Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Inside New York City, the mayor's insistence on driving to the gym is maddening. But national voters would probably give him a pass.
Why is Bill de Blasio so disliked in the city he leads? Given the reports that the New York City mayor will soon announce his plans to run for president, it’s a question that’s been getting some national attention.
On paper, de Blasio’s bona fides with progressive Democrats are robust. In many ways, he has steered an already-deep-blue city into more liberal waters since taking office in 2014. He has given New York the nation’s first universal pre-K program, paid sick days by private employers, and an expansion of affordable housing. And now he can claim to have shepherded some of the most aggressive climate mitigation legislation in the U.S.
But de Blasio detractors often say he comes across as arrogant. He talks like a snooty professor, they say; he’s constantly late; he prefers the quiet confines of Gracie Mansion as an office to “distracting” City Hall. And then there’s the detail that New Yorkers often cite as a revealing character flaw, but that most Americans would find utterly unremarkable: In a city that depends on public transit, the guy can’t seem to quit his car.
Specifically, on many mornings, the mayor takes a 12-mile chauffeured ride—usually in the back of an SUV, security detail in tow—from his residence on the Upper East Side to exercise in his old Brooklyn neighborhood.
Outside of New York City, these morning jaunts probably wouldn’t raise any brows. The average American, after all, drives around 24 miles a day alone in a personal vehicle, and 90 percent get to work via car. But the typical New Yorker logged only nine as of 2010, and a majority of households do not own cars. It’s one thing to rely on vehicles as a means towards economic mobility. But as a means to work out? BDB’s driving habits can feel out of touch—a classic mismatch of public progressivism masking private hypocrisy.
It’s more than the gym trips, though. On past campaign trails, de Blasio has openly waved his motorist-pride flag, casting doubt, for example, on whether the new(ish)ly pedestrianized Time Square should remain so. This feels increasingly disconnected from his role leading a transit-reliant, walking metropolis where vehicle-miles, pedestrian fatalities, and congestion are rising, and the trains are falling into disrepair. New York City’s transit crisis isn’t the mayor’s responsibility, technically—the subway system falls under the purview of the state’s governor, with whom de Blasio is often feuding—but the riders now fleeing for Ubers and private cars are.
De Blasio’s disdain for transit shows in his uninspired efforts to improve mobility for New Yorkers: His major moves include expanding a ferry service that’s accessible to a tiny fraction of commuters (and doesn’t integrate with MTA service), touting a streetcar proposal for the Brooklyn waterfront (also with no MTA connections), and cracking down on e-bike delivery workers.
It might behoove the top politico of one of the planet’s largest and most influential cities to model climate-conscientious behavior. Transportation is the leading source of U.S. carbon emissions, and 30 percent of New York City’s. De Blasio’s new mega-climate package calls for slashing 40 percent of the Big Apple’s carbon footprint by 2030, including by expanding low-impact modes of mobility. But the initiative falls short in critical ways: There are no specific targets for reducing vehicle-miles traveled, parking spots, or registered vehicles. And instead of showing how New Yorkers can pitch in to help reach that goal, de Blasio ostentatiously contributes to the problem, rarely opting for a bike, bus, or train ride.
No doubt, the travel habits of progressive politicians can draw unreasonable criticism. Elected leaders have unique security needs and time constraints, and they must participate in the society that they are also trying to change. People can’t expect them to take trains to every obligation, even if the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg manages it. De Blasio has explained that his regular YMCA jaunts are his way of staying rooted: “I want to be someone who sees the world through the prism of the neighborhood I come from in Brooklyn and remembers where I came from and all the people who have been part of the life here,” he has said.
But in 2019, it’s not hard to see why those Park Slope trips in particular can come off as more self-indulgent than salt-of-the-earth. Would-be climate leaders have to do more than pay lip service to behavioral change.
Now, administrative crises are stacking up across the city, and de Blasio is being criticized for a lack of focus. This might help explain why more than three-quarters of registered voters in the city believe that their mayor should not run for president, according to an April poll by Quinnipiac University, which an analyst called a “a rare moment of unity among New Yorkers.” Last week, a few Park Slope residents even took action: Faux-municipal notices posted to the door of the mayor’s favorite gym warned him not to lose sight of his current job. “By entering these premises you agree not to run for President of the United States in 2020 or in any future presidential race,” the fliers read. Outside the Big Apple, the mayor’s prospects for Washington look bleak: A national poll in March found that he was the only Democratic contender with a sub-zero favorability rating.
Recently, de Blasio has been turning new leafs on transportation. Last month, the mayor committed to speeding up bus service. In March, he finally endorsed a road-tolling policy that would ease congestion, after years of refusing to support it. A couple of months ago, de Blasio even stepped onto an MTA platform, an occasion accompanied by a special schedule announcement and a coterie of reporters. “What I gleaned,” he told the press, “is people really depend on their subways. They need their subways to work and they are frustrated.” They are, and with some of the longest commutes in the country, New Yorkers could use a leader committed to making them a little smoother, safer, and less damaging to the planet. The mayor’s recent awakening to these needs is encouraging; here’s hoping he keeps it up.
Should he decide to throw his hat in the presidential ring, it’s possible that de Blasio’s weakest local issue could be converted into a strength. Preferring a car to a bus, after all, just puts him in line with the vast majority of the nation’s driver-voters. Perhaps de Blasio’s resistance to practicing the principles behind his own climate policies will strike the broader electorate as “relatable” rather than “maddening”: He’s hardly alone in failing to make the kind of lifestyle changes that many of us probably know we should make. Outside the boroughs, driving an SUV to the gym doesn’t make you an outsider. Most places, it just makes you American.