Sunday, 14 February 2016

Thick bridge cables, police placard abuse - and why you'll get nowhere without corrupting power

Amid the sudden, late onset of a proper winter in New York, I’ve ridden to work far more often than normal in recent weeks via a longer route over the Brooklyn Bridge. The route, as well as being a pleasant change from my normal ride over the Manhattan Bridge, cuts down sharply on the amount of time I spend sharing snow-clogged Manhattan cross streets with irritable, aggressive drivers.
The Brooklyn Bridge, with cables: New York City corruption,
dangling over the East River

Yet the ride also affords me a chance to ponder a deep and sometimes under-recognised truth about New York City. As I cross the bridge, I marvel at the thickness of the bundle of suspension cables that holds the bridge deck in place - and remember the story behind them. The bundle is much bigger than the bridge’s designer, John Roebling, originally intended. Extra, up-to-standard wire had to be added after Washington Roebling, John’s son, discovered that corrupt contractors had sneaked large quantities of sub-standard wire into cables that had already been painstakingly stretched across the East River. Graft is literally woven into this bit of the city’s fabric.

Corruption is far from being a mere historic issue, however. The more one grapples with the challenges facing New York City, the more one comes up against relationships that powerful people’s pursuit of money or power have skewed away from working as intended. These pieces of corruption range from relationships that are straightforwardly crooked, as the relationship between the bridge builders and the wire contractors was, through a series of more or less grubby compromises to relationships that seem like a form of democracy. At that end of the scale there are institutions like the Community Boards that are meant to protect communities’ interests in planning decisions but instead end up as the vehicle of noisy vested interests.

A bike lane built under Janette Sadik-Khan now:
the reversal of progress made visible.
Cyclists are peculiarly aware of this dysfunctionality, I think, because it is a profoundly conservative force. It seeks to entrench privileges and works against change. In a city that’s nominally trying to increase its cycle commuting rate from a modest 1 per cent, that means that many of these forces are aligned against making life easier for cyclists. If one doesn’t take into account how these fundamentally regressive relationships shape life in the city, it’s impossible to understand the near-halting of progress on cycling in the city since Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s one-time transport commissioner, stood down at the end of Michael Bloomberg's time in office in 2013. Without an advocate as forceful and effective as Sadik-Khan, regressive, conservative, corrupt forces have largely overwhelmed the continuing faltering efforts under Bill de Blasio towards change.

The scale of the challenge is clear if one thinks carefully about one of the few pieces of progress to have been made recently – the decision on February 2 by Manhattan’s Community Board 7 to approve installation of a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. The decision followed years of study and months of blocking by the co-chairs of the Community Board’s transportation committee. It was passed only after hundreds of advocates turned up at both the February 2 meeting and one in November. If such a vast lobbying effort is required to win approval for a 38-block (less than two miles) project – one that everyone except a handful of angry carowners agrees is sensible and needed - it’s unsurprising that city-wide progress towards building a cycling network looks a distant prospect.
Your licence to park anywhere: the NYPD placard on an SUV
parked unnecessarily in the Hoyt St bike lane.
My mind started turning to the ubiquity of corruption in New York the night after the CB7 vote, as I rode home from work through a damp Brooklyn. As I rounded the corner from Schermerhorn Street into Hoyt Street in downtown Brooklyn, I was forced to brake suddenly on finding two big sports utility vehicles blocking the narrow street’s bike lane. Knowing that the area was a popular parking spot for police vehicles from the New York Police Department’s nearby transit bureau, I suspected these were officers’ private vehicles. Sure enough, on inspection the dashboards of both vehicles sported NYPD placards that police officers regard as essentially permission to park illegally wherever they choose. The following night, another private police vehicle was parked in exactly the same place. Tweets to the NYPD Transit Bureau about the issue went unanswered.
Sure, pedestrians and cyclists are having to avoid this
officer's car while legal parking spaces go unused across
the street. But what's the point in joining the NYPD
if you can't break the law with impunity?

The incident reveals a telling type of petty New York City corruption. Every morning as I battle my way down Jay St in Brooklyn to reach the Manhattan Bridge, I encounter scores of illegally-parked vehicles, obstructing turning lanes and other important places on the road. The police leave them untroubled because they bear some kind of official-looking placard – often of dubious provenance - identifying the owner as a police officer, corrections officer or firefighter. The problem illustrates the primacy of organisational culture – in this case, the feeling that emergency personnel should stick together, whatever civilians might say – in many areas of New York public life. Loyalty to the interests of one’s group – whether one’s fellow professionals,  members of the same ethnic group or people who want to defend some other privilege – exerts a far more powerful force in the city than most of the formal rules meant to govern it.

