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NYC Has An Affordability Crisis — So Why Won’t Politicians Help The Poor Afford Public Transit?

For Monica Martinez’s family, taking the subway is a luxury.

“If we go out, I have to check my purse first — I don’t have a bank account,” the 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of three tells the Voice. “I have to check how much money I have in my MetroCard, how much money it’s going to cost to get back.”

The Bronx resident says her family’s budget became even tighter this fall after her husband, Alejandro, lost his job at a pizzeria.

“We had a really tough time in our house,” Martinez recalls. “If he had money saved, that money was gone. We didn’t have Thanksgiving, no Christmas presents, no Christmas dinner. So it’s been a little bit rough. But we have felt we are OK. My husband is a really hard worker, and he’s always looking out for us.”

Martinez and her family represent some of the 800,000 New Yorkers who live at or below the federal poverty guidelines — $28,780 a year for a family of five. They are the group that would benefit from “Fair Fares,” a proposal from the Riders Alliance and the Community Service Society (CSS) that would use city or state funds to provide low-income city residents with half-price MetroCards.

The proposal would cost roughly $200 million annually, according to a report from CSS, and could be administered by the city’s Human Resources Administration. If implemented, it would save eligible New Yorkers who buy monthly MetroCards $700 per person per year.

Harold Stolper, the CSS senior labor economist who co-wrote the report, says the program would mean “about $196 million goes back into the pockets of poor New Yorkers.” And it might not even cost that much in reduced revenue, since as the cost per ride falls, Fair Fares riders might take more trips.

A CSS-commissioned survey showed that more than a quarter of low-income New Yorkers can’t afford current transit fares, and there’s strong support for Fair Fares from the City Council and Comptroller Scott Stringer. But the program has been rejected both by the head of the MTA, appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who told reporters at an April 26 budget presentation that transit fare relief would not be included in the city’s $84.86 billion budget for next year.

“It’s a good thing,” de Blasio said when asked about Fair Fares. “But in a world of choices, one, we have other things that I think are even more strategically important . . . [and] structurally, it should be a responsibility of the MTA.”

When then-MTA chairman Tom Prendergast was asked about the program earlier this year, he stressed that “social services are rightly the role of municipalities in caring for their residents.”

“It should not be the MTA’s role, nor can the MTA afford to provide what would be a very real benefit to the poor,” Prendergast said.

For Martinez, who says her family earns around half the federal poverty threshold, the monthly benefit would be $60.50, half the price of the 30-day MetroCard that her husband buys most of the year to get to his new pizza-making job in Harlem. (In the summer months, he bikes to work from their home on the Grand Concourse.) But the benefits of a half-price MetroCard go beyond that, she says, to expanding her family’s travel boundaries.

“We could go to the movies. We never go to the movies,” she says. “We can go out and eat somewhere. There’s so many things we don’t do because we can’t afford it, or there’s so many things that we don’t have because we always have to put the rent, the cable, the MetroCard first.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio riding the subway on Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Alexis Perrotta, who teaches at Baruch College and studies equity and public transportation, says the Fair Fares program “would be a tremendous boon in exactly the right place.”

“It’d put a lot of money back into the pockets of people who will spend it, because they need it to spend on necessities,” Perrotta says. “It will go into avoiding homelessness, avoiding foster care, and lots of other things that are costly to society. It will go to the bodega, to the T-Mobile bill.”

For her doctoral research, Perrotta interviewed low-income New Yorkers about how they afford the cost of public transportation. “I was surprised to learn how often people mentioned fare evasion — avoiding the look of the bus driver, hopping turnstiles — how it was some necessary thing,” she says. (The NYPD arrested more than 29,000 people for fare evasion in 2015, and over 90 percent of them were people of color.) “I had a woman very memorably describe, ‘I would never want to just do that with no good reason.’ She would never take that risk unless she really had to.”

Monica Martinez

In dismissing the program on Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio cited the costs: “It’s $200 million, that’s a huge amount. It should be the responsibility of the MTA.”

But Stolper, the labor economist, says that the true costs and effects of the program are difficult to measure. “You could anecdotally, say, look at Seattle or San Francisco, look at changes in fare-beating arrests, look at employment among low-income folks.” But it would be hard to tell how much of any shift is due to those cities’ discounted-fares programs, he notes: “So many other things are changing, it’s not really something you could compare rigorously.”

The transit system of King County, Washington, which encompasses Seattle, has an annual ridership of 122 million and has instituted one of the country’s largest transit benefit programs for the poor. The benefit, called Orca Lift, provides unlimited monthly rides on light rail and express commuter buses for $54, half the cost of the regular fare. Orca Lift is available to people who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $57,560 for a family of five.

“We were looking at another fare increase in 2015, so we wanted to come up with something to help the low-income riders,” Mark Konecny, Orca Lift’s project manager, tells the Voice. “It just makes for a stronger economy if people can afford to get around and have money to spend on other things.”

Around 324,000 people are eligible for the program, though only 44,000 people currently use it. But Konecny is quick to add that “we want to make sure that anybody who is qualified for it can better their lives with it.” The goal, he says, is helping people with transportation costs so they can focus on improving other aspects of their lives.

