Regional Plan Association Testimony Before the New York City Council on Master Plan for City Streets

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am Kate Slevin, a Senior Vice President at Regional Plan Association, a non-profit civic organization that conducts advocacy, research and planning to improve the New York City metropolitan region.  

We are here today to strongly support Intro 1557 which would create a master plan for city streets once every five years. Speaker Corey Johnson and Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez deserve credit for laying out a future vision for New York City and moving this proposal forward, which prioritizes safety, health, the environment, and the mobility of people. With congestion pricing on the horizon, it makes all the sense in the world to speed up implementation of bus and bike lanes now.

Intro 1557 lays out ambitious benchmarks to meet in each strategic plan, with the first one due as early as October. This is indeed fast paced, but if you have traveled to many peer cities, especially London, you know that although progress has been made here, we are increasingly falling behind in terms of prioritizing affordable, low carbon transportation options. With a climate and transit crisis upon us, bold and fast action is our only choice.

In RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan (www.fourthplan.org), a blueprint for growth and development over the next 30 years, we laid out a vision for city streets that is very consistent with what’s mandated in this legislation. In our research, we found that, currently, less than a quarter of all New York City’s street space is dedicated to sustainable modes of transportation—walking, cycling, and exclusive bus lanes—and most of this is concentrated in Manhattan and denser parts of the city.

Looking forward, we called for street design and management practices to be turned upside down to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and transit users first, followed by goods movement, shared services and finally, the private automobile. This would allow 70-80% of street space to be used for sustainable transportation modes, as illustrated by the images in your testimony.

Source: RPA 2040 Vision for Use of NYC Streets, RPA Fourth Regional Plan, www.fourthplan.org

We appreciate Intro 1557’s focus on implementing protected bicycle and bus lanes. Existing painted bicycle lanes, without physical separation, are often blocked by cars or trucks, leading to unsafe conditions. The City currently has over 1,200 miles of bicycle lanes, but only about one-third are protected lanes. Unless you are an expert cyclist, many of the existing lanes feel unsafe, and definitely don’t feel safe for children. 24% of New Yorkers currently ride a bike on the existing, very fragmented network. Think about how many more New Yorkers would choose to bike, or bike more often, with a much more robust network!

We have found that commute times have grown, especially for very long commutes over 60 minutes, often in the outer boroughs. Slow bus speeds are a significant contributing factor to this, and more protected bus lanes would allow faster trips and help reserve declining bus ridership.

Additionally, bus lanes should be implemented for “transit improvement” and not simply because you can physically do so. In other words, it might help to define the intent of a “transit improvement” in this legislation.

Intro 1557 would more than double DOT’s current annual implementation for bike lanes and speed up implementation of bus lanes. It is a bold strategy and one that might lead to tradeoffs in terms of the depth of community outreach. After years of implementing bicycle, bus lanes, and plazas, communities are more familiar with these approaches and DOT more experienced at implementing them. We are comfortable with shortening the community outreach process to meet these goals, should it need to occur. Ultimately, implementation timelines will need to speed up if we are going to improve mobility in a big way for New Yorkers.  

RPA supports the expansion of public plazas, but also believes it should be part of a citywide strategy to increase open space more broadly. We also know that the current plaza management approach, which requires local BIDs to take on financial and legal risks of public space management, limits the broad expansion of the program. One option to address this is a citywide government entity to manage the plazas, as has been proposed by some of our colleagues.

And finally, a few questions to consider as bill negotiations continue. How is the Council and DOT going to work together to meet the benchmarks in the legislation? Is there an enforcement mechanism of some sort, beyond the reporting requirements? And what are City Council members role in implementation? It would be ill advised to pass this legislation and then have Council members within their own districts trying to delay individual projects.  

RPA is here as a resource as you consider this legislation, and work to improve transportation more broadly throughout the city. Thank you for your time.