Mayor Bloomberg’s Persistent Sustainability Agenda

l bag Mayor Bloombergs Persistent Sustainability Agenda

The past several weeks we once again saw the Mayor at his best and at his worst.  At his worst, he berated a NY Observer reporter who raised the issue of term limits. At his best, he demonstrated the political courage to experiment with banning cars from parts of Times Square and Herald Square, and pushed hard, if unsuccessfully, to get  the City Council to tax plastic bags.

Taxing Plastic Bags:

The Mayor would like to tax plastic bags to generate revenues and to lower expenses by reducing the volume of solid waste. Every bag that’s tossed in the garbage adds to the city’s waste disposal bill. On May 29, Celeste Katz and Frank Lombardi reported in the Daily News that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was opposed to the tax. In their piece they quoted a number of City Council members, several of whom did not even have the guts to go on the record:

“We just don’t want it,” said one Brooklyn Council member, who asked not to be identified because the budget negotiations are supposed to be confidential. “It’s just another tax on working people.”   “There’s extreme resistance on our side of the building [the Council side of City Hall],” said another member. “For me, it’s a nickel tax on food.”  Councilman Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx) said: “I personally support it [the fee] because I want to discourage the use of plastic bags.  “Consumers can avoid the fee by bringing their own bags or using paper bags. But the speaker is not a supporter. She’s taking a position that is popular with many of the members.”  

Koppell is, of course correct. This is a tax that can easily be avoided by asking for paper bags, or bringing your own bag when you shop. Plenty of grocery stores have already begun to sell canvas shopping bags and even without the tax, you see these cloth bags more often than before. The plastic bag tax is really a convenience tax. In a sense it is similar to the deposit on beverage bottles. Many people simply toss the bottle in the garbage and can’t be bothered to return it for deposit. Poor people scavenge garbage bags for bottles, but still, many deposits are never recovered.  There are some differences between bottle deposits and the tax on plastic bags.  While bottle deposits can’t be avoided, the nickle tax on plastic bags can be saved by bringing a bag with you. The idea that this is a tax on food or the working poor is completely absurd. This is the City Council at its inexplicable worst. This is Mayor Bloomberg cleverly combining revenue generation with a sustainability agenda. While in the end he had to give in on the plastic bag tax, you get the feeling that we might see the proposal come up again some time in the future.

Banning Cars from Times and Herald Squares:

According to the Department of Transportation web site: “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan are beginning a pilot program, “Green Light for Midtown,” to reduce traffic congestion throughout Midtown Manhattan via targeted improvements on Broadway, focused at Times and Herald Squares.”   The plan, which was put into effect the day after Memorial Day, closes two sections of Broadway to vehicles, from 47th to 42nd Streets and 35th to 33rd Streets.

According to the Department of Transportation, over 356,000 people walk through Times Square each day, and even though “there are 4.5 as many people as vehicles, only 11% of the space is currently allocated for pedestrians.” While the change is not popular with some cabbies, most of the initial reaction has been positive.  The Bloomberg Administration considers it an experiment and will evaluate its impact on people, traffic and business—before deciding whether to make the street closings permanent.

Sustainability as Smart City Management:

What is characteristic about the Bloomberg Administration’s approach to sustainability management is that it typically involves reducing environmental impacts while creating economic wealth. In addition to reducing pollution and the use of natural resources, they focus on cost effectiveness and the impact on New York’s businesses, residents and visitors. This is not environmental protection for its own sake, but sustainable development with the goal of improving the city’s economic well being and quality of life. Two of the goals of New York City’s sustainability plan illustrate this point: 1.) Planting a million trees reduces our carbon footprint, but also makes the city cooler in the summer and a more pleasant place to be. 2.) Making sure that a park is within a ten minute walk of everyone who lives here does the same thing, while raising the value of real estate. Times Square and Herald Square are ridiculously crowded for most of the day and night. During some times of the day it’s nearly impossible to window shop, or even hold a conversation,  as you’re carried along on a moving river of pedestrians determined to get to the next corner. It’s not clear how to fix the problem, but prohibiting cars and trucks is worth a try.

The ban on vehicles also makes the point that the city does not need to defer to the almighty auto in every instance. Sometimes pedestrians come first. In this incredibly dense place, one way to reclaim some space for parkland is to take it away from vehicles. Obviously, this must be done carefully and gradually, like the experiment in mid-town Manhattan. The path to a sustainable city is not a straight line. Public amenities, reductions in the waste stream, and energy efficiency are all important elements- and are all part of Mayor Bloomberg’s impressive sustainability effort. Now, if only he can figure out how to deal with reporters he finds annoying….