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A Bronx Tale About Mass Transit: Take Note, Los Angeles

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If you time it just right, New York in the Spring can feel like the greatest place on earth. And that's how it was late last week. Even in the hardscrabble Bronx where I spent much of Friday looking at a bus rapid transit (BRT) project on East Fordham Road and two to-be-rebuilt transit plazas on Fordham Road in the north and 149th Street in the south. On Thursday and Friday I was a contented walker in the city, purposefully studying New York while thinking about mass transit and public space in Los Angeles.

With Los Angeles' 30/10 Initiative to build thirty years of taxpayer-approved mass transit projects within a decade up for review by the Metro board I'd come to New York at the invitation of the Project for Public Spaces. PPS is a three decades' old nonprofit that helps communities rework their streets and public space. They had invited me to attend their Streets as Places training because of the focus of my recent blogging. Given my near obsession with 30/10 it was a hard choice, but I'd committed a month earlier before Metro had set a date to put 30/10 to a vote of its full board. I'm glad I did. If I hadn't I wouldn't have had the chance to meet with Janette Sadik-Khan, the smart, committed and funny Commissioner of the NYC DOT or spend a day walking, talking shop and riding mass transit around the Bronx with Ed Janoff, the DOT's Senior Project Manager for Streetscapes and Public Spaces.

Given the healthy mass transit rivalry between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, it seemed only fair that I give New York a shot at showing up Los Angeles and the others. Sadik-Khan has a lot to say about the city and the changes she has implemented since being appointed to the DOT Commissioner position by Mayor Bloomberg.

After talking some about the city where we both grew up and about L.A., where I live, and Sadik-Khan attended Occidental College, the Commissioner deftly dismissed criticism I'd heard that the DOT was focusing too much on sexy Manhattan projects like the closure of Broadway in Times Square to motorized traffic and Summer Streets, bike-only Sundays on Park Avenue, at the expense of BRT and repaving projects in the outer boroughs. Paraphrasing Sadik-Khan's response,

It's the press. As Commissioner I'm a woman in a mostly man's world and what can I say, that's what the reporters focus on. They don't want to go out to Queens or Brooklyn to report on a newly repaved street or bus route or the over billion dollars DOT has spent repairing roads and bridges throughout the city. They want to talk about Times Square and Summer Streets and the biking.

While we spoke Sadik-Khan looked at her Blackberry and broke out into a big grin after reading an e-mail that a deal for the DOT to purchase an asphalt plant in Queens had gone through. As a dedicated environmentalist who bikes to work near Wall Street from her home in the West Village Sadik-Khan is rightly proud of the fact that the new plant will save the DOT money and let it up the percentage of recycled asphalt (above the 40 percent it currently uses) in road repaving projects. What's more, if you're looking for a pair of concrete shoes you can now turn to Sadik-Khan as well as the traditional vendors. Just don't expect to read about it in the New York Times any time soon as asphalt's just not that sexy.

The other exciting stuff I learned from my meeting with the Commissioner include her plan to launch by October a new BRT line that will run from Houston to 125th Street on First and Second Avenues. With the Second Avenue subway still years away from completion this will be an important transportation achievement for New Yorkers and the Commissioner whose department conducts some 2,000 community meetings a year to explain itself and elicit community input on planned and ongoing projects. Another critical paired street BRT project is planned for busy Bedford and Nostrand Avenues in Brooklyn.

Like a lot of people who meet her I left my meeting with Sadik-Khan impressed by the Commissioner as well as by the BRT news and details of the bold just-announced 34th Street transitway project that will split the congested crosstown Manhattan street in two routing traffic east and west from a pedestrian plaza on the block between 5th and 6th Avenues. As Dan Biederman of the 34th Street Business Improvement District (BID) has said about DOT, "This is not your father's D.O.T. This agency says they do something and they do it."

Nonetheless, given the criticism I'd heard from the bridge and tunnel crowd about the Commissioner's undue focus on Manhattan I needed to get out of the borough to see things for myself.

For this I was hooked up with Ed Janoff a young and intense public space-obsessed DOT employee who knows his stuff. On Friday he greeted me at the transit plaza at East Fordham Road across from Fortress Fordham University in the north Bronx with a ream of print outs about the Bx 12 Bus Rapid Transit line and other surface transit projects that are key to Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg's plan to permanently remake transportation in New York City. Janoff, who worked for Dan Biederman before coming over to DOT, is a fount of knowledge about surface transit, streetscapes, and DOT's plan to remake the public space it is responsible for in each of the city's community board catchment areas. Between Sadik-Khan, Janoff and the other members of the new generation of DOT staffers I met I felt like I'd walked into a timewarp, perhaps the Kennedy era when the best and the brightest served their country and community through government service. If nothing else this may be Mayor Bloomberg's legacy and it is a proud one.

