Corey Johnson Q&A

Hi, subscribers! As promised, here is the full Q&A with Corey Johnson. I’ve included the snippets that ran in the free edition to avoid any confusion. If you don’t want to read them again, you can just scroll to the next question.

Quick reminder: as I mentioned in Monday’s preview, Rob Newman and Kelly Taylor, Counsel and Deputy Counsel to the Speaker, were also present because they worked on the report. Also, the interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

Aaron Gordon: Since your speakership began it was very obvious to me that you were making transportation a key focus. When did that formulate in your mind and how did you settle on that?

Corey Johnson: I don't know when or if there was a moment that I made a conscious decision on that. But you know, I've lived in New York since 2001 when I was 19 years old. I've never owned a car, even growing up when I got my permit and driver's license. I've always been a mass transit user. I've used the subways and buses basically every day I've lived in New York City for almost 20 years.

So for me, as I said in the speech, the subways and the buses is where New York happens. It's where you see daily life in New York City. It's where you see frustrations, is where you see romance, it's where you see homeless people, it's where you see—

AG: Dance parties.

Johnson: —Dance parties. It's where you see good parenting and bad parenting. It's where you see it all.

Kelly Taylor: Rats.

Johnson: Rats.

I'm curious if there was a political strategy behind this, if you saw a vacuum that you could fill.

Well, I haven't been hesitant—I don't think any elected official should be—in saying when I was wrong. So I said that I was wrong and I regretted not understanding the implications on not doing something earlier on for-hire vehicles in 2015 before I was speaker, when I wasn't a sponsor of the legislation that was done. And I said I wish I had understood then because the problem got much worse.

I raised that point because when I was on Community Board Four, I believe it was 2006 that the Department of Transportation came and installed the protected bike lane on Ninth Avenue between 14th Street and 23rd street. And then they proposed the protected bike lane between 14th Street and 23rd on Eighth avenue. And I was an opponent, I was a vocal opponent on the community board. I was a vocal opponent because I didn't understand, I wasn't educated. I was, I guess, fearful of change. I sort of understand when people get afraid of something they are used to changing, especially the street that they walked down every single day and what that means.

And I think that was actually a key moment for me. I'm actually kind of grateful that I was opposed because it showed—that process showed me that I had been wrong and that there was information out there that showed how important these bike lanes were.

And I use that as an analogy because that was a learning lesson for me, and my district has been, I think a really good blueprint for what could happen as it relates to bike lanes, protected bike lanes.

What changed your mind on that?

The data of accidents for pedestrians and cyclists. What you see at intersections that didn't have pedestrian islands for shorter cross times, that didn't have protected bike lanes, that didn't have LPI [leading pedestrian interval] signals, that didn't have that, that data convinced me.

And then once the bike lanes were in, I thought this works. It makes sense. I mean there's still a big problem in my district and I think across the city about delivery double parking where there's protected bike lanes.


It does create some choke point issues in that area, that has to do with enforcement though and congestion pricing and having less trucks come into the city. That's sort of the point there. That's what convinced me there.

And as I've said, I think the way we get around every single day on subways and buses and walking and cycling and all the ways we get around, it's sort of the most egalitarian thing about New York City. Everyone has to get to work. Everyone has to get home. Everyone has to get their kid to school. It's the way to, I think, affect the most number of people on a day-to-day basis. And that was the prism, or lens, that I was looking at it through.

What cities were you looking to as models as you were formulating this report?

Well, Rob and Kelly were the ones who, and their team, spent months doing extensive research on what other municipalities in the United States and around the world were doing. They can chime in specifically. But I would say, I think we took a look at what's happened in Berlin and how Berlin has sort of planned their streets. And I mean, they have a sort of a street car monorail system, the U-Bahn I think it's called. They have that and there are cities in Spain, I think Barcelona and Madrid have done some forward thinking street planning.

And then there are other cities. I think Scandinavia has been really forward thinking and about how they use their streets. Amsterdam is a major bike culture as we know. We looked at a bunch of different cities in Europe and we looked at what other cities in the United States had done, what had worked for them and what sort of could be improved on. Am I missing anything?

Taylor: It's mostly Europe. They are light-years ahead of us when it comes to particularly re-thinking car culture, cities in Europe-

Johnson: Pedestrian spaces.

Taylor: Planned streets around, pedestrians and cyclists.

The reason I asked is because a lot of, I think one of the most salient criticisms about New York, when it comes to transportation, it's very insular and, especially now that congestion pricing is in the fold, that it's always limiting comparing itself to these three other cities that do congestion pricing.