“It’s called Orca Lift for a reason. It lifts people into better circumstances,” Konecny says. “You just make a stronger community when everyone gets a fair shake.”

King County’s program represents $5.8 million (including the $2.7 million in lost revenue), or less than 1 percent, of its transit agency’s $770 million annual budget. In New York, with more than ten times the annual ridership, Fair Fares would amount to less than 1.5 percent of the MTA’s annual $15.6 billion operating budget, and around 0.25 percent of the city’s $84.86 billion budget.

Mayor de Blasio, who in this year’s State of the City address said that New York’s “affordability crisis” (a phrase he used five times in that speech) “threatens the very soul of this city,” began his budget presentation on Wednesday lamenting how difficult it is for working-class people to live in New York City.

“For so many people in this city, it is still a great challenge to make ends meet, and for so many people who work so hard and try and do everything the right way, life in this city is very, very challenging,” the mayor said. “We’re trying in every way we can to relieve those burdens, make it easier on our people to live a good life in this city.”

Yet the mayor insisted that half-price MetroCards for the poor is “a very good idea that we should not do as a city expenditure.” And he waved off a Fair Fares pilot program, proposed last Tuesday by a majority of the City Council and the Riders Alliance, that would cost $50 million and cover a smaller section of New York’s poor residents.

“The minute you take a responsibility off the MTA and you start it at the city level, don’t be surprised if people in Albany try and keep it at the city level,” the mayor said. “The MTA needs to look at its expenditures and decide its priorities, and it needs to be really careful it’s investing enough in New York City, which has been a historic concern, but I’m not going to allow, in that or in any other areas, the state to shift expenses on to New York City.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo drives President Franklin Roosevelt’s antique car over the new Kosciuszko Bridge last week.

The city currently provides $1 billion to the MTA in operating expenses, including hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize discounted fares for students and seniors.

Advocates for the program say that instead of using city funding the state could pay for it by raising the gasoline tax, extending the “millionaire’s tax,” or through fairer tolls on bridges and tunnels.

Governor Cuomo, who spent Thursday afternoon driving President Franklin Roosevelt’s antique car over the new Kosciuszko Bridge, through a spokesperson declined to comment on these possibilities and referred the Voice to the MTA.

“The MTA keeps fares as low as possible while providing safe, reliable service,” agency spokesperson Beth DeFalco wrote in an email, adding that the MTA spends hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing rides for seniors, students, and paratransit riders.

Perrotta is puzzled that Fair Fares has failed to win the mayor’s budget support. “We have tax breaks for people who can afford transit checks, we have lower prices mandated for the elderly, for the disabled, we already have differential pricing. It’s not that crazy of an idea.”

Monica Martinez, who recently joined the Riders Alliance, urges the mayor to “come see the people” and talk about Fair Fares.

She recalls how her husband would spend money on transit fares looking for jobs while he was unemployed. “He would go out and come back without eating anything just to save money,” she says. “In moments like that, a half-priced MetroCard would make a big difference.”

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De Blasio’s New Ferries Boast Bespoke Bouge-Degas For The High Seas

On Monday, New York City’s new ferry service will launch, and along with it will come a bevy of amenities, designed to keep your floating commute as bespoke as possible. Courtesy of the company the New Stand, which also operates three newsstands throughout the city, including in the Union Square subway station, ferry riders will be able to imbibe from rosé on tap, nibble on a croissant from French patisserie Bien Cuit, or purchase a corkscrew for the waterfront condo dinner party they’re fashionably late for.

Of course, there are also more pedestrian amenities, like $3 coffee from Joe Coffee, or Snickers bars priced at “regular candy bar levels” ($2). But don’t let those stop you from indulging yourself with some of the more rarified products on display in this floating bouge-dega (Pocky, anyone?).

Created by two of the four co-founders of New Stand, Lex Kendall and Andrew Deitchman, who gave me a tour of a prototypical kiosk on board one of the ferries going into service on Monday, the company’s upscale vending sites seem geared to reach the clientele that the ferry itself will most likely appeal to: the professional class whose waterfront apartments are difficult to access through the city’s overburdened transit system.

The de Blasio administration, whose public transportation priorities appear to mirror the wishes of the mayor’s large donor base in the residential real estate industry, has championed the ferry system as something accessible to all New Yorkers. And for $2.75 a ride, it’s certainly cheaper than the current $4-a-ticket East River Ferry. But there is no easy access from ferry stations to subways, or a free transfer between them. Nevertheless, the New Stand is there for us, describing itself as “more than just a store” — rather, a “media platform.”

“We’re not going to go with airport prices just because we have you captive,” said Kendall, pointing out that the prices won’t be marked up from what they would normally retail at inside other nearby stores. The New Stand is based out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the ferries, run by Hornblower, are currently docked. Each New Stand kiosk will come with digital screens that will feature advertising and information about weekly deals aboard the ferry.

For short trips across the river, like the East River route, which will take riders from Queens to Midtown or DUMBO to downtown, the New Stand will ensure that commuters get their coffee as quickly as possible, with self-serve stations at the kiosks and the option to use the New Stand app to make purchases instantaneously. For longer rides, like the almost one-hour trip from Wall Street to the Rockaways, riders can drink Brooklyn Brewery on tap, or sip on the aforementioned rosé. There will also be cold brew on tap, for those hot summer ferry trips. The E train, this ain’t.

