Winter 2002, p.2

Provocateur: Steve Dobrow: New Yorker, Character, Transit Expert, Train Buff, Advocate. 1943-2002

One of the fun things about working at T.A. is getting to know the colorful cast of characters who populate NYC government and transportation advocacy. Within this group, the rail and transit buffs occupy a special niche. And of them, Steve Dobrow, the founder of the Committee for Better Transit, was the king. Steve died of sudden heart failure at age fifty-nine on Sunday January 13, 2002. And, though T.A. devotes the bulk of our magazine to bicycle and pedestrian issues, we feel that it is important to use this space to honor the memory of this steadfast allie, colleague and friend.

Following is a brief remembrance of Steve Dobrow by Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

I just learned of the death of Stephen Dobrow, who was the dean of the transit rider advocacy community with more than 30 years as president of the Committee for Better Transit. His funeral is tomorrow, Tuesday January 15.

Stephen was a unique New York character and his efforts benefited millions of riders. He hung in there through the decline of the transit system in the 1960s and 70s and was part of its comeback in the 80s and 90s. He was named a New Yorker of the Year by NY 1 News in 1997 for his successful efforts to win unlimited-ride transit passes.

Steve was a rare breed, a transit buff and a transit advocate. Very few are both. Transit buffs know the year when a particular model subway car was built and the inner workings of its propulsion systems. But they rarely get embroiled in battles at City Hall or Albany for the resources to buy those trains. Transit advocates may be good lobbyists, but often don't know the intricate details of how the subways and buses operate.

Steve was skilled as both. One of my favorite Steve stories is about a meeting we had with transit officials. Two of us advocates were surrounded by 20 transit managers saying why something we wanted couldn't be done. Steve arrived late, took one look at the official's map of the subway line in question and told them that it was mistaken - the track switch was at the north end of the station, not the south. The meeting dynamic changed completely. You wanted Steve on your side.
People would call Steve when they needed both technical and political insights. When a tragic train accident on the Williamsburg Bridge killed a train operator in the mid-1990s, there was widespread speculation that it was the result of operator fatigue. Steve thought it was a problem with the braking system and the spacing of signals. And he turned out to be right.

Steve was an educator. Every few weeks, he would mail out clippings and articles about transit events and developments around the world. The materials were great stuff.

This was fitting for a tenure professor of electrical engineering at Farleigh Dickinson University.

Steve was a communicator, a fine writer and a humorous poet. His letters to the editor had punch and principle. For many years, he edited the "Notes from the Underground" newsletter, which proposed many farsighted ideas for new routes and better service. He could be good at clever pr gimmicks, like the time he symbolically nailed "95 Theses" for better transit to an MTA Chairman's door.

Steve was also a fine urban historian, too. The letter below captures his awesome and intimidating command of how subways, buses and trolleys have shaped the history of our city.

Steve will be missed, by both his colleagues in the transit community - and by the millions who gained from his lifelong pursuit of more and better transit.


Letter to Transportation Alternatives in May 1999

Dear editor:

Concerning the Queensboro Bridge (March/April '99), some corrections: the QBB opened in 1909 (incidentally, it was a toll bridge until 1911). The upper level did not have streetcars. It carried the Second Avenue El until 1942. The main level had four tracks of streetcars. The outer tracks were used by Manhattan-bound streetcars running to the underground terminal at Second Avenue. Until 1919, streetcars from the 42nd Street Line ran to Queens Plaza on the inner tracks, an average of 1,563 a day in 1914.

Dr. Stephen B. Dobrow
Committee for Better Transit / Woodside, NY

Thanks for the correction-Ed.

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