I don't know if that's entirely true. I understand that criticism, especially as it relates to NIMBYism and not having a master plan and doing it in a piecemeal way. But I think it's important to say that Janette Sadik-Khan was sort of a revolutionary when she came in and said we're doing protected bike lanes, we're putting Citibike on the streets of New York City, we're pedestrianizing Times Square, we're pedestrianizing Herald Square. We're doing it even though ..." At that moment in time it wasn't super popular. I mean, there was a lot of pushback. She, as a DOT commissioner, who was empowered by the then-mayor [Bloomberg], was able to do substantial things by looking at other cities around the world and what they had done.

And those things that you gotta actually prove to be successful and popular, the pedestrianizing and the bike lanes and the Citibike, it then became, I think a greater roadmap to build on that. And then you add on the Mayor looking at Europe as example on Vision Zero and it being sort of a cornerstone of an early part of his administration. I do think that we have taken pieces from what other places around the world have done and tried to incorporate. I think what’s been missing is sort of a master plan that ties all of it together for the entire city.

You mentioned you were part of the opposition on a protected bike lane project at one point [he did mention this earlier in the conversation, which we talked about and will be in the full Q&A]. Obviously community involvement is always part of these projects to some degree. And as I was reading the report, one of the things I was interested in learning more about is how you manage the community involvement process while at the same time trying to do all this so much faster at a much larger scale than we currently do. Because as the report notes that community process can often be a source of friction. How do you manage those two goals of both wanting the community involved and also doing things on a much larger scale?

The honest answer is I'm not sure because anything you do in New York City in hundreds of distinct neighborhoods where people feel like their little—both neighborhood and then their block—is sort of their little village in their little home. Anything you do when you make changes it's going to stir some level of anxiety and opposition. I think if you use data, if you have other successful examples in the city, if you talk about it in a comprehensive master plan-like way, where it doesn't seem like this is just being imposed only on them, but it's a plan for the entire city, you can sell it in a way that still allows for community input but also says you don't get to entirely fend off this project. We’ll work with you, there might be some hyper local issues and concerns that could improve this project or that we haven't thought about from a local perspective but I think it's sort of an amalgam of those two things.

And there's no, I think, set path or plan on anything you really do in New York City. I mean, look at the ULURP process. You have a designated clock that works in some ways, but you know, there's opposition, there's support. It goes up, it goes down, it gets negotiated. Some things get included, some things don't get included. I think it would be similar to that.

It kind of reminds me of something that, I don't know if you guys looked at Sevilla in Spain, but they're, one of their officials was talking about how they managed to put in dozens of miles protected bike lanes in like less than a year or something like that. He basically said when they approach the community, it's not a negotiation. It's not a discussion about whether it happens. It's a question of how it happens.

I think you can negotiate on the details, but not on the overall vision. You can potentially tinker with things if it makes sense. And if it's fact-based. But you can't allow for a wholesale watering down a comprehensive street planning transit vision for New York City.

One thing I said, I think it was in my first week as being speaker when I was asked about this in a sort of semi-analogous way as it relates for the land use process. I said, I am a person who is going to, as speaker, work to get other members to a place of yes. Not to a place of “no, if” or “no, but” or “no, maybe”. But yes, we want to do this. How do we get it done?

There will always be some changes and some negotiation that happens in anything in life and in New York City. But I think you need to commit from the viewpoint of, we want to get this done, this needs to get done, how do we get it done? And I think one of the ways to do that is to go out and sell it. You need people with a level of enthusiasm who can sell the plan, and you need top-notch management who can go out there and do it.

I actually think DOT right now does a pretty good job on most of their projects at going out and making the case. But again, it's all done in a piecemeal fashion. They're selling it in a piecemeal way. They're talking about this one corner, this one block, this one intersection, and it's not tied to a grander master plan.

Taylor: And that's why we set the benchmarks as well. You figure out how to do it, but you got to get x number miles of bus lanes, x number of miles of bike lanes, I think that helps balance it out too.

Do you envision if this plan moves forward coming up with what all those miles of bus and bike lanes would be at once and then putting it out to the city as a whole? Or would you continue this kind of process of doing it bit by bit?

Let me just start saying this. I'm not mayor.

I have read some articles to the contrary.

I know but I'm not. I'm not mayor. I don't manage the agencies. Commissioners don't report to me. Deputy mayors don't report to me. I am super happy and excited and will be forever grateful to be Speaker of the City Council when I'm gone from here. And that means that we have legislative authority and oversight authority. But we can't dictate how an agency actually does some of this stuff.

So I think part of the idea and goal is to set benchmarks to them, do oversight on those benchmarks, and to see what their plans are in a proactive way on annual basis to require them to file a comprehensive plan and a report. And go out and work with council members and communities on what it should look like.

