As a New York City resident, I have had more than two months to sit at home and think. One of the things I have thought about is how the city might be different if we had a better mayor.
It is not news that our mayor sucks. Bill de Blasio has been widely criticized for years as a micromanager, a bully, someone who literally is sleeping on the job, and generally someone who doesn’t seem to like New York City very much, culminating in an embarrassing presidential campaign whose sole purpose seemed to be so he could spend time away from New York. He is behind on every issue, constantly getting dragged by the city’s press corps for mostly legitimate reasons, and appears wildly out of touch with what is going on in the city he runs.
And that was all before his city became the epicenter of a global pandemic.
As you can imagine, these traits do not carry over well to running the city with the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country. In fact, those traits are in large part why the city he runs has the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country. At least, that’s the gist of a New Yorker feature published earlier this month (the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, deserves a good chunk of the blame, too). He was slow to institute social distancing measures because of how it would play politically and factor into his ongoing feud with Cuomo. He fought with his public health experts and only started listening to them when one threatened to resign. He encouraged New Yorkers to “Go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus” in early March, well after it was clear the virus was here. And he snuck in a final session at his public gym after he issued an order calling for all gyms to close.
Now, de Blasio is transferring the vital contact tracing efforts, which will largely determine if and when the city can reopen successfully, from the Department of Health and Hygiene, which does contact tracing, to the public hospital system, which does not, for reasons no one can convincingly explain except that de Blasio personally doesn’t like the Health and Hygiene experts, a theme of the New Yorker feature. Along the way, the New Yorker quotes various former consultants, aides, health commissioners, and advisors calling de Blasio’s various missteps during coronavirus’s critical early days in the city “pathetic,” “self-involved,” “psychotic,” “mind-blogging,” and “just horrible.”
I want someone better to be New York’s mayor so badly, now more than ever. Specifically, I want Paris’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, to be my mayor. I want Hidalgo to save New York from Bill de Blasio.
Hidalgo is a city leader I have admired for years, because she has exactly the traits de Blasio lacks: a coherent, clear vision of what she wants her city to be and the personal fortitude to enact it. She has the confidence to dismiss irrational criticism as such and embrace good policies because they are good. She has led a years-long effort to make Paris more livable and pleasant by reducing car usage and expanding green space, efforts scientists and urban experts know would be great for the people living there. Hidalgo has made a lot of enemies with illegitimate gripes doing this, but hasn’t compromised on her vision. With an election this year, on which one of her major platforms was the “15 minute city” where people can find “everything you need within 15 minutes of home,” she won the first round of voting with the highest vote total (the second round was postponed due to coronavirus). Amazingly, her rivals have largely attacked her on the grounds that she hasn’t gone far enough on any of these initiatives.
Hidalgo’s reaction to the pandemic has been similarly aggressive, with 30 miles of new bicycle lanes repurposed from car lanes. Cycling is, and will remain one of the safest modes of transport as we continue to live through this pandemic.
She is doing this not just to further her existing vision, but on sound scientific grounds that more cycling is a key ingredient to getting cities working again after they re-open.
“I say in all firmness that it is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars, and by pollution,” Hidalgo said, as relayed by Citylab, in a quote that ought to make American urbanists cry with jealousy. “It will make the health crisis worse. Pollution is already in itself a health crisis and a danger—and pollution joined up with coronavirus is a particularly dangerous cocktail. So it’s out of the question to think that arriving in the heart of the city by car is any sort of solution, when it could actually aggravate the situation.”
These are not the ramblings of some crazed environmentalist, as she would surely be accused of if she were mayor of a major American city. Multiple studies have linked air pollution, especially particulate matter from car exhaust, to higher coronavirus death rates. And, during a critical time for small businesses, bike lanes are increasingly proving to provide positive economic impacts for the corridors along which they run, especially for restaurants.
Meanwhile, in New York, a city uniquely reliant on public transit by American standards, we have no coherent vision for what the other side of this looks like. How are we supposed to get around? Are we all supposed to buy cars? Where are we to park them, both near home and at work? Are we all supposed to bike on roads where 27 cyclists died last year? Or are we all supposed to walk to the water and ride de Blasio’s signature transportation mode, the NYC Ferry?
To be sure, cycling is not a solution for everyone. Lots of New Yorkers have commutes too long for a bike ride, and lots of people—including the disabled and elderly—might not be able to bike as a main transit method. But that is true for Paris, a city with robust public transportation usage, as much as for New York, and it’s not a reason to do nothing. Instead, de Blasio has done worse than nothing and made cuts to the Department of Transportation’s budget that will slow down buses and halt safe streets initiatives, making bicycling more dangerous.
Transportation is not the most important thing in the world, especially during a pandemic, but it is a key factor for cities working. And, if a city can’t get transportation policy right, the odds are it’s getting lots of other stuff wrong, too. The last three months—much less several years—have demonstrated our current mayor can’t get these things right. It’s time to have a mayor who can. Save us, Anne Hidalgo.