Bloomberg’s traffic ideas hit the world before coming home

By Matt Flegenheimer  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Thu, Jul 18, 2013 - Page 9

The roads may soon teem with miles of new bike lanes, made possible by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In Turkey.

High-capacity buses zip through exclusive traffic corridors, part of Bloomberg’s bet that better public transit options will discourage private car use. In Brazil and Mexico.

In Egypt, between the uprisings in the streets, speed-tracking cameras were hung along the Ring Road of Cairo. They resemble the ones expected to reach New York City, eventually, under a bill approved in Albany, New York, last month.

Though often hamstrung at home by headstrong state lawmakers, an entrenched taxi industry, and a city in which even a single bike lane can inspire years of litigation, Bloomberg has found success overseas in pushing — and financing — a global transportation agenda during his final years as the mayor of New York City.

Since 2007, Bloomberg’s charitable foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has committed more than US$130 million toward traffic policy and road safety worldwide, outstripping donations for every cause except the reduction of tobacco use.

He has personally presented children with yellow riding helmets in Hanoi, Vietnam and helped assemble a fleet of auto-rickshaws in Rajkot, India. He has lobbied successfully to drive down the legal blood-alcohol limit in Guadalajara, Mexico — where “tequila and roads just don’t mix,” he said in 2011 — and he has armed police in Cambodia with Breathalyzer equipment.

As a result, traffic policy and public health experts say, Bloomberg has emerged as perhaps the world’s leading transportation force, acting as a catalyst abroad for helmets, seat belts, and slower speeds at the same time that bright blue bikes and pedestrian plazas have been affixed to his local legacy.

“We have never seen anything like this,” the WHO’s Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability director Etienne Krug said. “This is by far the largest international road safety project ever.”

As a global cause, traffic safety is of a piece with Bloomberg’s past public health pushes — from a proposed ban on large sodas in New York to his bid to improve maternal welfare in Tanzania. He hopes to prod as much change as possible as quickly as possible, current and former advisers say, displaying two of his hallmark qualities: impatience and a thirst for wide-scale influence.

Without intervention, traffic crashes will become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030, according to the WHO. Bloomberg’s charity has focused on many large cities and on 10 countries, including China, India and Russia, that account for roughly half of the world’s road-related deaths.

“We’re not as rich as you guys in New York,” Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes said, where Bloomberg is aiding the installation of four new bus rapid transit corridors in preparation for soccer’s 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Bloomberg’s example is so rousing that Rio de Janeiro has elected to lift other ideas from New York without a dollar of his help, Paes said. He said there were plans for a large bike lane expansion and the use of an information hot line, 1746, modeled on Bloomberg’s 311 system.

In New York, though, Bloomberg often has been stymied on matters of transportation. The state controls the subways. His pitch for congestion-based pricing languished. A plan for a near-uniform fleet of yellow taxis — the first major redesign since the age of the Checker cab — was invalidated in court, though the city passed a new set of rules last month in the hopes of reviving it.

At times, his frustration has shown. In May, according to a lawsuit brought against Bloomberg by one of the plaintiffs in the taxi case, Bloomberg threatened: “When I am out of office, I will destroy your industry,” adding an expletive, during an altercation at a New York Knicks game. Bloomberg initially said that he did not recall the conversation, but he seemed to allude to the episode on his radio show days before the suit was filed.

In March, as it became clear that momentum for speed-tracking cameras had stalled in Albany, Bloomberg assailed state lawmakers, blaming them by name for the future deaths of children killed by speeding cars. In last month’s vote the three senators he mentioned all supported the speed camera bill.

In American cities outside of New York, Bloomberg’s transportation footprint is less pronounced, for now. His transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, has attracted a national following amid the expansion of bike lanes, the introduction of the bike-share program in May, and speaking often in other cities about the mayor’s local transportation feats.

Bloomberg has cast his philanthropy as an extension of his local initiatives. He invoked his foundation work last week at a news conference hailing the passage of speed camera legislation. In a 2011 speech, Bloomberg cited New York City’s expanded medians, recalibrated traffic signals, and better-regulated pedicab industry as he explained his broader traffic goals.

“Our record of improving safety in New York encouraged me to try to replicate this same success around the world,” he said. “Road safety has not typically been a top priority, yet the number of lives that could potentially be saved is incredible.”

He has long taken particular pride in the city’s falling traffic fatality numbers during his tenure, though the 274 traffic-related deaths of 2012 were the most in the city since 2008.

While the mayor’s philanthropy has hit the occasional roadblock abroad, some stumbles have been understandable. Since installing the speed-cameras, among other efforts, the foundation has suspended operations in Egypt amid political upheaval, with officers ill-positioned to enforce speed limits.

“The police were too busy with other things,” Krug said.

In India, where Bloomberg’s team has evaluated 4,200km of high-risk roads for potential safety improvements, helmet laws have proved difficult to enforce without setting off religious tensions, Krug said. Some Sikhs have interpreted the laws as discriminatory against those who wear turbans.

Across many regions, Bloomberg has made strides quickly. In Suzhou, China — where more than half of road-traffic hospitalizations were related to electric bike crashes, according to the foundation — program officials helped draft new electric bike regulations. In Vietnam motorcycle helmet use has more than doubled, to 90 percent, since Bloomberg and the foundation’s partners helped pass a national helmet law.

The foundation estimates that its efforts will save at least 13,000 lives over a five-year project period.

For Bloomberg, the work has supplied a useful credential to cite during local disputes, like the tussle over helmet use for the new bike-share program in New York. The administration once supported a mandatory helmet law for cyclists, but has since resisted calls to require helmets. Officials have said that mandating helmets depresses ridership.

Questioned last year about the stance, the mayor produced his trump card: “Well, look,” he said, “keep in mind my foundation works on traffic safety.”