Each time in New York’s history that the city has tried to change its approach to transportation, a villain has attempted to stymie those efforts. Tammany Hall fought Alfred Beach’s post-Civil War plans for a subway to a standstill, costing the city over 30 years of transit progress. Robert Moses fought, well, everyone and established a course of car-dependency at the expense of transit investment from which the city is still trying to recover.
And now Arthur Schwartz, foe of the 14th Street busway, has staked his claim as the current generation’s transit villain.
Schwartz is an unlikely antagonist in this saga. He’s a lawyer who has couched himself in a progressive mantle throughout this career. He serves as one of TWU Local 100’s outside attorneys in labor disputes with the MTA, and is the treasurer and political director of the New York Progressive Action Network, a grassroots organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. As the head of a public interest law firm called Advocates for Justice, he claimed to count Zephyr Teachout as one of his advisory board members until she distanced herself from Schwartz over his anti-transit advocacy work.
And yet, last Wednesday, when Transportation Alternatives organized a protest in front of Schwartz’s brownstone on West 12th Street to urge him to drop his ongoing lawsuit against the busway, Schwartz responded by comparing the pro-transit activists to the Ku Klux Klan and fascist dictators. Urging Manhattanites to surrender one street out of 255 to buses is now, in the eyes of a certain group of city residents, akin to lynchings in the post-Reconstruction American South.
That we have to take Schwartz seriously is a shame—but we do have to take Schwartz seriously. His assault on transit upgrades by weaponizing environmental review laws could severely hinder New York City as it tries to envision a city less reliant on cars and more favorable to mass transit. It’s a perversion of the intent of these environmental review laws—which were established to mandate that cities consider negative environmental, social, and economic impacts when building new projects (including roads), and mitigate those effects accordingly—and it could slow or stop plans to prioritize buses on key transit corridors throughout the city.
The weaponization of environmental review laws is a story playing out across America right now, and one transit supporters need to watch. These laws were not intended to halt public transit expansion; without clarifying changes, one or two losses in court could paralyze New York City with crushing gridlock and an inability to redesign streets for a generation to come.
Schwartz’s objections have relied heavily upon his ability to access the legal system and his neighbors’ largesse in funding him, a luxury relatively few can afford. While access to the courts is a key part of American democracy, Schwartz’s stated goal has always been to delay implementation of the city’s proposed traffic-management plans for as long as possible. He sued the MTA and New York City over the L train shutdown, claiming violations of environmental review laws, and has done the same in objecting to the busway. Though his initial claim was denied, after raising at least $1,000 each from a number of his West Village neighbors and co-plaintiffs, he filed a last-minute appeal a week ago. As a result, Manhattan’s first street dedicated primarily to buses remains in limbo, perhaps for as long as six months to a year as the legal process plays out. (He filed another lawsuit last week against the city and MTA regarding the elimination of a handful of bus stops along 14th Street as he piles on complaints against the project.)
Nearly 27,000 New Yorkers ride the buses on 14th Street every day, but the M14 is among the slowest in the city, averaging 4.3 miles per hour as the buses inch across town. Transit advocates estimate that in recent weeks alone, commuters have lost 8,000 hours to traffic that would be mitigated by the busway.
”For every day that the 14th Street busway is on hold, M14 rush hour commuters lose two weeks worth of time that they will never recover,” Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance said. “Time wasted stuck behind cars in stalled traffic is time away from family, friends, work, and New York’s civic life. The irreparable harm to tens of thousands of transit riders that comes of obstructing badly needed bus service improvements mounts with every single day of self-serving litigation from wealthy and powerful precincts surrounding 14th Street.”
Schwartz’s allies, who argue that those who benefit from a busway aren’t “real” New Yorkers or come from other neighborhoods (claims not supported by evidence or demographics of city bus riders), are a bevy of strange bedfellows. He’s gathered a group of wealthy Greenwich Village residents to fight against plans he claims will shift traffic to bucolic and empty side streets; he has also added disabled Manhattanites as plaintiffs to bolster claims the various busway plans violate the ADA.
He has ignored analysis from the city’s Department of Transportation showing that the Busway could lead to, at most, an extra two cars per minute during peak hours down his streets and has trotted out a bevy of pro-car, anti-transit tropes regarding crushing gridlock, parking, and even ambulance access that would lead someone more sensible to argue for severely curtailing private vehicle travel in Manhattan rather than shunting aside transit improvements. All of this is indicative of what The War on Cars podcast has termed “the liberal blindspot for cars.”
But this isn’t just about a war on cars, or a war on the war on cars. It’s about the city’s ability to quickly and efficiently reallocate street space for higher and better uses. It’s about a Department of Transportation that can operate free of the multi-million-dollar, multi-year shackles of full-fledged environmental impact statements, and it’s about a recognition that busways, which improve travel for tens of thousands of people a day—most of whom cannot call their brownstone-owning neighbors for a quick infusion of cash to file a lawsuit—should be encouraged by environmental review laws and not stymied.
As Noah Kazis explored in detail last week, NIMBYs in California in particular have become adept at exploiting environmental review laws to stop projects that remove parking and supposedly shift private automobile traffic from one street to the next, and theirs is the model Schwartz is following. Few would argue that encouraging and speeding up buses to reduce reliance on cars is bad for the environment, but because these local laws take, as Kazis writes, “exceptionally expansive view of what constitutes the ‘environment,’ including effects on parking, historic and cultural resources, and the catch-all of ‘neighborhood character,’” those intent on fossilizing the car-dependent status quo have weapons at their disposal.
Ultimately, a future New York City trying to combat the effects of climate change and the negative economic impact of buses that barely outpace healthy walkers has to be able to redesign its streets, and that may mean shifting a handful of cars from two-way arterials to one-way side streets. It won’t mean constant gridlock down West 12th Street. The widely accepted concept of induced demand has shown time and again that closing streets to cars doesn’t simply shift cars to other streets. Rather, it reduces driving overall, an undisputed social good.
Plus, part of living in Manhattan—or anywhere in New York City, or in any city—involves surrendering some control over the streets that pass one’s house. We share the city with everyone, and we should encourage policies and designs that prioritize transportation options that carry the most people in the least space using the fewest natural resources. That’s a pro-transit, progressive vision for city transportation.
Arthur Schwartz is just the latest in a long line of people who’ve tried to prevent transportation progress in New York City, and eventually, he will lose. But by dragging out the process, Schwartz can single-handedly delay tens of thousands of people every day and run up the costs for the city as it tries to redesign streets and expand transit in advance of the implementation of congestion pricing. City politicians who speak about transportation growth need to start reforming environmental review laws to ensure mass transit projects are prioritized and promoted accordingly and these laws are harder to exploit by NIMBY types acting in bad faith. If transit uses are prioritized properly, the next villain who can’t see beyond his stoop will have one fewer tool in his arsenal stopping the progress the city needs.
Benjamin Kabak is the founder and editor of Second Ave. Sagas, the long-running site chronicling news and views from the New York City subway. You can find him sharing news and views on NYC transportation on Twitter as well.