The New Stand will also offer magazines for purchase (you know, like a newsstand), but they’re still working out just which ones they’ll feature. Monocle, perhaps?

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How To Kill Someone In NYC And Get Away With It

Kelly Hurley was fatally injured at 7:20 a.m. on April 5, in broad daylight, at the intersection of 9th Street and First Avenue in the East Village. When police from the 9th Precinct arrived, the man who killed her was waiting for them with the tool he used to kill her. The man didn’t dispute that he’d killed her, and the laws he broke to do it are clear and unambiguous. But police didn’t arrest Hurley’s killer that day, and as of the time of this story’s publication, he remains a free man. This has something to do with the fact that Hurley was on a bicycle when she was killed and that the man who killed her, still unnamed by the NYPD, did so with his truck when he made an illegal left turn into the bicycle lane, where Hurley had the right of way.

In the three years since the city undertook its Vision Zero campaign to eliminate pedestrian and civilian fatalities, it has made admirable progress in many areas, improving hundreds of dangerous intersections, expanding the network of protected bike lanes, dropping speed limits, and engaging in a wide array of education and outreach efforts. But despite a concerted and ongoing campaign, the fact remains that, in New York, few motorists involved in fatal crashes with pedestrians or cyclists are ever charged with even minor traffic infractions.

That was supposed to change in 2014 with the passage of the local ordinance 19-190, the Right of Way Law, which established clear civil and criminal penalties for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. But advocates say enforcement of the law — holding reckless drivers to account when they hurt or kill someone — has lagged behind.

While the number of summonses issued to drivers who fail to yield has increased considerably from its rock-bottom level three years ago, the number of arrests under the new law remains negligible, and of the 38 fatalities last year identified by Transportation Alternatives, a group that advocates for safer streets, as having been caused or likely to have been caused by drivers’ failure to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way, at least a third resulted in no charges at all.

The NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad, which investigates cases in which someone is killed or likely to die, has been beefed up in recent years but is still woefully understaffed. There were more than 3,000 crashes causing serious injury or death last year, but CIS, which has fewer than thirty officers, investigated only 369 of them. Everything else gets handled by local precincts, where there are signs that a culture that tends to assign blame to cyclists and pedestrians and exculpate drivers remains pervasive. True to an increasingly familiar pattern, police responded to Hurley’s death in the ensuing days by ticketing bicyclists near the site of her crash for running red lights. Hurley wasn’t killed because she ran a red light, or through any fault of her own. She was killed by a motorist who broke the law.

“As a society, for quite a long time, since almost the beginning of the automobile, we’ve excused traffic violence as a sort of expected part of having cars on the road,” says Caroline Samponaro, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “As the automobile was getting introduced en masse, the automobile industry spent a lot of money criminalizing walking, creating jaywalking, retaking the streets from people and turning them over to cars.” As a consequence, Samponaro says, for more than a century, “Whenever there’s a crash, there’s an assumption that it was an ‘oops.’ ”

A memorial for Kelly Hurley at the spot in the East Village where she was hit by a truck driver.

That assumption persists to this day, traffic safety advocates maintain, and is reflected in how difficult it is to hold reckless deadly drivers accountable through the criminal justice system. Until recently in New York, says Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer and safe-streets advocate who specializes in this area, “There was no recognized basis for imposing criminal penalties for reckless sober driving by a licensed driver who stayed at the scene after injuring or killing someone.”

For decades, Vaccaro says, police sought to categorize driver misconduct into categories: drunkenness; driving without a license; hit-and-run; and intentional strike. “If it didn’t fit cleanly into one of those pigeonholes,” he says, “then the driver gets a pass, because the police presumption was that absent one of those factors, it was just an accident.”

District attorneys are often reluctant to pursue cases they’re not sure they can win — frequently a tall order due to a legal precedent known informally as the “rule of two,” which holds that a driver has to be breaking two traffic laws simultaneously before he can be found guilty of criminal negligence. The Right of Way Law was supposed to help break the logjam of the rule of two, but even when police do pursue a case, it often doesn’t go anywhere. According to Brian Reynolds, who heads the Collision Investigation Squad, sometimes there just isn’t enough evidence to recommend charges. “If we do have enough evidence, sometimes the D.A. has a different standard than we do, and the D.A. won’t pull the trigger for us,” he says.

“The culture of the police department and of prosecutors is really just a reflection of what our broader culture has been for a long time,” Samponaro says. “We have to acknowledge that it takes a long time to turn such a massive ship.”

At the monthly community meeting at the 9th Precinct last week, it was evident that, at least among some law enforcement officials, the full import of the failure-to-yield law has yet to be fully grasped. Addressing a packed room filled in large part with cyclists angry that the precinct’s most visible response to the fatal crash had been a campaign of ticketing cyclists, commanding officer Captain Vincent Greany lectured on how necessary it is for cyclists to look both ways before crossing the street and promised more education and outreach targeting them. “You’re talking about cars,” he acknowledged, but “it’s an area where anybody that makes a left turn is allowed to make that turn. It’s almost impossible to see a bicyclist in the mirror, sometimes in the blind spot, unless you physically turn your head and look back.”

