While Albany has contorted itself into doing nothing about the expiration of New York City’s 421a rent regulations and the MTA capital plan, a different kind of political dysfunction has been unfolding down in the city. For the last several months, safe streets advocates and the gentle people of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents workers on NYC subways and buses, have been engaging in a vicious war of words over the city’s Vision Zero plan for pedestrian safety and in particular the Right of Way law, which targets drivers who injure or kill pedestrians or bicyclists who have the right of way. In short, TWU’s complaint has been that bus drivers are professionals who should be exempt from the ROW law because they work long shifts and are exposed to possibly dangerous conflicts far more than the typical driver. There’s the kernel of a legitimate complaint in there, but any kind of productive conversation about protecting both transit workers AND pedestrians has been completely sabotaged by Local 100’s scorched-earth framing of the issue as a class war (tweets presented in chronological order):
Nevermind that, of course, in New York City as elsewhere people killed in traffic are disproportionately poor and of color. The ugliness has led to an increasing fracture between labor and the city’s broader progressive/alternative transportation community. Erstwhile allies like Tri-State Transportation Campaign (full disclosure, I’m interning with them currently) Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool (a former bus driver herself, albeit not in the city) have called out the union for its tactics. A few days ago, Local 100 gathered a coalition of other unions to support its campaign for an exemption from the Right-of-Way Law.
Some progressive transportation advocates haven’t been able to restrain themselves from lashing out in unproductive ways, of course:
Until now, though the issue has been gaining increasing media attention, it has stayed largely within a fairly insular circle of wonks and transportation advocates. With the involvement of major unions such as those listed above, the Vision Zero conflict threatens to break into wider consciousness. And that’s a particular issue because for the last 60 years organized labor has played a major role in the coalition pushing for stronger transit in the US. In an example I’m choosing mostly because it’s one I have researched extensively, construction unions played a key role in Philadelphia’s decision to build the Center City Commuter Tunnel (although admittedly, the opening of the tunnel played a role in open conflict between SEPTA management and the operating unions, but that’s a different story). Now, with TWU Local 100 playing the leading role in helping labor choose solidarity with itself over solidarity with the broader progressive movement, the coalition that has traditionally supported transit in this country threatens to fall apart.
Certainly, there are already some urbanist and transit wonks who think that’s not a bad thing:
There’s no doubt that labor has stood in the way of some needed innovations in American transit–operational techniques and technologies that are in wide distribution even in heavily-unionized European countries. At the same time, labor still offers unparalleled organization and muscle for getting out the vote and building support for transit, qualities that a new transit coalition will be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. There is a tipping point, though, at which labor’s embrace of regressive politics and often Luddite approach to technological innovation outweighs its contribution to the transit coalition, and if we’re not there yet, clearly many feel we are heading in that direction.
There’s more than a whiff of Monty Python to the TWU/safe streets fight.
As Brian so futilely tries to point out to his struggling comrades, there’s a common enemy here, and that’s American car culture and the wasteful and unsafe spending on roads and highways that it gives birth to. It’s worth remembering that Life of Brian was in part intended to satirize the fractious politics of the British Left, whose inability to come together got them massacred by the Romans (or rather by Margaret Thatcher, I suppose). At this point, it’s hard to anticipate a labor-transit wonk reconciliation. But if break up we must, can we at least try not to condemn the future we once could have built together?