We threw in some things in that plan, like pedestrianizing Bedford Ave in Williamsburg and doing things like that. And we tried to give some ideas of what you can actually do. But the council's not in the position to, and the speaker and even in the individual council members, not in the position to dictate entirely the DOT, which the mayoral agency, what exactly they're going to plan, but we can give guideposts and metrics that we expect to be followed. Is that correct?

Rob Newman: Yeah. They [DOT] have to do the study to tell us, but we don't know where those routes are now. It doesn't work unless your neighbors are getting the same treatment. There will be a plan, a vision, let's say, for the city. And then we'll have to go out and work out the details.

You talk about breaking car culture. What do you view as the role of the of a car in New York City?

Well, I think it’s sort of a philosophical question-

It is. But you seem like a philosophical guy.

I think that when we make public policy decisions on the budget through legislation in most areas, we typically should be in most instances trying to do policy-making that affects and helps the most number of people on a daily basis. And that's what mass transit does, every single day. When you couple that with the frightening existential threat that climate change poses to the world and to a coastal city that had to go through a tragedy like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 less than a decade ago, it really shows that we need to move away from private automobile use and we need to invest and be creative and innovative as it relates to doing more environmentally sustainable and friendly things. And the best way to do that is to help subways and buses and pedestrians and cyclists and other forms of getting around which is better for the environment and helps the most number of people.

There are some individuals for whatever reason who do need cars. It could be an individual who has mobility impairments. It could a senior citizen who lives near an inaccessible subway station or can't get on the bus and they have medical appointment somewhere far away and they need to get there. We're not saying that cars are going to go away, but cars can't be the priority. And for too long we're still living, as I said, in the Robert Moses rubric and paradigm in the five boroughs and of the entire metropolitan region. Look at the way the bridges were built so that people of color couldn't get to Jones Beach [AG: Moses intentionally built the clearances on the parkway too low for buses]. We're still living in that era and it's time for us to move away from that and to say that we're never going to eliminate car use, but we shouldn't make them the ultimate priority, the king, and the vehicle that is paramount in our policy making decision process.

And I should also say just because I think it's always important to just be very, Jacob [Tugendrajch, his press officer, also in the room] is gonna kick me. I always try to be just brutally honest and talk about my own, I don't know if ‘deficiencies’ is the right way to put it, but just the reality is: now that I'm speaker I do use a car. NYPD drives me around. I don't use it for everything. I take the subway most mornings. I didn't take it today, but I took it every day earlier this week and I think almost every day last week. So it would be hypocritical of me to sit here with you or any transit advocate or any member of the press and pretend like I don't use a car.

I mean, I don't drive the car myself, but when I can use the subway, I use the subway. Some of it has to do with the crazy schedule. Sometimes I have to be out in Queens Village and then back in midtown all within the course of 90 minutes. And sometimes the car makes the most sense for that. And so I don't want to sit here today and act in a holier-than-thou way, and also understand that there are certain realities that exist for individuals, but those realities that exist for individuals should not be the realities that affects our decision making processes for the overall good of the most number of New Yorkers and the future of our city.

Newman: Can I just add something? You know, it's interesting that you say that there are people that may need a car, but there are also people that think they really need a car, like me. I gave up my car six, seven months ago, something like that. But it's when we start changing the culture and making bus service better, pedestrianizing places, making it easier to get around as transit—

Johnson: Rapid Bus Transit

Newman: —Right. That I lose that or the thought starts to change. Maybe I don't need a car. And so I think that's a lot about what breaking the car culture means.

Johnson: And the other thing just too, not to be cute on this. I actually think most New Yorkers, like real New Yorkers, like people who live here and lived here for a while, grew up here, lived here for a good amount of time that didn't move here within the last three years when subways and buses started to get worse and worse and worse, I think most New Yorkers actually like taking the subway.

Or at least-

When it works.

Or at least they like living in a city where you don't need a car. I think it's the draw for a lot of people, especially if you move here from car-centric cities. It's great to ditch your car for most people, especially if the alternative is driving a car in a very dense city with lots of traffic.

I was in LA over Christmas and I was like how do these people do this every single day? This is insane.

Every once in a while I get an email from a reader who asks about municipal control. They're like, "That seems like a good idea, but what would that look like?" And I'd respond, "Good question." Nobody has really thought about it in a very systemic way until this plan came out, which is why I was excited to see it. It seems very thoughtful. It seems like you guys really put a lot of care into it.