The room erupted. “But it’s the law!” someone shouted. Greany remained placid. “I still have the right to make a turn,” he said. “What I would say is, ‘I didn’t see the bike.’ So there’s clear issues there.”

“You would be negligent!” someone yelled. “Like someone who shot somebody with a gun by accident!”

Standing next to Greany was Reynolds. In Kelly Hurley’s case, he told the audience, he did intend to recommend charges against the driver who killed her, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office had yet to sign off. “I have my own recommendations; that doesn’t mean the D.A. will be on board with that,” he said.

An audience member asked what the charge would be if the driver implicated in Hurley’s death is ultimately charged.

“Failure to Yield the Right of Way,” Reynolds answered. “It’s an unclassified misdemeanor.”

Failure to Yield misdemeanor charges are often pleaded down to a non-criminal disposition. In the unlikely event this one is not, the maximum penalty would be a $250 fine and thirty days in jail.

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Friday’s FUBAR Commute Brought To You By The MTA & Con Ed

Today the 7 train turns one hundred years old. In celebration, it is running without delays. Nearly every other line has been mired in chaos, creating a nightmare commute for millions of people.

Due to what the MTA tells the Voice is “a Con Ed power issue at 53rd Street,” A, C, E, B, D, F, M, J, N, Q, and R trains are all facing rerouting or severely curtailed service. It’s as if the old IRT (the number lines, which are running like normal) are playing a joke on the BMT and IND (the letter lines, which are a mess) in celebration of the 7 centenary. But that’s only funny if you’re a transit nerd who isn’t currently on the train. For everyone else, it means you are not getting to your job on time.

At 11 a.m., the MTA tells the Voice it has no time frame for when the delays and rerouting will be cleared up. And while the MTA’s Twitter account is taking pains to note that it’s the “Con Ed power outage that snarled service,” a Con Ed spokesman, Allan Drury, tells the Voice that the cause is still unknown. “There’s obviously a problem on some sort of electrical delivery equipment. Whether it belongs to us or the MTA hasn’t been determined yet.”

Because of that loss of power at 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue, there’s no B service, and D trains are running on the C line in Manhattan while the C trains are not running at all. The E train is now running on the F line between Jackson Heights and West 4th Street, while those crowded F trains are now hopping on the G tracks (like they used to!) and heading on over to get stranded Brooklyn commuters and assist them toward some number trains they can maybe use. The M is calling it quits once it gets from Brooklyn to Manhattan, terminating at Chambers Street, and the J is facing serious delays.

So how is everyone’s perpetual commute?

 

People seem to be keeping it mostly together. Mostly.

Well, when the subways fail, and existential screaming is our lone consolation, at least we have some alternate modes of transport, right? Ones that are attuned to our pain?

No. Your pain means nothing to them.

Just a reminder that last month, the MTA increased fares once again. Also, a healthy reminder that Governor Andrew Cuomo recently slashed its budget by $65 million dollars. Be kind to your conductors — the real enemy is in Albany.

UPDATE: At 12:46, the MTA announced that service has resumed, “with delays.” (Of course.)

 

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NYPD Says East Village Cyclist Killed By Box Truck Driver “Slipped Off Her Bike”

After a box truck driver fatally struck 31-year-old cyclist Kelly Hurley as she rode in the First Avenue bike lane twelve days ago, the NYPD issued a single summons to the driver for not having a crossover mirror. “He didn’t have any issues with his license, he was not driving under the influence, the victim sadly slipped off her bike,” NYPD spokesman Detective Ahmed Nasser told the Voice.

According to Detective Nasser, the box truck driver was stopped at a red light at the intersection of First Avenue and East 9th Street early on the morning of April 5. When the light turned green, the truck driver “made a left turn from the rightmost lane” onto East 9th Street. Hurley, who was traveling north in the bike lane, “dismounted the bicycle and slid onto the roadway, and came to rest in the intersection.”

Kelly Hurley
Kelly Hurley

“She was actually trying to avoid [the truck], she came off her bike and slid under the truck as he made the turn,” Nasser said.

We asked Detective Nasser if the truck driver, a 59-year-old man who remained at the scene of the crash, should have been making sure that he wasn’t turning into a cyclist or a pedestrian in the intersection.

“Well, I suppose you can say one or the other, but it seems like he probably didn’t see her, and she was going up north, he was making a left, he’s actually already into the intersection, he was already making the turn,” Nasser said. “She probably didn’t stop in time, and she slipped and fell under. . . . He’s already in, she tried to stop, she came off the bike, she slipped under the truck.”

Hurley, a SoulCycle instructor who lived on Orchard Street, died of her injuries last Wednesday.

Steve Vaccaro, a safe streets advocate and personal injury attorney who frequently represents cyclists and pedestrians, disputes Nasser’s analysis of who had the right of way in that intersection, which is known as a “mixing zone,” where drivers are allowed to turn left through northbound bicycle traffic, provided they observe the “yield teeth” triangles on the ground and give cyclists the right of way.

