Interview with Transalt director Paul Steely White

By | March 24th, 2011 | No Comments

Signs of the times in New York's bike community -- photo from transalt.org

Over the last four years, New York City has added 250 miles of bike lanes, refashioned several iconic locations as sanctuaries for pedestrians and cyclists (e.g., Times Square), and, in the process, seen biking double, with 200,000 cyclists taking to the streets each day.

One of the activist groups at the handle bars of this biking boom is Transportation Alternatives, whose director, Paul Steely White, is speaking at the University of Miami School of Architecture on Friday at 6:30 p.m. (White will also ride in Green Mobility Network’s second-annual Tweed Ride on Saturday.)

On Wednesday, I spoke to White about New York’s transportation “renaissance”, making Miami more bike friendly, and why Google searches for bike lanes in a city before moving in.

What brings you to Miami?

PSW: I’m concerned when I read safety reports that the top three most dangerous cities for pedestrians are in South Florida. There’s been a couple of recent high-profile deaths of cyclists in South Florida. I think the transportation-planning approach in South Florida has clearly been cars first. It’s encouraging to know that there’s at least some folks who think otherwise and are open to achieving a better balance on Miami’s streets. If the New York story has anything to offer to help move that along, I’m very happy [to share it].

Even as New York is becoming more bike oriented, the city has cracked down on Critical Mass and recently a city councilman proposed mandatory bike registration.

PSW: We’ve been experiencing what you might call growing pains. The fact is that New York City is in the midst of not just a bicycle boom, but a public streets and livable streets boom, where some of New York’s most iconic streets have been utterly transformed to better serve pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. The transportation of Times Square to be primarily a pedestrian refuge, the extension of the bike network, the passage of a bike access to buildings bill . . . Really it’s a renaissance of alternative transportation.

But whenever a dense city like New York City changes so rapidly in such a way, invariably there are going to be some people who are unhappy with that. But there was a poll released last week that showed a clear majority of New Yorkers support all of these changes. That has gone a long way . . . to dispel a lot of the unfair criticism that has been levied by a minority of motorists that prefer the status quo, where it’s all cars, all the time.

I think that’s where things are going now, because the data now show that streets with bike lanes are not just safer for bikers, but for motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. Injuries to everyone go down on the order of 40 to 50 percent on these [bike-friendly] streets. That’s what’s really turning this controversy around.

You mentioned New York’s density – one of Miami’s defining characteristics is its lack of density, its sprawl. How does this impact the mission to make Miami more bike friendly?

PSW: To be sure, density is a prime determinant of bikeability and walkability. Generally speaking, the denser a city is, the easier it is to promote walking and biking. But, you know, parts of Miami are certainly no less dense than some of America’s most bike-friendly cities, such as Portland, parts of San Francisco, or even Los Angeles, where bicycling is booming and the city just adopted a very comprehensive bike master plan.

I think the trick is knowing where to start and being strategic about how the bike network is built, so that you’re going where the latent demand is, as opposed to just building lanes where it’s convenient. That’s a lesson we learned here in New York. It’s really important to provide the infrastructure where there is demand because [building where demand is low] reinforces the notion that people won’t bike in sufficient numbers to justify the cost or street space.

We’ve definitely seen an “If you build it, they will come” phenomenon in Brooklyn and some of the denser parts of Manhattan. Starting in those places where it’s relatively low-hanging fruit has opened people’s eyes – “Hey, I don’t have to bike nine miles to work everyday, but maybe I can bike to the corner store or to school or to my friend’s house.” It’s really those shorter-distance trips that make a lot of sense. Here in New York, 25 percent of trips are like a mile or less; a little more than half are two miles or less. I’m sure in Miami, your average trip is longer, but still a significant portion of trips are less than three miles, which is a 15-minute bike ride.

What are the benefits of making a city more bike friendly?

One benefit that I think is really unsung is catering to the new Creative Class. Companies like Google and other techs are realizing that kids graduating from college don’t have the same dream of owning a car or two and moving to the suburbs necessarily. Many more of them are dreaming of a car-free lifestyle, where they can live in a city that’s interesting and vibrant and has street life. And they don’t have to own a car – they can ride a bike or take the bus even, because when you ride the bus you can be on your handheld.

In Brooklyn we’re seeing condo owners using bike amenities to drive sales. “Hey, we have bike parking” or “we have shared biking in our building.” At the same time we’re seeing companies like Google choosing New York, because the workforce they want to attract is more into urban livability than the leafy suburb. So any city that wants to be competitive in the new economy is going to have to address bikes.

So that’s the big benefit. I won’t even mention the health and the environmental benefits, because I think they’re so obvious.

As in many places, there is some animosity between cyclists and motorists in Miami. Is getting past that one of the biggest obstacles to making a city more bike friendly?

PSW: Without question there’s a disproportionate amount of anti-bike bias out there in the world. Americans have grown up with a large dependence on the automobile. People driving in 2011 have a lot of frustration. Gas is becoming more expensive, roadways are congested, studies have shown being in your cars is the least favorite part of everyone’s day. So there’s a lot of frustration, and I think it’s very easy to use cyclists as a scapegoat.

Certainly there’s a part of the anti-bike spectrum that’s xenophobic . . . I don’t mean there’s an ethnic bent, but the general fear of the different. A hatred of something that doesn’t fit within one’s paradigm. I think cycling is frankly a very threatening thing to some people. Just by being out there on the roadway, the cyclist is making a statement that the way our transportation system is setup is not working for them, that maybe there’s another way.

What we’re seeing in New York is very encouraging. Even people who don’t ride are starting to see the role the bicycling plays in a safer city for everyone. When you have cyclists on a street, motorists become more attentive and drive a little slower. And that doesn’t always mean longer travel time, by the way, because when people drive more slowly, they tend to drive at a steadier pace.

I’m not sure if you realize that your lecture is at the same time as Miami Critical Mass. Some people think Critical Mass, as an unpermitted ride, sets bike activism back – what is your take?

PSW: Critical Mass is a living thing. It’s different in every city. I’ve done Critical Masses in New York, Chicago, and Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s different everywhere, and even within a given city it can evolve and devolve. Here in New York, the ride used to be a super fun celebration of cycling that attracted a really diverse, vibrant, and fun crowd. Then, when the NYPD started cracking down on it, it infused the ride with very different emotions. You know, fear, people being chased. It just was not the same ride. But the spirit of Critical Mass still lives on in New York, and I think it still represents something valuable for anyone who is working for a more livable city.

What I think we managed to do in New York is use Critical Mass and the grass roots bike movement as a springboard to win more constituencies over to bicycling. It’s great to see the juice coming from the streets in a city like Miami. There’s got to be a way for everyone with this same goal of creating a more healthful, livable, joyous city to band together, and I think we managed to do that here in New York.



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