Of course all is not roses on the streets of the Bronx and throughout the city when it comes to surface transit. Despite the commitment to European- and South American-inspired Bus Rapid Transit and other changes car and truck traffic still reigns in many neighborhoods. If only the reporters who can't seem to leave Manhattan to write about anything other than DOT's signature projects like Times Square, and now the Union Square street closings, the reporters, and the public, would have a better sense of what DOT is up against and the considerable work that still remains to be done.

On Fordham Road, for example, cars and trucks routinely clog the east and west bound bus-only lanes, originally painted red and clearly marked with signage declaring that this is a dedicated bus lane. A plan to put lane enforcement cameras on the front of the buses that would capture and ticket cars and trucks blocking the lane has been twice killed by New York state politics. This, in spite of the fact that the instatickets (or proper traffic enforcement), would have quickly eliminated 90 percent of the grief caused by cars traveling without cause in the bus lane. What's more, in the past merchants and residents were not adequately educated about the planned changes so they tended to resist, fearing they'd lose street parking, rather than benefit from the less congested streets and more rational traffic flow.

But the problem is also one of unrelenting traffic on streets like bustling Fordham Road and, because of opposition to permanent changes to the roadway and politics, tepid design decisions by the DOT. In effect, the Fordham Road bus lane was, and still is, a trial run. On paired DOT planned BRT routes on Nostrand and Bedford Avenues in Brooklyn and on First and Second Avenues, and on 34th Street the changes to the roadway will be made more permanent and aggressive traffic enforcement is planned.

As for the situation at the Bronx transit plazas while Fordham Road's is under par, the 149th Street plaza is downright depressing. Janoff took me to both locales to give me a taste of the before makeover phase. At the Fordham Road plaza an anemic vendor program created to get the illegal tube socks and fake Rolex sellers off of Fordham Road attracts a small fraction of the heavy foot traffic that clogs Fordham Road itself and makes it one of NY's most vibrant shopping areas. The ambitious plan is to remake the plaza with a large Greenmarket like the flagship market at Union Square in Manhattan. A remade plaza would also aim to pull in Fordham University which sits castle-like behind a well guarded fence. To date, it seems as if the university is doing all that it can to insulate its students from the surrounding area rather than integrate them in.

At the 149th Street transit plaza the local partner has entirely dropped the ball in managing the location. Landscaping planted in large planters around the intersection of 149th Street and Third and Willis Avenues has been left for dead and a street closed and another redirected to reduce traffic accidents at the busy intersection look forlorn with no noticeable steps taken to spruce up the locale or undertake community programming. DOT's changes have reduced the incidence of accidents at the intersection and policing in the bustling and still-rough neighborhood is formidable, but if a Manhattan native or visitor to the city landed there they'd quickly realize they're not in Manhattan anymore.

Though I'd come to N.Y. for the Project for Public Spaces training, it was the DOT transit and public space projects and Sadik-Khan's leadership that captured my imagination. Net, PPS is doing important work helping city planners from around the world recharge and rethink their approach to their jobs. Thanks PPS! Shining a light on what communities like the Bronx experience every day is my way of paying it forward.

With so much of New York and L.A. a built environment, rebuilding and remaking the streets and public spaces is a mighty challenge. Thanks to the healthy rivalry between the cities and the high bar Sadik-Khan and the DOT have set I look forward to L.A. giving as good as it gets from its east coast rival. The 30/10 Initiative gives L.A. the chance to bring on line essential and overdue subway, light rail and BRT projects that make the most of the good bones 2010 L.A. inherited from a time years ago when the region was covered with long-limbed trolley lines that stretched from downtown north, south, east and west.

But why not share the expertise? Doesn't it make sense for L.A. to extend an offer to NYC DOT to visit more often? I'm sure they'd say yes as L.A.'s known for the perfect weather that blesses New York just once a year. More information sharing and collaborative thinking about these critical transit and public space challenges behooves us all. But as best I can tell it's not happening much outside of professional conferences and on critical forums like Streetsblog and Streetfilms.

I'd love to see DOT's Sadik-Khan and Janoff sharing their wisdom with L.A. and Move LA's Denny Zane riding the Bx 12 bus on Fordham Road. The lessons offered and learned on both ends would certainly be worth the transit fare.