent rents from rising across the board. Crain’s New York’s Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein gets this exactly right when he argues that affordable-housing advocates should back “market-rate housing so that middle-class and wealthier families aren’t competing for ‘affordable’ apartments. And instead of opposing new developments in gentrifying neighborhoods, they should be campaigning for more developments there and in other neighborhoods, too.” Such is the voice of a rational, nonpolitical housing policy, a supply-first approach both fairer and more practical than the “inclusionary” vision that makes new construction contingent on social engineering.
Perhaps the best part of the de Blasio administration’s housing policy has gotten the least notice. The administration is pushing ahead with a Bloomberg-era plan to build new, mixed-income housing on vacant land such as parking lots at public-housing projects. Such developments promise to spin off payments to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), helping it afford sorely needed capital repairs to the city’s largest affordable-housing stock: 326 public-housing developments. The new apartments can even offer a way to relocate the thousands of NYCHA tenants who are “over-housed” and could use smaller units, thus making way for those on waiting lists for larger apartments.
This bright spot isn’t enough, though, to obscure the fact that Housing New York, if it has accomplished nothing else, has succeeded in politicizing New York housing development even more than it already was. New York has far more public and subsidized housing as a portion of its housing stock—including more than 1 million rent-regulated units—than any other American city. And the city always seems to have a housing-affordability crisis. That won’t change anytime soon.
Congestion Pricing and de Blasio’s Mean Streets
New Yorkers are safer—but more gridlocked—than they’ve been since the invention of the automobile.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s record in managing Gotham’s streets is mixed. In walking, biking, or driving, New Yorkers are safer now than they have been since the invention of the automobile. But the streets are still a mess, with gridlock common in Manhattan during daytime hours. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to charge drivers to use Manhattan’s scarce road space would help. But de Blasio, or his successor, shouldn’t wait for the state to act to assert some order in New York’s dense public spaces.
During de Blasio’s first three years in office, 723 people died in traffic crashes, a 12.3 percent decline from the 826 fatalities during Bloomberg’s final three years. The decrease is especially impressive not only because traffic deaths have been rising nationwide but also because Bloomberg himself delivered big improvements in street safety during his 12 years in office. During Bloomberg’s first three years as mayor, from 2002 to 2004, 1,045 people died.
New York’s “Vision Zero” strategy of redesigning the streets better to protect pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers is making everyone safer, as the Manhattan Institute’s Alex Armlovich found in a study this year. The city has narrowed traffic lanes to force cars to move more slowly and has installed bike lanes and pedestrian islands at dangerous intersections, leading to a decline in deaths and injuries.
Vision Zero isn’t working fast enough, though. New York is nowhere near eliminating traffic deaths by 2020, as de Blasio had initially pledged. Though zero is not a realistic goal, Gotham can do better. London, with a similar population, saw 136 road deaths in 2015, the last year for which full data are available. That’s just 58.9 percent of New York’s level.
While fatalities are down, traffic has never moved slower in the core of Manhattan. Travel speeds dropped 20 percent between 2010 and 2016, to less than 6 mph for the average taxi trip. Speeds dropped 10 percent between 2015 and 2016 alone. Uber and its competitors are largely to blame for the gridlock; in their quest to build out their networks and corner the e-hailing market, they subsidize the price of a car ride below its cost, artificially inducing demand. App-based cars, and their intense competition at below-market cost, have “increased driving in the city by 600 million miles from 2013 to 2016,” even accounting for a decline in yellow-taxi rides, as consultant Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner for traffic and planning for New York City, noted in a recent report. In addition, Amazon deliveries have increased, and private construction projects take lanes of traffic on crosstown streets out of commission for years.
In August, Cuomo announced that he would offer a congestion-pricing proposal early next year. He’ll likely formulate some version of the Move NY plan, designed by former traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz. Move New York would charge drivers entering Manhattan below 60th Street the same toll levied on the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, currently slightly under $6. The state would use the money raised—about $1.5 billion a year—for better mass transit as well as for bridge and road maintenance.
Though a sound idea, congestion pricing faces politically uncertain prospects in Albany, where any plan must be approved. But the mayor has the power now to assert some control over the streets. The city should act, via more and better-trained enforcement officers, to punish red-light runners, as well as drivers who park or idle in bike and bus lanes, and ice-cream-truck vendors who block busy crosswalks for hours. The mayor announced a plan to police double-parking and intersection-blocking in late October. But the people on the streets don’t seem to have gotten the message, and enforcement is as lax as ever.
The mayor, too, must address the role that public-sector corruption, both legal and illegal, plays in increasing congestion. Earlier this year, de Blasio rewarded public-school employees with 50,000 new parking placards. Parking has financial value; it should be a collectively bargained—and taxed—benefit for union members. Public-sector employees who want to drive into congested areas to work should pay to park their cars off the street, just as private-sector workers must do.
There’s no better time for the mayor to impose some order on the streets than the holidays, which bring an influx of people into midtown Manhattan. De Blasio should demonstrate to New Yorkers on the streets that the law matters. A less noble motive: one-upping Cuomo in demonstrating some competence here before the governor formally announces his congestion-charge plan next year. Either way, New Yorkers would benefit.
Top Photo: Markus Beck/iStock
Illustrations by Arnold Roth
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