“You can’t say ‘one or the other,’ ” Vaccaro says. “The traffic going straight has the right of way — the bicycle traffic going straight has the right of way, motor vehicle traffic entering the turn bay through the yield teeth absolutely does not have the right of way and must yield to all traffic that it might come in conflict with.”

Vaccaro also pointed out that if the truck driver turned from the rightmost lane, “that’s a totally illegal maneuver.”

“Let’s say that cyclists have the right of way in the mixing zone, they still have to stay alert for motorists coming into the mixing lane. But you don’t look all the way across First Avenue to the eastmost lane.”

Vaccaro added, “That the driver didn’t have any issues with his license and that he wasn’t driving under the influence, that’s just a start. We are now in the realm of the Right of Way Law, and if you violate that law, you should be charged with a crime.”

After Hurley’s death, police were seen ticketing cyclists at the spot where she was struck.

Detective Nasser said that the NYPD’s investigation is ongoing.

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If You’re A Woman In NYC, “One More Drink” Makes You A Victim

Everyone knows that alcohol is terrible for you. It wreaks havoc on your heart, your pancreas, your liver, your skin, your brain, and on and on forever. But according to an ad campaign on New York City’s subways, it also makes you more likely to ride your bike into a cab or get into a bar fight — if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, it apparently turns you into a helpless invitation for assault on the subway.

I first became aware of this campaign through a friend, who showed me a photo she snapped while we were out (drinking) one night. The image in question features a woman who appears to be dead asleep, head slumped against the window, phone dangling perilously from her fingertips. Her purse is tossed on the seat next to her. “Just One More Drink CAN Hurt,” the text proclaims.

This public service announcement is just one of a series, posted by the city’s Department of Health in subways and 97 bars around the city beginning in 2014.

Never mind that assaulting or robbing a sleeping person is a crime — following an incident in 2012 in which a man was filmed sexually assaulting a sleeping woman on a subway car, the assailant was charged with first-degree aggravated sexual abuse. That point, though, is secondary to this one: She should never have put herself in that position in the first place.

The health department isn’t alone in its thinking. Last year, then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that police intended to begin waking dozing straphangers, on account of the fact that 50 percent of reported subway crimes “involve sleeping passengers,” with pickpocketing and sexual assault cited specifically.

“If you are sleeping on the subway, you make yourself a very easy victim and much more susceptible to a crime,” Bratton said at the time. “Why would you put yourself at that risk?” (According to data from the NYPD, subway crimes have risen by 3 percent since last year.)

Stephanie Buhle, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, told the Voice that “the message of our ad, which was arrived at after focus-grouping the ad images and incorporating feedback from New Yorkers, is that excessive drinking can result in someone passing out and being vulnerable to having valuables taken — and ending up in Coney Island when your stop was at Delancey.”

Buhle added, “Our call to action in this campaign is to have New Yorkers watch out for their friends. In creating this scenario, we chose a large purse and a dangling cell phone to emphasize vulnerability. Other campaign images depict other vulnerable scenarios that may result from excessive drinking, including a pedestrian and a biker at risk of getting hit by cars.”

But there is one major factor that distinguishes the sleeping woman ad from the others in the series. In each of these other ads, the drunk person is the active participant in the Hurtful Thing. They started the bar fight. They walked or rode their bike into traffic.

In the case of the sleeping woman, it’s the viewer who is framed as the predator. Think about the effectiveness of the same ad featuring a sleeping man. It would be . . . confusing, its purpose indistinct. Why are we looking at this sleeping man? Is he sick? Is he dead?

With the woman, its implication is immediately clear. This woman is at risk not because she’s acting violently or thoughtlessly, but because she is vulnerable. As a woman, I look at this ad and know without hesitation the conclusion it’s meant to elicit.

I assume that message is conveyed with equal clarity to men, which is alarming: A public service announcement issued for safety by the health department is actively encouraging New Yorkers to view women as helpless victims. Absent her usual armature of wariness, it affirms, this woman is ripe for the taking.

So where do we draw the line? Is this also to say that women should not fall asleep on an airplane, either? If a woman wears a tight dress while drinking, is she making herself more vulnerable to assault? What if she’s just wearing tight clothes, period? In each of these instances, the burden of safety is placed on the victim. Binge drinking is harmful, yes. But implying a woman was “asking for it” is worse.

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The Horrible Future Of New York’s Mass Transit Is Here

New York commuters are fuming about the latest train derailment that has canceled countless trains and left Penn Station packed with frustrated people. No, not the one from two weeks ago. Or a few weeks before that. The one that happened Monday, and has caused such a disruption to commutes that service underneath the Hudson will be severely limited until at least Thursday.

This particular catastrophe began when a NJ Transit train derailed, with three cars coming off the tracks and one losing a wheel in the process. Because of Penn Station’s crowded and completely deficient infrastructure, one disruption cascaded into many, demonstrating how one transit system that is suffering through deep neglect can drag down the entire network. Penn is shared by Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, and NJ Transit, so commutes are now bungled across the entire Eastern Seaboard as the derailed train damaged a switch machine, cutting service at eight of twenty-one tracks at Penn Station. So instead of having a single line disrupted, the busiest train station in the United States has seen its service cut by more than a third during the middle of a work week.