But it kind of reinforced a question that I've had all along. It’s not an issue with your research, or your report. It’s just the situation. In order to do this, it seems like you need a large degree of buy-in from the state. And I don't know why the state would ever agree to give up power over the MTA. It gives them an awful lot of negotiating power over city issues. How do you get the state to that point?

I think that's sort of an impossible question to answer only because I never thought that Eliot Spitzer would only be governor for like 14 months. And I never thought that after Andrew Cuomo lost to Carl McCall in 2002 he'd come back as the attorney general four years later or that Anthony Weiner wouldn't run in 2009 for mayor. Crises happen which then sometimes spur action to actually do certain things. And so, I'm not saying that in a dismissive way. All I'm saying is the building block to get something done, if there's an opportunity, is number one having a plan that makes sense, that is defensible, that you could sell, that experts and policy makers say this is a real thing. You actually can achieve this. It's not a pie-in-the-sky utopian fantasy, but something that could actually get done. That's the first step.

The next step is actually getting public support. Again, I don't say this in a, I'm not saying this is about me. I'm saying it generally. If you look at, and I'm not comparing municipal control to the civil rights movements, but it's a good point to make: if you look at the African American civil rights movement, the LGBT civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, these are all movements that were led by people, not politicians. And these were movements that got politicians to move in the right direction where there's enough pressure.

I think Families For Safe Streets have done that. I think they've done that on safety issues around communities and speed cameras and pedestrianization and reckless driving and changing the verbiage from accident to crash. So I think with a well-organized group of people who can make the case on a public policy issue, they're the ones that can typically get elected officials to do the right thing and move in the right direction. And I think that's part of the reason why you saw, not that there was widespread opposition to the mayor's plan, but I don't think there was tremendous enthusiasm from other elected officials for universal pre-K, but I think the public was like, "This sounds good. I'm going to get free childcare for my four year old." And it makes sense and it's good public policy and I think the public's support for universal pre-K is what laid the groundwork to get the money from Albany to get it done.

I think this is the same thing. It's a long-term plan. It's setting the table, it's building public support, which I've seen a tremendous amount of public support just in a little more than a week since we gave the speech and I think that's the first step. Then the long-term strategy, is to go and sell this to the legislature and to the governor to make the case, to have a very, hopefully, intellectually serious argument and discussion about it.

And then, I don't know if I'm going to be the next mayor but hopefully whoever the next mayor is, this will be a roadmap for them on how to get it done. And I think if someone does get this done, they'll go down in the history books as someone who did something extraordinarily significant for the city of New York for the next century.

The Governor is not exactly known as someone who has intellectually rigorous arguments about things, if I may say so myself. I won't put words in your mouth. But he seems to be a creature of power, a creature of political power. And what this report, whether it's this governor or any other governor, what this report fundamentally does is, it’s asking many state law makers to give up power over an entity they have historically used to gain concessions on issues that do matter to them and their constituents. And so I guess, as like a political truism, I'm curious how you get them to do it.

The same thing with school boards. That was the same thing with the school boards. Local elected officials had an enormous amount of sway on those local school boards on who the local superintendent was, who got elected to those school boards, or who got the jobs, in the schools, in the district. It was a patronage mill for people and both state legislators and members of the city council had an enormous amount of sway on those school boards. And people said, because of the level of sway that elected officials have, you're never going to be able to break this up. It's politically impossible though from a policy perspective, probably the right thing to do. And the case was made, people organized.

Newman: Took a while.

Johnson: Took a long time, but it happened. Do I think people give up power willingly or in a happy-go-lucky way? No. And that's why it's important to build public support and build a movement around this. And I think, hopefully that's what we'll do.

I didn't see the value capture proposed as part of, as a revenue strategy for BAT—which by the way, really going out on a limb there that this report would be good and people wouldn't be calling it BATshit.

Yeah. That's great.

Really went out on a limb there. Anyways, I was curious if you considered value capture and if so, why it didn't make a potential revenue stream.

I think there are some serious concerns about how it's structured, but it's still potentially a good thing to do. But the details really matter. The concern is the way that the state could structure it, is they get structured in a way where you are really potentially zapping tens or hundreds of millions, or multiple billions, of dollars from the city's budget through our property taxes, which is the main source of revenue for the city of New York, in a way that can start to seriously affect other parts of the budget, the school system, sanitation, core city services.

Taylor: We focused on getting the system back to the state of good repair. But I think if you're talking about future expansion, value capture would be a huge part of it.

I focus a lot of my coverage on the MTA on not so much these higher-level governance restructuring issues, but management issues. Do you think it’s possible to pursue a solution that focuses on better management rather than a complicated restructuring?

