DOT Commissioner Trottenberg on Oakland’s Streets Model: These Cities are Not the Same

DOT Commissioner Trottenberg on The Example of Oakland as Model to Emulate: nothing like what NYC is going through and nothing like its population density.

Speaking on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the DOT, Polly Trottenberg (Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation) was present at Friday’s City Council hearing for the opening of streets. We’d last featured Chief Michael Pilecki’s (Head of the Bureau of Transportation) statement given that day and promised to follow up with Ms. Trottenberg’s transcript.

Although nowhere near as damning as Chief Pilecki’s outline of why the introduced bill would be a problem, the Commissioner’s words still serve as a supporting argument against the reasoning for the bill. Again, the bill was to have the DOT close 75 miles of streets to vehicular traffic so that New Yorkers could better adhere to social distancing rules.

Ms. Trottenberg focused on how both cities (NYC, NY and Oakland, CA) are not the same. They are different as far as the population density and crisis level are concerned. As well, she pointed out the effect the COVID-19 Pandemic has had on city agencies and personnel. Personnel which would be needed for the sake of enforcing and supervising such a street plan in NYC.

Hereforth is Commissioner Polly Trottenberg’s statement:

“Thank you for the opportunity to testify on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio on the legislation before the committee – tasking DOT with opening 75 miles of city streets up to pedestrians and cyclists during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

In recent years, DOT has been proud to aggressively design and implement hundreds and hundreds of street safety, bike lane, bus lane and pedestrian plaza projects throughout the five boroughs – and we passionately share the goal of opening more of our city streets to mass transit, bikes and pedestrians. During the COVID-19 crisis city government is facing profound personnel, operational and budgetary challenges. We’ve taken a hit like almost no other city in the world – and we’re still battling with the virus every day. We want to work closely with the council to find common ground on our shared of making many more miles of streets and sidewalks safer and more available to New Yorkers seeking open space – but we ask the council recognize the many challenges in competing demands all of us in city government, especially the NYPD, are facing.

As we all know, we are the epicenter of this global pandemic and both NYPD and DOT like many of our sister agencies have felt the impact of the virus directly – with many employees infected, out sick and some lost forever – and we certainly join with everyone here today in our thoughts and prayers with Chief Morris and with some of our own employees who are also hospitalized and gravely ill. You know, we’ve mourned the loss of colleagues and our hearts go out to all New Yorkers who’ve lost loved ones.

The Crisis has certainly dramatically changed city streets. Street activity has plunged, which has led to one bit of good news. We’ve had the longest period without a pedestrian fatality, I think in 40 or 41 days since we began tracking by mode in 1983, but unfortunately in our much emptier streets some drivers are speeding recklessly. We can never let up on our vigilance. DOT speed cameras have issued nearly double the number of violations compared to before the crisis, and as the chart shows included in my testimony – and we’re continuing our pace of installing 60 new speed cameras each month and plan to meet our goal of standing up the largest speed camera program in the world.

At DOT we’re also maintaining the agency’s critical functions including emergency roadway, bridge, sidewalk and traffic infrastructure repairs as well as running the Staten Island Ferry 24/7 – and we’re working closely with our union partners to ensure that our workforce is properly social distanced, well equipped and fully supported.

You’ve heard Chief Pilecki testify of handling closing streets. Both agencies want to prioritize public safety first and foremost including the safety of all street users and insuring safe operation for buses, trucks carrying supplies and emergency vehicles. Thus, while we share the underlying principles of the bill before the committee today, opening up 75 miles of streets to pedestrian and cyclists, about 800 blocks – doing it in the time-frame that the bill mandates would not be possible to do safely and effectively given a significant strain all the relevant city agencies are under.

Many supporters of extensive closures have cited Oakland’s plans as a model New York City could follow. As Chief Pilecki noted, while Oakland announced it would discourage car traffic on 74 miles of streets on April 11 thus far, as he testified, the city’s implemented fewer than 10 miles – and what Oakland is doing is discouraging but not completely prohibiting car traffic on its streets in phases at a deliberate pace and not all in a week.

At DOT we examined Oakland’s model and see cities with some different realities and possibilities. Alameda County where Oakland is located has had fewer than 1,350 known COVID cases; about 366 in Oakland and 46 deaths county-wide. Oakland’s just one city in Alameda County. A small fraction of the number of people compared to what New York has lost on a per capita basis.

I think we all know New York City is tragically still seeing more COVID fatalities every few hours than Alameda County has seen to date. Our agencies are therefore under a very strain, resource wise. I think Chief Pilecki spoke eloquently about that – and that makes us all want to be far more cautious about enforcing social distancing in any public spaces we create.

Additionally, our cities are built very differently and our streets see disparate uses. New York City is the densest city in the country – a source of pride for us in good times with around 27,000 people per square mile citywide, almost 70,000 people per square mile in Manhattan compared to 7,000 people per square mile in Oakland.

The streets that would be opened up to pedestrians and bikes in Oakland are typically low density single or multi-family residential streets where overcrowding is not a major concern. In contrast NYC varies greatly by neighborhood and ensuring closed streets are equitably distributed particularly in minority and low income communities would require closures in dense areas with complicated uses and higher traffic volumes.

We think there are some challenges to the Oakland model, but we do want to work with the council to find ways, given the city’s resource constraints to create more miles of open space for pedestrians and cyclists. While not causing crowding required NYPD enforcement or significant disruptions to emergency vehicles, trucks carrying supplies or mass transit. We are currently evaluating multiple strategies to meet this need and hope in the coming days we can find common ground with you and other key stake holders with whom DOT has also been talking.

Beyond any temporary measures, which would be challenging to implement while the pandemic is still raging, we’re starting to plan longer term about what our transportation system will look like when our city begins to reopen – including talking to our regional transit partners, business groups, experts, advocates and our counterparts in other cities; especially in Asia and Europe.

We will face a new reality with many unknowns but it will also present a unique moment to rethink our streets both in the immediate recovery and over time to ensure that they’re safe, healthy, sustainable, more bike and pedestrian friendly and supportive of a rekindled, civic and economic life. We look forward to working with the council in the days and weeks ahead.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify and we look forward to your questions.”