photo & interview by Harry Zernike
Paul Steely White is Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, the New York City cycling, pedestrian, and public transit advocacy organization.
When did you start at TA? Where were you beforehand?
I signed on as Executive Director in 2004. For the seven years prior to that I was Projects Director for the NYC based itdp.org, doing international transportation reform work, helping cities around the world develop more people-centered bike, pedestrian and transit networks. Getting the call up to Transportation Alternatives was a dream. There isn’t a more effective or more storied local transpo advocacy organization. I remember the first time I saw the impolite photo of their staff and membership blocking the Central Park Loop in the early 90’s for their Car Free Parks campaign. It just seemed so obvious that they were doing exactly what was needed to be done in terms of reclaiming these human settlements we call cities.
Which TA project are you most proud of in your tenure so far?
The role we have played in transforming some of NYC’s most iconic streets, Broadway and a few of the north-south avenues. One of the smartest things we ever did was bring the renowned Danish urban designer Jan Gehl to NYC back in 2005. Thanks to the support of some of our most generous donors and allies, he ended up working for the City DOT and catalyzing much of the change that you see today around the city. Jan is part anthropologist, part architect and part activist. He is also this loving and wonderfully mischievous human being. When I am 70 I want to be just like him.
What is the central focus of TA’s work now?
The hardest part of being in public interest and advocacy work is staying focused because there literally is an infinite number of projects or campaigns you could be working on. Right now we are honed in on ensuring that this November’s elections go our way, as we want to ensure that our next mayor and city council values safe streets.
How would you describe fighting the good fight amongst NYC’s outsized political figures?
A hard lesson for anyone to learn, especially for self-possessed leaders of progressive change, is that there is always a better messenger than you. What I mean by that is that however articulate or convincing you may be as a bike advocate, its so much more effective to mobilize a doctor, a real estate exec, a tech mogul, a union, or a small business association. At my best, at our best, we are cultivating and activating strategic partners who share our passion for liveable streets, protected bike lanes, and the whole toolbox of measures that make our streets, neighborhoods and cities greener and happier. That’s how you move politicians. As bike advocates, we are a one note band, and they know our song. With myriad and diverse allies you can create the symphony that makes politicians get off their duff and dance.
What bike are you riding?
That’s my beast of burden, a gift from my friend Henry Cutler, a Brooklynite who moved to Amsterdam years ago to start his own bike company. A man ahead of his time, and generous to boot. I was over there for work, we met and hit it off. Shame on KLM for charging me $200 to fly back with it, though it does weigh like 50 pounds.
What’s your commute like?
I like variety. I mix up my route as much as possible without making myself too late for work. Usually it’s some mix of wending my way from Park Slope through downtown Brooklyn to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge bike paths, and then choosing an uptown route to our 26th street office based on that morning’s particular mix of weather/urgency/whimsy. If I’m in training mode I may try to squeeze in a few laps in Prospect Park to bookend a morning or afternoon commute.
What other kinds of riding are you into?
I used to do a lot of bike touring back in my younger days, but now I am racing. I never thought I would be a racer because I always thought those guys were jerks! I may be a jerk now, but there are a lot of amazing human beings I have got to know through racing bikes. I get a lot of charge and juice from hanging out and riding with these young jedis, like Evelyn Stevens, who are tearing it up out there, people who really should not be giving me the time of day but do anyway because – I think – they respect my work as an advocate. The way the various bike tribes are more woven together these days is really heartening. Today you see a lot more dabbling and respect between the various subcultures – messenger, commuter, advocate, roadie, urbanist, fashionista – and that’s obviously a good thing.
I did the Red Hook Crit last year on a total whim because I ran into [race founder and promoter] David Trimble a few weeks before the race. His support and that of a few other valued friends and coaches in the scene helped me towards a respectable showing and, more importantly, having the time of my life. The thing about racing is that you have to deal with and, if you want to be successful, revel in those parts of us that otherwise we are so busy trying to ignore or cover up: fear, doubt, pain or the thirst for glory, even if it’s just being a cat 5 hero!