No I don't. I think that it's very easy for elected officials to criticize failures in government based solely on budgetary constraints and issues. Of course the MTA has suffered because they haven't been funded in the way that's been necessary. Similarly, NYCHA public housing haven't got the resources they need. But in both those instances, both in NYCHA and at the MTA, there has been a failure of top-level management and mid-level management to actually get things done. And what you see is, if you get a competent manager that comes in, even with the scarcity of resources that currently exist, they can turn things around in small ways like Andy Byford has done with the subway numbers that came out the end of last year and the improvements that we've seen and the speeding up of trains and the station cleanliness issues and all these other things.

But the core reason why we need municipal control is the system is set up to deflect accountability. And until you have real accountability, not to a faceless, nameless board that 99 percent of New Yorkers couldn't name a single board member. Probably 80 percent of New Yorkers don't know who Andy Byford is. You need someone who ultimately the buck stops with. That they're the ones that when things are going well they get credit. When things are not going well, they get blamed. And on a day-to-day basis when things need to be improved and where there needs to be a course correction, that person ultimately has responsibility. And I think that is why it makes sense.

None of these things are totally analogous. But one of the examples we used was the water board. We're known for having some of the best water in the world and actually the water system is a lot more complex than people realize with drilling additional tunnels and the reservoirs and all that stuff in the water rates and how it all works. But ultimately the mayor is the person who has to deal with that. They appoint the water board and if things went wrong, the mayor would have to deal with that. Now, luckily things haven't gone wrong, so no one ever thinks about the water board but in this instance you need to model it off of that.

What I consider to be the original sin of the subway is making the five-cent fare law [the fare was legally restricted to five cents until 1948]. Any politician who said no we gotta raise the fare because the system just doesn't have enough money, they wouldn't win the next election. I find it interesting to talk about how there needs to be one person in control when no politician wants to say that fares have to be raised. How do you get past that?

Well, again, the city, I think in the past probably unfairly raised water rates at a percentage that some would say is too high, but I don't see people rioting in the streets over their water rates going up. They may not like it, but if the water's working and their homes are being valued at a good rate then it seems okay.

I think that one of the things, we cannot have municipal control in the way the governor tried to talk about last week on the radio [Cuomo’s position is the city can stop leasing the subway to the MTA whenever it wants but he will cut off all state funding if they do], which is you can't hand us a ticking time bomb without the authority to actually have the tools at our disposal to fix it, which is why we need greater local taxing authority. And if we had greater local taxing authority, then you actually may not have to worry about fare increases. You could maybe reduce fares. You could maybe have free fares. You could actually maybe have a progressive fare system that depended on your income, you could do all sorts of things, but unless you had the freedom on taxation, you can't even have that conversation.

And that is another reason why structurally municipal control makes more sense. Ultimately you can be more creative in the future instead of balancing the budget on the backs of riders every single time things go poorly. That's what happens right now. It's a system that is set up to fall on the backs of riders and especially on poor riders. If you have municipal control with greater authority you wouldn't have to do that.

What are the next steps?

Well, the next step should be talk to people like you and to other folks. I've been out there and talking every single day. I was on a Brian Lehrer on Monday talking about this. I was on Good Day New York yesterday talking about this. I was on Inside City Hall last week and on Pat Kiernan show in the morning on NY1. I think starting the conversation with the press is really important to put the idea out there in the ether for the public. We are promoting it a lot on social media. We're going to continue to do that, continue to hammer it and bang the drum on it in a way that creates a greater level of public consciousness.

I've had some preliminary discussions, nothing serious and it was before the report was finalized, with Senators Comrie and Kennedy, Comrie because he leads the corporations committee in the state Senate and Kennedy because he's the chair of the transportation committee in the Senate.

And so I'll start to have individual conversations with members of the legislature. If the Governor wants to discuss it, I'll discuss it with him. I don't know if that will happen anytime soon.

And so there'll be a process to sell it to the public and then start to have conversations with members of the state legislature and the Governor about why this is the best course of action and then hopefully get some of the other advocacy groups like Riders Alliance and Transportation Alternatives and Families For Safe Streets and other groups that focus on these type of issues to hopefully get on board at a certain point.

We are in a difficult spot right now because, I think folks feel the funding—it's not really a funding crisis because there's plenty of money. It's more of a—

Glad to hear you say that.

—because we wanted the congestion pricing done so badly, because we want to create additional revenue streams for greater flexibility in the future for the MTA. I think people are focused on those things and not on something as creative, outside-the-box, innovative and forward thinking as this. And so once hopefully we achieve some of those things like congestion pricing, like potentially some management and governance reforms internally at the MTA, even outside of municipal control, then that will lead us and give us an opening to have a greater conversation about municipal control.