The recurrence of derailments is indicative of the metropolitan area’s decrepit transit infrastructure, one that badly needs federal funding for another tunnel underneath the Hudson, so that the current tunnel can be repaired (from Sandy, which happened in 2012) and service can keep up with the growth of the New Jersey waterfront. There’s supposedly help on the way, but it’s not coming anytime soon. At some point, officials say, in the next ten years, LIRR trains will be able to go to Grand Central, providing an alternative for stranded Long Island residents and alleviating some track congestion at Penn. But that project is billions over budget and years behind, with the MTA and governor scarcely mentioning it over the past several years. For practical purposes, it might as well not even exist.

The true silver bullet for sparing New York City from decades of transit madness would be a new cross-Hudson tunnel, something that the Obama administration embraced and the Trump transition team seemed to support. Senator Chuck Schumer appeared ready to sell his soul for that much-needed tunnel, but it looks like he won’t even get the chance. The Trump administration has slashed federal infrastructure grants, and Democrats have embraced a “resistance” politics that has thrown any earlier overtures toward cooperation completely out the window. But it’s not like Trump is offering the money anyway (or would do anything that Democrats could take credit for).

So in a moment of deep transit dysfunction, where a third of commuters at Penn Station are caught in a hellish cycle of delays, where are the politicians? Handing out moist towelettes to aggrieved commuters?

Governor Andrew Cuomo is up in Albany finalizing a budget in which he tried to slash $65 million from the MTA’s funding (it looks like the legislature is putting that money back in), Mayor Bill de Blasio is in Seattle raising money for his legal defense fees (and re-election campaign), and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is helping shape Trump’s plan for confronting the nation’s opioid epidemic, and otherwise keeping a low profile while his former Port Authority lieutenants get sent to prison.

Cuomo’s most recent plan for Penn Station does nothing to increase track capacity, meaning that even when shovels might soon appear in the ground at Penn, they are instead building a better mall for commuters as they wait interminably for their trains.

Everyone in the New York area knew this day was coming, when its transit would begin to completely collapse without federal intervention. They just thought it would take a little longer. For once in New York’s transit world, things seem to be running a bit early.

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NIMBY Rages Against Shadowy Bike Lobby After De Blasio Overrules Community Board

After more than two years of delay and drama centered on the local community board, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he is moving forward with a Vision Zero safety overhaul for 111th Street in Corona, Queens. The board’s transportation committee chair, upset after being bigfooted by Blaz, inveighed against the influence the all-powerful bicycle lobby holds over the mayor and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the local councilwoman supporting the plan.

“Maybe the group behind the bicycles is forcing to her do this,” said James Lisa, Queens Community Board 4 transportation committee chair. Asked to elaborate, he said, “I don’t have any proof on it. I’m just surmising… You read between the lines.”

“The poll numbers show that New Yorkers support safer streets and protected bike lanes. There’s no dark conspiracy here,” retorted Transportation Alternatives director of organizing Tom DeVito. “Trying to pretend that there’s some nefarious external forces involved is perhaps a comforting delusion for some folks.”

DeVito might try to brush it aside, yet at the precise moment dictated by the two-wheeled conspiracy last night, the mayor made his big announcement about 111th Street at a town hall with Ferreras-Copeland. The councilwoman called on Veronica Ramirez of Mujeres in Movimiento, a local chapter of the bicycle lobby comprised of Latina mothers who began advocating for a safer 111th Street in 2014. She asked the mayor in Spanish whether he would move forward with the plan.

“Sí,” de Blasio said to cheers from the audience. “Not only sí, but claro que sí.”

This is all the proof we need that de Blasio is under bicycle lobby control. Spanish, after all, is a secret coded language used by members of Big Wheel. Just ask Lisa’s community board colleague, Ann Pfoser Darby, who — this one is not a joke — said a month ago that there would be no need for bicycle lanes after President Donald Trump removes undocumented immigrants from Queens.

“I am comfortable that the right thing to do is move ahead with our efforts to protect people on 111th Street,” the mayor said. “We will continue to always work with community leaders and the community board as we go along… But this plan is ready to move, so we’re going to move it.”

The plan, set to be installed this summer, would reduce the number of car lanes while adding parking, pedestrian space, and a protected bike lane — but not crosswalks, which were removed in October as part of a compromise to appease critics.

At forums and community board meetings, DOT traffic engineers have said that 111th Street doesn’t have enough traffic to warrant stoplights, which Lisa favors. Instead, the agency has said, reducing crossing distances and removing excess car lanes are proven to improve street safety.

“It makes no sense to me,” Lisa said. “DOT is being pushed by the mayor and the city councilwoman… She doesn’t even like this part of town. The only time she comes into our part of the community is to dictate policy.”

Ferreras-Copeland hailed the mayor’s decision. “For too long, 111th Street has been dangerous and residents of Corona deserve a safe way to enter Flushing Meadows-Corona Park,” she said in a statement. “Our community worked hard to make their voices heard and persisted alongside me for three years to demand these safety improvements.”

While Vision Zero — or at least a compromised, crosswalk-free version — triumphed in Corona, the mayor has a mixed record when it comes to overriding community boards that oppose traffic safety projects.

