Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives

gothamist | November 22, 2005

By Jen Chung
What is the biggest issue that Transportation Alternatives is facing now?The overarching issue is equity. Today 86% of Manhattan-bound commuters manage to travel without a private car, yet in terms of everything from street design to traffic enforcement, our city is still catering to that 14% who drives. And it's the drivers who take up all the street space, pollute our air, make our streets unsafe. It's patently unfair.

Behind this inequity is the fact that city employees drive twice as much as the average New Yorker, thanks to their plum parking privileges. This means that the very people making transportation decisions are not getting from A to B like the rest of us. Sure we have a MetroCard Mayor, but what good is that when have tens of thousands of city officials with this suburban mentality that transportation = driving? That's a big obstacle to change.

How is the car-free Central Park movement going?Well we recently reached 99,999 signatures on our petition for a car-free park. (we are only focused on making the 6-mile loop drive car-free, not the transverse drives that don't really impact ones experience of enjoying the park) We are saving the 100,000th spot for the Mayor, but he has yet to sign. With the newfound support of city council members, our new Borough President Scott Stringer and an increasing number of health and community groups, we now have a decent shot at winning a three-month trial closure for the summer of 2006. This trial period is crucial to demonstrating that a car-free park will not lead to traffic nightmares on surrounding streets. We are also focused on winning a car-free Prospect Park. The short term goal there is to win car-free afternoons, which would be a boon to kids who would then have a safe haven to play and ride bikes after school.

The boroughs of NYC can be both pedestrian friendly and cruel; what are some notable examples of this?Recently the city has made great pedestrian improvements to Queens Boulevard, the "Boulevard of Death". But it is still too dangerous to cross, especially for children senior citizens who tend to walk more slowly. The city needs to further increase pedestrian crossing times and install more "traffic calming" measures such as narrower car lanes that make motorists slow down. All of our big streets could do with more pedestrian refuge medians and more pedestrian crossing time. The obstacle is the city's fear that these measures will lead to traffic back-ups. While these may add a minute or two to driving commutes, the alternative— people getting killed and injured while walking— is unacceptable.

Recently, it was reported that the Partnership for NYC was investigating congestion pricing; what do you think of that?Congestion pricing is one of many commonsense traffic deterrents that our city should pursue. Increasing the price of curbside parking and eliminating parking privileges for city employees are others. We are still stuck in the old paradigm that cars are a necessary evil and they must be accommodated. What London and other big cities are learning is that deterring rather than accommodating driving doesn't keep people from getting to work or to the store. The same number of people will come to the city center; they will just get there by more efficient means, especially if you use the revenue from the system to fund transit improvements like better bus service, bikeways and wider sidewalks. The Partnership and our city's leading business improvement districts know this, which is why they support pricing.

But don't some people have to drive?As upcoming study from Schaller Consulting shows that the large majority of current car commuters already have decent transit alternatives. And besides cleaner air and a more livable and efficient city, the beauty of pricing is that those who must drive get to their destinations much more quickly, thanks to thinner traffic. Time is money in New York. What is so bad about paying $6 to save 15 minutes on your commute, especially if your car is packed with other passengers who can chip in?

And what do you think of the Critical Mass bike rides becoming so popular, as well as so targeted by the police?The attraction of Critical Mass is its "safety in numbers" effect. When you are surrounded by other bicyclists the fear usually associated with bicycling in New York disappears and you catch a glimpse of what riding a bicycle could be: free, safe and fun. Of course, safe bicycling should be an everyday experience, which is exactly the point: bicyclists deserve more space and priority on our streets. Since the big critical mass rides around last year's RNC, when the ride attracted thousands of new riders, the rides have devolved into a cat-and-mouse battle with the NYPD. I look forward to an easing of the overkill enforcement of the rides and a return to the pre RNC days when the rides were tolerated and even facilitated by the city as a once a month celebration of bicycling.

What are things people can do to make their biking and/or pedestrian experiences better and safer?Get active. Write a letter to your councilmember. Attend your community board meetings. The way it is now, politicians and community boards hear more from the minority of drivers who are concerned about protecting their parking spaces and do not want to see that street space converted to wider sidewalks, bike lanes and bike parking. And join Transportation Alternatives!

And do you have any idea of what an ideal NYC would be like?We live in a dense, flat city that could be a paradise for bicycling and walking. Because cars take up so much street space compared to other modes of getting around, if just 15% of current car trips were converted to bicycling and walking trips our city would be a much more open and livable place. This is an achievable goal: citywide, 22% of car trips are 1 mile or less in length.

Broadway, because it cuts across the street grid, snarls traffic. Ideally, the city should make Broadway car-free. It's not as crazy as it sounds: it would be a boon for pedestrians that are currently spilling into the street , and traffic patterns would actually improve. Imagine a pedestrian friendly promenade connecting the crown jewels of Battery Park, Union Square, Times Square and Central Park. The tourism draw alone would make it worth it.

Favorite subway line: The F train. It affords expansive views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan skyline and for this denizen of south Park Slope, a great commuting alternative when my bicycling is stymied by snow and ice.

Best bike route during the winter months: The Hudson river greenway. Because it's a car free route, the hazard of snow and ice is manageable.

Best place to lock your bike: Bicyclists should be allowed to bring their bicycles into their places of work if their employer allows. As it is now, buildings are not required to grant access in this way. We are trying to pass a bill in city council that would change this. Short of building access, the best place to lock your bike is at one of the new ‘n' shaped racks that the city is installing in ever greater numbers.