I also sometimes encounter on Jay St a red-light sting for cyclists, at the relatively quiet junction of Jay St and Concord St. The intersection is the only point on Jay St – where there is a daily riot of highly dangerous illegal double-parking, illegal U-Turns and crosswalk blocking – where I regularly see enforcement activity. In a city where motorists are still often portrayed as a proxy for ordinary, working-class New Yorkers, it is far easier for the police to pick on relatively powerless cyclists to make up their monthly ticket totals than to take the rational course of trying to stamp out the behaviour that does most damage. Since the police effectively wield far greater power than the mayor, there is little to stop police officers from engaging in this casual sleight of hand.
A scene from a Jay St commute: it's pretty obvious how
serious a problem cyclist behaviour is here.
None of this is to say, of course, that corruption both grave and petty is a uniquely US or New York phenomenon. When I lived in Budapest, I travelled around post-Communist societies far more scarred by corruption than the US. It is also clear that New York is far from being the US’s most corruptly-run city. It would seem almost rude to try to displace either Chicago or New Orleans from their hard-won places at the top of that league table.

Yet there is a peculiarly New York City combination of factors that works to overwhelm many positive initiatives, including efforts to promote more active transport.

Much of the power over the city is exercised by a legislature 150 miles away in Albany that often seems to view the city as little more than a source of funds. It is telling that in the recent corruption trial of Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the state assembly, the defence’s (ultimately unsuccessful) case was essentially that the speaker had acted little differently from other members of the state legislature.
Police supervise blocking of the sidewalk and bike lanes
outside Satmar headquarters on a previous occasion, in
June 2014. This is what the privilege of being a powerful
voting bloc in New York City buys you.
New York’s diversity also means the city teems with different ethnic groups whom politicians can court in return for votes and money. This past Wednesday, for example, I noticed a (since-deleted) Tweet from the @HQSatmar account – from the headquarters of the powerful Satmar Hasidic Jewish community – thanking the local 90th NYPD precinct for allowing them to park their cars across the Kent Avenue two-way bike lane during a community wedding. The apparent official approval for this practice – which forces cyclists and pedestrians out into fast-moving traffic on a blind bend – illustrates how mere convenience for a powerful group can easily trump the law and the lives and health of less powerful groups.

A different version of a similar phenomenon was at work when a series of members of the New York City Council who had previously been supportive of safer streets legislation scurried to support amendments that would effectively have excused bus drivers who killed people. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, the bus drivers’ union, is a significant funder of New York political races.

The presence of this mass of interest groups willing to defy the mayor’s formal authority has long made governing New York City one of the most formidable tasks in US politics. The Brooklyn Bridge corruption was a result, for example, of the presence on the bridge company’s board of directors of William Tweed, the famously corrupt boss of Tammany Hall, the hugely influential Irish-American political club. Vincent Impellitteri famously became leader of New York’s city council – and subsequently, by default, mayor when the incumbent resigned – simply because he was an Italian from Manhattan. He was needed to balance out a Democratic slate for top jobs that already had on it an Irishman from Brooklyn and a Jew from the Bronx.
London's cycle facilities can also be imperfect,
but there is a less pervasive sense
of unaccountability
It is far easier, it seems to me, to work the levers of power in London, where identity politics plays a far smaller role, than in New York. It is no coincidence that cities in relatively uncorrupt northern Europe have had far more success in steering through complex transport projects such as cycling networks and high-quality public transit than southern European countries with a longer tradition of corruption.

The flipside of New York City’s ungovernability, meanwhile, is that it has been disproportionately shaped by the handful of people with the mix of skill and ruthlessness needed to get things done. In the 20th Century, tragically, the most notable such person was Robert Moses, the “master builder,” who, holding an unconstitutional mix of state and city jobs, promoted car-dependence by halting subway building and diverting resources to building a poorly-planned highway network, which wrecked many neighbourhoods.

So far in the 21st century, Sadik-Khan, who will celebrate her achievements in a new book out on March 8, has proved more adept than most at overcoming the city’s corrupt conservatism. She closed some of the streets through Times Square, put bike lanes down Broadway and many other important streets and forced a badly-needed bike lane down Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. The Prospect Park West project – over which a handful of rich locals continue to sue the city – went in over the noisy objections of, among others, the wife of New York’s senior US senator. Sadik-Khan oversaw huge increases in the numbers of people cycling, even if cycling’s share of trips remains negligible.

Yet it is clear that, while Sadik-Khan did a superb job of forcing through building projects, she was not able to make activists for cycling and walking a group that New York politicians genuinely had to fear. Transportation Alternatives and other lobbyists for a saner, more rational transport system remain supplicants to the city’s power brokers, rather than one of the successful groups that the power brokers have to court.