When Lisa and the rest of Queens CB 4 asked de Blasio to strip the bike lanes from his Queens Boulevard safety project last year, de Blasio said that the bike lanes weren’t going anywhere. But when community boards in the East Bronx and Sheepshead Bay rejected Vision Zero plans, DOT blinked and shelved the safer designs, implementing them only after two people lost their lives.

Right now, DOT is allowing a mixture of incompetence and opposition at Brooklyn Community Board 9 to stall a bike lane on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. Here’s hoping no one gets killed in the meantime.

“Community boards are often used to operating below the threshold of media scrutiny. A lot of the things that happen there, people don’t know about,” DeVito said. “That’s impacted the way a lot of boards have treated street safety issues in the past, where decisions are just made and they’re not really questioned.”

The latest rebuff by de Blasio has offended Lisa so much that he is threatening to move.

“It’s a farce. This is all a farce,” Lisa said. “I’m still mad, and I’m very upset, and I may leave, because I’m not gonna put up with this crap.”

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The Only Thing Slower Than NYC Buses Is The MTA’s Efforts To Fix Them

While testifying before the City Council’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday, the MTA’s Michael Chuback, the director of the MTA’s budget, claimed that ridership on the city’s buses are down not because of deteriorating service, but rather, because the trains are becoming better.

“One of the major reasons, we believe, is competition. Essentially the subway has improved over the last 20 or so years,” Chuback said in front of the city’s transportation committee. The MTA later told the Voice that Chuback misspoke, and that he was there to testify on the MTA’s budget, not its ridership figures.

But his testimony underlines the long-standing impression that the MTA is only sluggishly working through its bus service problems, even as some hope appears far down the road — behind all those delivery trucks and bunched behind two other buses.

At a board meeting last week, the MTA outlined ways in which it’s going to start looking into improving its bus service, from expanding the use of devices that hold onto green lights longer for incoming buses, to more enforcement on cars and trucks parked in bus lanes, to even a rethinking of the entire network based on updated ridership information. It was the first signal in some time that the MTA was taking its bus service issues seriously, and just in time, too.

According to a report from the Transit Center, bus ridership has declined by 16 percent since 2002, all while the city’s population has increased by 5.7 percent. At the same time, subway ridership is up by almost 25 percent, meaning, yes, as Chuback pointed out, way more people are taking the trains — but the correlation between the two would appear tenuous at best.

MTA figures show that in areas with service redundancy (both train and bus), some people actually are opting to take trains instead, just not because of better train services (trains have only gotten worse over the past few years). In areas like downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan, congestion has gotten so bad, from both ride-sharing and delivery trucks, that even a crowded and delayed train is preferable to sitting in gridlock. With a system-wide average speed of 7.4 mph, the MTA’s buses are officially the slowest in the nation.

But while the measures laid out by the MTA last week are a good start, they don’t come close to what’s needed to get people riding the buses again. One encouraging sign from the presentation was that when the MTA does put in its version of Bus Rapid Transit (which provides a dedicated lane for buses, as well as off-bus payment), known as SBS, more people end up riding the bus. The MTA is expanding SBS gradually this year again, as it has done so for the past decade.

But the pace is so slow in SBS expansion, it hasn’t come close to covering the service gap in congested areas or areas without subway options. Each time the MTA proposes SBS, it spends years fighting communities to agree to give up parking spots or traffic lanes, and when the MTA does finally succeed, it admitted at its board presentation that it’s fairly ineffective in getting cars to stop using the dedicated lanes and slowing down bus traffic. So while the MTA knows some of the solutions to its problems, its not moving quickly enough or with the enforcement to back it up.

Expect buses to remain crawling along for years to come, unless the city takes larger action to clear its streets. This might just be on the horizon — the de Blasio administration is gearing up for a new congestion plan, which, for city bus riders, can’t come a moment too soon.

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Transport Workers Union Boss John Samuelsen Doesn’t Give a Shite What You Think of Him

Ask John Samuelsen about how he rose from lowly track worker to labor kingpin, and he’ll tell you about the time he was called an “Irish cunt.”

As Samuelsen recalls, it was the Fourth of July, 1994, and he was laboring in the baking tunnel of an R train in Brooklyn. He told his supervisor he needed to place a heavy, rubberized mat on the third rail to keep workers from getting electrocuted. The supervisor, angry that time would be wasted going upstairs to a truck to retrieve the mat, said no.

Samuelsen insisted. The supervisor reluctantly relented. But “he wanted me to throw the mat down the stairs as people were walking by,” Samuelsen, now the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, told the Voice.

The future labor leader stood firm: He was carrying the mat down the stairs. The supervisor was fed up.

“He said, ‘You’re an Irish cunt, you’re a lazy Irish cunt,'” Samuelsen recounts. “I told him, ‘I’m gonna take you out on the street and beat the shite out of you.'”

Samuelsen says the fight on the platform motivates much of what he does today. His protest led to the demotion of the supervisor and to his own awakening as an organizer. At TWU, Samuelsen was elected shop steward and climbed steadily through the ranks, winning the union presidency in 2009.

