Being a pedestrian or a cyclist in a city can be as harrowing as it is liberating. Nobody knows that better than Paul White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City non-profit promoting cycling, walking and public transit. TA has been instrumental in improving conditions for cyclists in New York: they helped launch the Citi Bike share program, supported parking-protected bike lanes, and, most recently, helped pass a reduction of the city’s default speed limit to 25 miles per hour. We caught up with White to talk about his work, his family and his hand-forged Damascus steel knife.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. How to really listen. Turn yourself off for a moment and really take in what the human being facing you is trying to convey. Most people are terrible at listening, so just doing it kinda well will carry you far.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. I am still doing it! Being the ostensible leader of Transportation Alternatives is something that will never be easy. Our staff is so passionate, always striving, always challenging me in the best ways. And it’s a tough balance of trying to mind the store versus being out in the world hustling funding, winning political support, forging new alliances.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. Winning more protected bike lanes, lowering the citywide speed limit to 25 mph, winning more 20 mph neighborhood slow zones, and getting the city and NYPD to enforce these safer speed limits in a meaningful way. Slowing cars and trucks down is the most important thing we can do right now to tip the balance in favor of the majority of us to travel car-free, and to prevent traffic crashes and humanize our streets.
The more cycling a city has, the safer the streets are for pedestrians, bikers and motorists alike.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. My knife. My Dad hand-forged it from Damascus steel that he painstakingly wrought himself in his blacksmith shop. I hardly ever use it, but it’s the most special thing. Knife blades are always a trade-off between sharpness and durability. Damascus steel is meticulously woven from two different types of steel, so you get the best of both, and you can see the intricate woven bands in the blade itself.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: My biggest influence is my five-year-old daughter Anna. She teaches me so much. Parents always say they experience the world fresh through their child’s eyes. But there are lots of times when your kid wants to do something new and fresh and playful and you as a parent have to decide to really go with that or not. When we are riding on the subway, Anna likes to walk around, talk to people, play on the poles. Sometimes I let her do this and it works out great. Other times, it’s a disaster — offended strangers, skinned knees. But being ok with tiny disasters is something that she’s teaching me.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. The End of Time by Julian Barbour. I am re-reading it for like the fourth time. It’s one of those mind-blowing science books where you get smacked with the grandeur of this world we inhabit. Reading it, I always find something new to ponder and struggle to understand.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. When I was 16 I drove a Yugo, but not for long before it fell apart, like the country it came from. I discovered my bike was better, in lots of ways, both practically and socially.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Beer by Garret Oliver. Food by the dueling spatulas of Reynard’s Andrew Tarlow and Maysville’s Kyle Knall. I am proud to call Andrew a friend, and Kyle did the food at our recent summer benefit. Everyone was raving, saying it was the best they’ve ever had.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Don’t bother with the Yugo, just go straight to the bike.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. A guy who followed his passion, made a difference and raised up a strong, independent kid with an NYC sense of humor.
Q. What path led you to be executive director of Transportation Alternatives?
A. It was a long and winding road, but mostly it was about a strong desire to work for TA in some capacity. I was a volunteer for years before getting the call up. There is no group like it in the world. The large and passion-filled membership, the bright staff and board, the mission born from Jane Jacobs and her battles for the pedestrian spirit of the city in the 1960’s — it’s just an amazing group of human beings making good on Margaret Mead’s adage: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Q. The media often says that more people are cycling than ever. Do the facts support these claims?
A. Absolutely. A recent city survey found that a million New Yorkers ride their bikes at least once a month. That’s a lot! And it’s making our city safer for everyone. It’s a fact that the more cycling a city has, the safer the streets are for pedestrians, bikers and motorists alike. Bikers, like masses of pedestrians, humanize a city, force drivers to take a back seat to the human dance unfolding in the streets, or what Jan Gehl calls the “space between buildings”.
Q. How does New York compare to other American cities in terms of accessibility and safety for cyclists? And what are TA’s primary goals and projects right now?
A. We’re the best big city for bicycling, but we have a lot of work to do to expand and modernize the bike network and improve its connectivity. Too often the bike lane or greenway just ends — it’s like you start in a modern bike lane and then go through a time warp into our city’s past when bikers were still second-class citizens. We need to do what Minneapolis is doing but on an NYC scale. Our big goal is making good on the promises of the Mayor’s noble Vision Zero plan, which has to do with making modern, safe street designs the rule, not the exception. All of our big streets should have protected bike lanes, protected pedestrian space, and traffic calming. We now know that streets with these features are more than two times safer than status quo streets. It’s unconscionable that the city doesn’t have an urgent timeline for transforming all 600 miles of our big streets in such a way — streets like Manhattan’s 6th Avenue or Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. People are needlessly being killed and injured because we still have all these out-of-date, car-oriented streets. We have to change that.
Q. Describe your ultimate bike (what it is, how you’d outfit it, etc.).
A. The ultimate bike to me is the bike that fits and rides so well that it disappears right under you as you are riding, leaving you with only that feeling David Byrne describes so well — levitating through the urban landscape. Sure, you can get that by spending a lot of money on a custom bike, but you don’t have to. There are so many great off-the-shelf bikes to be had these days; with a proper bike fit done by a pro you don’t need a custom dream bike to get that dreamy riding experience. Especially for practical urban riding, the best and most sustainable thing is to build a relationship with your local neighborhood bike shop (don’t go online!) and get something ready to ride in your size that is carefully adjusted to fit your body.
Q. Do you have a memorable commuting experience you can tell us about?
A. There’s a special one that I have not had yet. The first time I ride across the Manhattan bridge with my daughter, Anna. She is only five and pretty much sticks to riding in the park, but when she’s a bit older, and the streets get a little safer, I look forward to riding into work with her. Maybe on “take our daughters and sons to work” day.