NYPD vehicles block the Broadway bike lane:
the lack of explanation is as eloquent as any explanation
One evening in early December, I encountered depressing evidence of the fate of groups who fail to get themselves into a sufficiently strong position in the city’s pecking order. I rode down the Broadway bike lanes as far as Herald Square, by Macy’s department store in midtown. But at Herald Square – which Sadik-Khan still holds up as an example of what can be achieved, with effort – I encountered two large police SUVs parked across the bike lane, closing it. I have heard so many reports since from other cyclists that I gather the police have more or less permanently barricaded the route.

There were no explanations, diversion signs or notices to alert cyclists to the change. The closure appeared to be a result of an entirely arbitrary police decision that cyclists could no longer use the route built for them only a few years ago. But, as I gazed at the police vehicles parked sullenly across my path, that almost seemed to be part of the point.

“We can do this to you whenever we want,” they seemed to be saying. “Now what are you going to do about it?”


  1. People give way too much credit to Janette Sadik-Khan. Virtually all of what she got done was built on 35 years of grassroots advocacy, fights that, in fact, lasted much longer than what just took place on Amsterdam Avenue. And, as you note in your own post, many of Sadik-Khan's most coveted accomplishments were not lasting and they are now being wiped out, quite rapidly, in fact. Sadik-Khan is a master marketer (and self-promoter), not a city builder. Most Sadik-Khan-era bike lanes qualify as design and marketing for urban biking, not as infrastructure for urban biking. She's a lot more P.T. Barnum than Robert Moses. The hard projects like Prospect Park West were won by local activists and advocates in spite of Sadik-Khan's tendency toward clumsy and clueless politics that alienated allies and strengthened enemies.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I've said in the past that the much-trumpeted achievements of the Janette Sadik-Khan era were often individual, isolated projects and fell short of providing a proper network for cycling. There are also some severe design shortcomings, including the dreadful "mixing zones" on the 1st and 2nd avenue bike lanes. Also, I was in New York for only the last 18 months or so of her time at the Department of Transportation, so I'm perhaps less well-placed to judge than others.

      Nevertheless, the history of NYC suggests a person needs something of a PT Barnum flare for publicity to get things done. It's also telling that the projects for which advocates had argued for years were done in Sadik-Khan's time as commissioner, rather than that or her predecessor or successor. And it's hardly surprising she was unable to make the same impression on the city as Robert Moses. She had six years in a single job with the city. He had 42 years in an unconstitutional mix of jobs at both city and state level that allowed him to subvert nearly every important power structure.

      I'd be fascinated to know what others think on this matter.

      All the best,


  2. Bike infrastructure always seems to fade, while the vehicular ways get enhanced, extended, widened, and upgraded. The type that fades the fastest is paint-based. It may be that paint-based bicycle infrastructure is often the result of the efforts of one or two focused advocates, and begins to fade as soon as the move on in their careers. Certainly, the history of paint-based bicycle facilities where I live has been, over the years, one punctuated by periods of growth followed by periods of decline, neglect, and fading away.

  3. I was in Herald Square about a week ago with my children. The police blocking the bike lane there were unloading their assault rifles (I like to pretend they were Kalashnikovs) and standing there brandishing them against unseen threats. I felt they served as a potent symbol that the old guard motorized regime is digging in its heels.

    1. Steve,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Someone told me via Twitter that the bike lane isn't continually blocked at present. But I agree the whole business is a pretty clear slap in the face for the city's efforts to improve cycling facilities. For a Department of Transportation that actually had a sense of purpose and self-confidence, it would be a declaration of inter-departmental war. The current DoT seems to have meekly accepted it.

      All the best,


  4. Yes, Robert Moses "wrecked many neighbourhoods." And I would add the words "poor" and "black" to that sentence.

    Mr. Moses's reply to the accusations against him is quite telling. He largely did not deny them, but relied upon an "end justifies the means" argument.

    For example, a quote from page 4 at:

    "Ninety eight percent of the ghetto folks we moved were given immeasurably better living places at unprecedented cost."

    Gee, I wonder why those "ghetto folks" were not grateful that their homes and neighbourhoods were being destroyed?

    1. Kevin,

      It's quite true that Moses's tactics disproportionately affected the poor, blacks and Latinos. It's also worth pointing out that a lot of people didn't get new housing. Many of them were forced into overcrowded conditions near where their houses had been. And, of course, Jane Jacobs chronicled how the new public housing, lacking shops and other amenities, didn't really work for the residents even when it was built.

      All the best,



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