Like his militant predecessor, Roger Toussaint — the man who led the transit strike of 2005, shutting down the subways and buses for two days — Samuelsen is something of a lone wolf. Nevertheless, the garrulous, hulking, bearded president of the organization representing the city’s 39,000 bus and subway workers looks and sounds like the mid-century Platonic ideal of a take-no-prisoners union boss. When he opens his mouth, you hear the punchy vowels of Gerritsen Beach, the insular waterfront neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn.

Although his union doesn’t match political powerhouses like 1199 SEIU or the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, it’s become one of City Hall’s premier antagonists. Samuelsen has led a furious crusade against Mayor Bill de Blasio, proudly hanging Daily News covers knocking the mayor in TWU’s hallways.

“Do I think he deserves to be re-elected? I’m not voting for him,” Samuelsen said. “He’s lucky there’s no viable candidate that’s stepped up against him.”

In a conference room at TWU’s headquarters off Cadman Plaza, two banners reveal Samuelsen’s preferences: There’s one for Bernie Sanders and one with an Irish shamrock that advises, “Keep Calm You Fecking Eejit.” Samuelsen homeschools his two teenage sons and makes sure to teach them, when he’s around during the day, how to be “good Irish republicans.”

And in 2016, when almost every significant labor union in the state endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Samuelsen’s TWU threw its weight behind Sanders, who came to TWU’s headquarters to accept the endorsement.

“The Democratic Party is not the party of trade unions. It’s simply not,” Samuelsen explained. “The left-wing populism that Bernie Sanders brought into this primary was resonating with transit workers and workers everywhere.”

Joe Lhota, the former MTA chairman and a one-time Republican candidate for mayor, affectionately described Samuelsen as “probably the first and only true living socialist” he’s met.

“He’s very religious, very Catholic, very into liberation theology,” Lhota said.

In this context, Samuelsen’s fight with de Blasio (who declined to comment for this article) would seem perplexing. Why antagonize the most pro-union mayor the city has had in at least twenty years, a Democrat who also aligns himself with the Sanders wing of the party?

There are obvious reasons and cynical ones. De Blasio enraged Samuelsen when, as part of his “Vision Zero” initiative to crack down on pedestrian fatalities, he began asking NYPD officers to arrest bus drivers at the scenes of fatal crashes. Understandably, the idea of bus drivers being led off in handcuffs didn’t sit well with Samuelsen.

In retaliation, Samuelsen bragged that his union “took out probably half the rush hour service in Brooklyn…we engaged in repeated actions where we instructed bus operators to not even enter the pedestrian right-of-way until every pedestrian cleared the right-of-way — and that led to a massive backup of traffic in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.”

Samuelsen has other bones to pick with a mayor he believes to be a phony progressive. De Blasio’s failed efforts to ban horse-drawn carriages from Central Park threatened to put unionized workers on the street. His ambitious affordable-housing plan, in order to move at the speed and cost he desires, must enlist non-unionized construction workers. During our interview, Samuelsen also denounced de Blasio for allowing Wegmans, which employs non-union labor, to open at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Samuelsen’s approach to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the man he must cut deals with, has been far more accommodationist. That yields the cynic’s explanation for his de Blasio beef. “He’s just an opportunist. He has no real trade union principles,” Toussaint, Samuelsen’s TWU predecessor, said. “That has led him into being not just too close to Cuomo, but being his lapdog.”

It’s a charge that infuriates Samuelsen but one repeated sotto voce among other labor leaders, who feel his browbeating of de Blasio — during one of the mayor’s spats with Cuomo over how much the city should fund the MTA, the TWU paid for subway ads that warned de Blasio wanted to take New York “back to the 1970s” — was primarily an effort to ingratiate himself with the governor in advance of contract talks.

Samuelsen insists that’s not true, and his spokesman, Pete Donohue, called Toussaint a “bitter, ostracized, and frankly irrelevant former union president.” But Samuelsen, not long after the TWU agreed to a contract, was noticeably quiet when Cuomo’s executive budget included a cut of $65 million to the MTA.

Cuomo has governed more as a liberal in his second term, but at heart he’s a triangulator representative of the kind of Democrat Samuelsen, in theory, should be rebelling against. The governor has played a divide-and-conquer game with organized labor, befriending private-sector unions while warring with many in the public sector.

To the horror of true believers like Toussaint, Cuomo in 2012 slashed pension benefits for newly hired state and local public workers. Samuelsen argued, however, that Cuomo has become “increasingly supportive of trade unions and working people in general.”

Samuelsen also has no interest in joining the growing backlash against the Independent Democratic Caucus, a breakaway conference of Democrats aligned with Republicans in the state senate. Formed in 2011, the IDC made the controversial decision to ally itself with senate Republicans in 2012. The group has since handed the majority back to the GOP, a move decried by many labor leaders as a betrayal — but not by Samuelsen. “I view the IDC as an incredibly stabilizing, effective force against any negative tendencies that the Republicans might have in Albany,” he said. He hopes the caucus can roll back the pension cuts Cuomo — the IDC’s most prominent patron — drove home five years ago.

For the man who styles himself a Sanders-esque firebrand, there are always compromises to make — and concessions to give in the name of reality.

Defending the IDC is a “pragmatic decision,” Samuelsen said.

“It’s not an ideological decision.”