Polly Trottenberg, a key member of New York City’s leadership team, is leaving her post as transportation commissioner next month, a critical departure for Mayor Bill de Blasio as he grapples with some of the gravest political, economic and managerial challenges New York City has faced in a century.
In her seven-year tenure, Ms. Trottenberg has presided over the mayor’s Vision Zero program to reduce traffic fatalities, populated New York City with speed cameras and lined streets with bike and bus lanes.
She has tangled with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over subway funding, and tangled behind the scenes with the mayor over street space.
But she has also absorbed countless blows on Mr. de Blasio’s behalf, as transportation advocates have decried the quality of the city’s cycling infrastructure and the mayor’s commitment to street safety.
Ms. Trottenberg’s exit is likely to signal a coming raft of departures as Mr. de Blasio nears the end of his second and last term. In the past three months alone, he has lost his health commissioner — who disagreed with his approach to the pandemic — and his sanitation commissioner, who left office to run for mayor and immediately distanced herself from Mr. de Blasio.
Ms. Trottenberg’s resignation also hints at the extent to which the center of gravity in policy circles is shifting to Washington, D.C., where a new, ostensibly more urban-friendly administration is poised to take office. She is already serving on President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s transportation transition team, and as a former under secretary for transportation in the Obama administration, may be considered a candidate for U.S. transportation secretary.
Her job, like many in city government, has changed during the coronavirus pandemic. Once the keeper of the city’s roadways — which, assembled in a line, would stretch to Iran — she now also manages its miles of street-level, open-air cafes.
She says that in the last year in particular, the mayor has made changes to city streets that have fundamentally shifted the way public space operates in New York City.
“We have now 10,700-plus restaurants on our streets and sidewalks and it took us a matter of weeks,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “In normal times, it would have taken New York City five years to figure out how to do that.”
Early in the pandemic, Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Trottenberg opened some streets to pedestrians as part a pilot program, only to deem the program unworkable and cancel it. Under significant City Council pressure, Mr. de Blasio ultimately reinstated and expanded the initiative. He has since promised to make the program permanent.
Ms. Trottenberg is aware of the criticism aimed at the mayor from transportation advocates as well as from the bevy of would-be successors running next year to replace him.
Long a loyal soldier, Ms. Trottenberg argued that the mayor did not get nearly enough credit for his accomplishments on transportation. She argued that his Vision Zero program to reduce traffic fatalities was a significant, paradigm-shifting accomplishment, one emulated around the country.
Ms. Trottenberg acknowledged in an interview that she and the mayor did not speak or meet “all that often.” She did not deny that she and the mayor were not always on the same page. Last year, he publicly criticized her agency’s plan to curtail traffic around Rockefeller Center during the holiday season. During the pandemic, she suggested his suspension of alternate side parking rules was slowing the expansion of bike lanes.
“I think it is natural with any mayor and commissioner, you’re going to have back and forth on big decisions,” she said.
Ms. Trottenberg’s legacy is bound up with the mayor’s. Her proudest accomplishment — the Vision Zero plan — is also his. She was by Mr. de Blasio’s side in 2014 when he rolled out the signature street safety initiative, which aimed to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024.
Over the years, the administration has made progress toward that goal. The year 2017 was the safest on record for New York City roadways, an accomplishment city officials tie to changes in the way they manage streets.
Progress has not come without some backsliding. It’s hard to find anyone, Ms. Trottenberg included, who thinks the city will achieve zero fatalities by the target year of 2024, as Vision Zero intended. Last year, street fatalities rose, and they may be on track to rise again this year, something Ms. Trottenberg attributes in part to a pandemic-era rise in motorcycle use and reckless driving, as people avoid the subway.
“It’s appearing to be a bit of a national phenomenon,” she said. “This has been a year of emotion and some disorder, and unfortunately that’s played out in a lot of different spheres, including on our roadways.”
Still, the building blocks seem to be in place.
In 2013, New York City won the right to deploy speed cameras near 20 schools. With Ms. Trottenberg’s help, the city won state authorization to deploy thousands of speed cameras in 750 zones that the city said would cover every elementary, middle and high school in the city. While Texas last year banned traffic safety cameras, New York City now has what Ms. Trottenberg says is the largest municipal speed camera program in the country.
In a bid to improve pedestrian safety, New York City also lowered its default speed limit to 25 miles an hour.
Ms. Trottenberg worked with the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to implement the city’s first busway, along 14th Street in Manhattan. More busways are in the works.
And she expanded the city’s network of protected bike lanes from 36 miles to 120 miles, though advocates say the quality of the bike lanes — and the city’s enforcement of them — is lacking.
“We have cars and trucks parked in every single bike lane in the city all the time, even the best-protected ones,” said Jon Orcutt, the communications director at Bike New York and the former policy director at the city’s transportation department. “The protections they’re putting in are weaker than ever. Same with the bus lanes.”
The last year has also brought personal challenges to the job. The agency lost six employees and three contractors to Covid-19. Instead of spearheading new initiatives, Ms. Trottenberg found herself attending Zoom memorial services and trying to run an agency from home.
Still, she suggested that the pandemic had underscored how much she and the mayor managed to accomplish, with the city’s new environment almost redefining the role of the transportation department.
“I would particularly point to this pandemic year,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “At least in the transportation world, the mayor made some pretty extraordinary decisions. I think people don’t necessarily appreciate that.”
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