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BY CHARLES KOMANOFF | Hard times nurture resentments, so it was no shocker to see signs vilifying Mayor Bloomberg at the June 3 demonstration protesting his plan to close 20 fire companies across the city. I’m angry too, particularly with Tea Party-besotted legislators whose relentless tax cutting has decimated the middle class. Three decades into rule by the hard right, America’s rich command a greater percentage of national wealth than they do in any European country, except Bosnia. In New York City, the top one percent collects 44 percent of all income, according to the experts at the Fiscal Policy Institute.
None of that seemed to animate the demonstrators, however, whose venom was directed mostly at Bloomberg’s efforts to remake the city’s fabric.
“Cut Bike Lanes, Not Public Safety,” read a sign.
One demonstrator, a retired fireman, criticized the mayor for spending $15 million “to change the cross-walking signs to stick figures” — instead of using it to keep firehouses open. Others lambasted Bloomberg as a “nanny mayor,” presumably for trying to come between New Yorkers and some of their favorite vices.
What’s ironic is that for all his catering to his fellow plutocrats, Mayor Bloomberg’s behavior-related policies are saving both lives and dollars. The results may not be as visible as pulling babies from burning buildings, but they’re just as real.
Take the bike lanes. Though nowadays they’re everyone’s punching bag, the lanes are proving a boon to public safety, and not just for bicyclists. Injuries to pedestrians are down by almost half on streets with protected lanes like Grand and Allen Streets and Ninth Avenue; perhaps because putting busy streets on a “road diet” dissuades drivers from jousting and other aggressive maneuvers that lead to collisions. And by helping double the number of New Yorkers who ride bikes, the lanes are saving additional lives by enabling increased physical activity that is key to health.
Regarding the $15 million for “stick figures,” you have to wonder what that fellow meant. Was he referring to the new street-corner buttons the City Department of Transportation has installed at a few dozen corners near institutions that serve the blind and include a lighted stick figure to let a visually impaired person know it’s safe to cross? They cost just $500 each, according to The New York Times, so that program has come in at around $15,000, not $15 million. But maybe he had in mind the citywide switch of the red-yellow-green signal-heads from incandescent to L.E.D.’s, in 2004… if so, he might want to know that Uncle Sam footed the $28 million bill through the Consolidated Highway Investment Program, and that it’s already paid for itself through electricity and maintenance savings of $6 million a year.
Still, the most ironic charge hurled in the protest has to be the one about the “nanny-state.” It’s not as if the mayor is forcing New Yorkers to bike or walk; rather, he’s trying to enable those who want to integrate physical activity with mobility by biking and walking to do so, safely. The trans-fat initiative, meanwhile, is virtually costless and stands to improve city finances by curbing obesity, diabetes and other ailments that force otherwise able-bodied workers to go on disability.
Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that Mayor Bloomberg rolled out the supreme “nanny-state” policy — restricting and stigmatizing cigarette smoking. What was controversial then is applauded today. IN addition to the thousands of lives lengthened and strengthened by NYC’s record-low smoking rates, we can probably add a few hundred more saved as a result of fewer fires caused by smoking, which as recently as 2003 was the number one cause of fire deaths here. It may be an inconvenient truth for firefighters, but keeping firehouses and companies fully staffed isn’t the only way to prevent fires from killing people.
As for finding real money to avert FDNY layoffs, the mayor could start by scrutinizing his police department. A report this month from City Comptroller John Liu revealed that settlements and judgments against the NYPD are costing the city over $100 million a year, yet there’s no system for tracking the police conduct behind the payouts. For an administration that boasts, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” this revelation is quite a shocker. Coming on top of the Bronx ticket-fixing scandal and the citywide stop-and-frisk mess, it suggests that Mayor Bloomberg’s vaunted accountability standards have yet to penetrate the NYPD.
These facts may not fit on protest signs, but they’re no less real. Bike lanes, like smoking bans, save lives. A healthy public needs firefighters, but also healthy streets and healthy behavior. Budget-busting tax cuts are a luxury we can’t afford.
Komanoff, an economist, lives and works in Lower Manhattan.