Reclaiming the streets

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Paul Steely White has pushed New York to build safe and sustainable transportation networks


  • Photo: Claudio Papapietro

Transportation Alternatives’ goal to “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking and public transit” hasn’t always been met with open arms. “For the better part of our history, that has been a very controversial mission,” said Paul Steely White, the group’s executive director.

Since the nonprofit was founded in 1973, detractors have called its members car-hating zealots and worse. But in an age in which the city has enthusiastically adopted the Vision Zero road safety initiative and in the last five years added 330 miles of bike lanes to city streets (in the face of, yes, some auto-borne resistance, but also with significant public support) it’s difficult to argue that a tangible corner hasn’t been turned toward a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly future for New York — and Transportation Alternatives has led the charge.

“It’s only really been in the last couple years, I think — and it might sound a little extravagant — that the world has caught up to us,” said White, who joined Transportation Alternatives in 2004. “I think there’s a really widespread realization now that there’s something antithetical about the car and the city. There’s something incompatible with large-scale motor vehicle use in a dense metropolis like New York. There just isn’t enough room.”

The group’s message has become acutely relevant in the face of the city’s subway and congestion woes. But in crisis, White sees opportunity.

In particular, he hopes that the impending shutdown of the L train for tunnel repairs, during which the Department of Transportation plans to close 14th Street to all vehicles except buses during peak hours and install a two-way protected bike lane on 13th Street, will serve as a model for easing pressure on the limited-capacity subway system by “getting more out of our surface transportation network.”

“The silver lining of the L train shutdown is that it forces us, as a city and a state, to forge some new solutions that use the streets in some radically different ways,” he said, “Essentially we’re talking about turning our surface streets into transit corridors so that they are much more efficient and have much more capacity to move people and still leave room for the things that we love.”

White traces his own love of bicycling to his first ride, which came as his parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce. “I had never learned how to ride a bike until I was maybe 7 and my dad took a weekend to teach me how to ride,” he said.

“It was a tough time emotionally, but that feeling of flight and freedom when you finally get it felt like such a liberating experience,” White said.

White’s favorite bicycle ride in New York is part of his morning commute from his home in Red Hook to Transportation Alternatives’ offices in the Financial District. “If I have about 10 extra minutes I’ll ride right along the waterfront through Brooklyn Bridge Park,” he said. “It’s such an exhilarating and relaxing way to start my day.”

“What we do now is so much more than just bicycling — it’s tied to traffic safety and healthy transit and the rest — but bicycling is still our heart and soul, and it is for me too,” White said. “It’s really what keeps my batteries charged and keeps me jazzed and juiced to really attack my work.”

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