Volume 22, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 28 - September 3, 2009

Talking Point

What’s the matter with Downtown’s candidates?

By Charles Komanoff

Downtown is closer to Kansas than you think.

And judging from the campaign for the City Council seat held by Alan Gerson, it’s about to get even closer.

The surprise bestseller of 2004 was “What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” The book explained how the U.S. heartland forsook its populist roots and became a red-state stronghold. According to author Thomas Frank, the Republican Party used hot-button “social issues” like abortion and gay rights to build electoral majorities for economic policies that enriched the country-club set at the expense of working families.

Something similar seems to be happening in the Democratic primary race in the First Council District, albeit with a different set of issues. For the most part, incumbent Gerson and his rivals are defending a transportation status quo that privileges a relative handful of drivers at everyone’s expense. None of the candidates are clamoring for new policies that would make Lower Manhattan — and all of New York City — a better place to live and work.

Take traffic pricing. At the Downtown Express candidates forum on Aug. 17, only two candidates ­ Margaret Chin and PJ Kim ­ evinced any appetite for asking drivers to offset even a fraction of the cost of the traffic delays they cause, via a toll. Gerson and Pete Gleason denigrated the idea and sealed their opposition with a handshake.

(Gerson later told the Downtown Express that he might support a toll on through-traffic ­ an empty gesture since it would exempt most vehicle trips and might be impossible to administer in any event. Residential exemptions, as required by another candidate, Arthur Gregory, would fatally undermine traffic pricing as well.)

Traffic pricing is central to reducing gridlock, and enthusiasm for it should be a given for any Downtown legislator. The city’s worst traffic congestion occurs here, yet our network of subways, buses and sidewalks is resilient and efficient. Just 21 percent of Council District 1 households own a car, and many of these are driven only on weekends or other special occasions. It’s hard to imagine a traffic toll that wouldn’t benefit the vast majority of Downtowners.

It gets worse. Not a single Council candidate spoke up for the Grand St. bike lane, whose innovative design provides a safe cycling connection between Hudson Square and the Lower East Side and has reduced traffic injuries nearly 30 percent, according to the N.Y.C. Dept. of Transportation. And no candidate has reproached Councilmember Gerson for his demagogic attacks on the D.O.T., such as branding it a “Department of Tyranny” for striving to undo decades of Robert Moses policies that have made our streets inhospitable to everything but cars.

Instead, the contenders demanded “more community consultation” — i.e., doing nothing — ignoring the fact that D.O.T. had secured Community Board 2’s near-unanimous approval for the lane. Only Kim cautioned against “demonizing cyclists” — in a Council district whose short distances and quirky streets make it ideal for cycling, and whose chronic gridlock makes bicycling a rare “positive externality” — a private action that confers public benefits.

What’s going on here? Is a bum roll of the dice to blame, or is something deeper at work?

Probably some of each. What Frank’s “Kansas” book taught us is that most politicians will push whatever cultural buttons will get them elected. In the heartland, it’s “partial-birth” abortion and same-sex marriage. Here, in the first Council District, evidently it’s Americans’ right to drive anywhere, anytime, and pay nothing for the damage. And, for good measure, to turn up one’s nose at bicycle-riders — as if “those cyclists” couldn’t be “us cyclists” too, with the right street configuration.

Is Lower Manhattan, like Kansas, fated to vote against its self-interest? Let’s hope not.

While it’s too late to put an avowed transportation reformer on the ballot, it’s not too late to let the candidates know where you stand. Use these final weeks to tell Councilmember Gerson and his rivals that you want traffic pricing and safe bicycle lanes. Tell them that on Sept. 15 you intend to pull the lever for the candidate who will help, not hinder, the movement to repurpose our streets to broader, gentler uses.

Charles Komanoff, a Tribeca resident since 1994, is working with labor lawyer Ted Kheel to advance traffic pricing and free transit.

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