The Sit-Down: Noah Budnick Knows the Long Game

The Transportation Alternatives office is a labyrinth of low-cost building materials littered with bicycles, spare parts, policy papers, floor pumps, planning manuals, legal references, maps, printed matter and people. More than anything else there are people. On a busy day, maybe three-dozen are tucked into desks and spread out at long tables of laptop workstations. It’s a hive, vibrating with energy and the clatter of keystrokes, and somewhere near its center, sitting quietly on a spare brown swivel chair is Noah Budnick, tabbing between his email, his calendar and a handful of reports, planning his next move, listening and listening, and then saying something in a measured cadence. Noah has earned that kind of composure. After 12 years at T.A., he’s the organization’s most seasoned employee, and its Deputy Director, overseeing communications and policy. He’s also an occasional adjunct professor, most recently at New York University’s Environmental Studies Program, an alumnus of Columbia University’s prestigious Revson Fellows program, a board member at the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative and the Board Chair of the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group. Noah took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk with Reclaim about the state of T.A.’s work, how far New York City has come and where it’s headed in 2013 and after.

How did you first get involved with T.A.?
Noah: In 2000, I volunteered to be a mechanic at the New York City Century bike tour. They stationed me at the Coney Island rest stop. I vividly remember stuffing my toolbox into my messenger bag at 4 am to ride from my apartment down Ocean Avenue. It was brutal and beautiful, and I still see a lot of the people I met that day. That was my introduction to the T.A. universe, which has a lot of gravity. After that, I knew it was where I wanted to be, so I applied for a job and was hired as Projects Director in the summer of 2001.

What was your role then?
I ran T.A.’s bike advocacy and taxi-driver safety campaigns, but there were so few of us—only five full-time staffers and two part-time people—that we all did some of everything. After September 11th, a lot of my work focused on reopening the Hudson River Greenway and maintaining bike access across the East River bridges, which led to a lot of my early campaigns, like getting the bumps off the Williamsburg Bridge, building a ramped Manhattan Bridge approach, and improving greenway safety.

Was the organization much different?
Well, we were smaller, and our issues weren’t in the limelight like they are now, but even then, we were a recognized thought leader on surface transportation: We’d launched Safe Routes to School, which became a national best-practice and a federally funded program; we were getting state funding for our Safe Routes for Seniors work, which has since been adopted by the City DOT; and elected officials and the press came to us when they wanted good answers and progressive opinions, so we were the same in a lot of ways. T.A.’s superpower is that we keep an ear to the ground and work with communities and members all across the city. We did it then, and we still do it, but now we’re working with more people, and we can take more time. We’re in more places, and we’re doing more. That’s the big difference.

What’s a lesson you’ve learned that you think of everyday?
New York City is big. I know that sounds really basic, but it’s important to remember. We live in a huge and complicated place, and so you need to think about problems in really specific ways, but also in ways that can be scaled up from the neighborhood level to citywide. On one corner, you can have something amazing, something world-class and revolutionary, and then in another neighborhood there’s nothing like it. In Midwood Brooklyn, there’s this incredible speed table [an intersection-sized speed bump] that was installed at an intersection by a renegade DOT traffic calming unit in the mid ‘90s. It’s the precursor to so much of what’s been happening around the city in recent years, and it was sitting in the middle of Brooklyn just quietly doing its job for nearly 20 years.

When you look back at the past five years, is there a moment that you see as a watershed? A point where you realized things were really changing?
No, and that’s a good thing. The changes feel natural for me, and I think they feel natural for the city. This is a place where the streets are filled with people: No one moves here because they want to drive. Bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, traffic calming: all of that belongs on New York City’s streets, and it’s hard to picture the city without it, so it’s hard to pinpoint a moment when it all started. These past five years should not be looked at as a golden age. They need to be seen as the start of something, as the catalyst for the transformation of a city dominated by 1950s car-centric thought to a city for people.


Won’t that have a lot to do with the next election?
Yes, but not in the way most people think. In 2013, New York City will elect a new mayor and 19 new City Council Members. That means of a lot of new ideas will gain traction and a lot of agency chiefs will go, but New Yorkers will be the same, and the advocates will be the same, and the staffers who have made a lot of this amazing stuff happen will be the same. If New Yorkers demand better transit and better biking and walking from candidates and vote for them, then we’ll get more. If we don’t get in candidates’ faces about these issues and support the ones we think will champion them, then we won’t.

T.A. recently polled likely New York City voters. Did you find the results encouraging on this front?
Very. According to our Penn, Schoen, Berland poll, transportation is a key issue for New York City voters, and it’s not just about cars. Voters aren’t drivers; they’re subway and bus riders, bikers and walkers. Forty-one percent of voters don’t drive and two-thirds of the voters who do own cars drive less than twice a month. For this group—which accounts for nearly 8o percent of likely voters—transportation means the subway. It means buses and bikes and walking. Everyone walks; seven and a half million New Yorkers take transit every day, yet what candidate is making a bid for this massive share of the electorate? Voters want a candidate who campaigns on giving them more transportation options, and they’re going to vote for one in 2013.

What keeps you up at night?
Nothing, and for that, I’m thankful, but I do worry. I worry about how the entire T.A. family, all our partners, everyone we work with—how we can engage as many New Yorkers as possible. I ask myself, ‘How can we engage them in an effort to embrace all the new ideas that are coming to the city and keep the demand for those ideas strong?’ Like I said before, this can’t be the golden age, it needs to be the start of something much, much bigger.

Will bike share play a part in that?
Of course. Public bike share is going to change the game, but like all the other improvements, after a few months, it’s going to feel like it was always a part of the city. People are going to wonder how we ever lived here without it. It’s going to be like the MetroCard. Thinking back to a pre-MetroCard life, I’m always amazed that we got along so well without it. That’s what will happen with bike share.

Are you going to sign up on the first day?
I would sign up before that if they’d let me.

What’s next? What’s after bike share?
Real bus rapid transit in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island that reflects new commuting patterns; a five-borough bike share system, along with a citywide network of protected lanes; a goal for zero pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and a 20 mph citywide speed limit that is dialed up or down depending on road conditions. Those are next on the list, and I think they’re going to happen very soon.

After all the years and all the campaigns, is there one you look back on with the most fondness?
I don’t know. If I had to pick one, it’d probably be making it safe to bike to and from the Manhattan Bridge; that’s close to my heart. But more, I’m a means person. The ends aren’t where my pride is. My pride is helping T.A. grow and figuring out how to make our organization function as a great place for people to work and an effective organization that makes change. I think that’s going well. We’re at the top of the heap, and I’m very, very proud of that. We come up with good results, but we get them because we’re a good place to work, and we’re a place that listens and learns all the time.