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For Bike Advocates, Delayed Gratification

The New York Times: For Bike Advocates, Delayed Gratification

By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Published: August 10, 2012

IT was supposed to be the summer of bike share.

And for Transportation Alternatives, the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group, it was supposed to be a time to celebrate. A fund-raising party in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn — complete with a choreographed “Bike Ballet” — was set for Aug. 23, a date chosen early this summer and meant to occur long after the bikes had rolled out.

The party will go on. But, with Labor Day looming, the city’s bike-share program, to be the largest in the country and once promised for July, has not yet hit the streets.

On Friday morning, thousands of bikes for the program, sponsored by Citigroup and known as Citi Bike, sat in boxes in Building 293 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“We’re still taking deliveries,” said a worker, who declined to be identified, rolling through the cavernous space on one of the few royal blue Citi Bikes so far assembled. Gray pieces for some of the hundreds of expected docking stations were stacked nearby. No activity could be seen at a few bike mechanic stands in one corner of the warehouse.

There is no official date for the rollout, and supporters fear the warm-weather window to begin the program this year is shrinking.

“We’re preparing for that eventuality,” Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said in a phone interview last week, referring to a significant delay in the program. “That would be unfortunate but not disastrous. New York is ready for bike share.”

Delays would push the kickoff further into a mayoral race in which transportation is likely to be a major issue — in part because of policies that Transportation Alternatives has pushed. Any stumbles could call into question the wisdom not only of bike share itself, but of its underlying premise: that bicycles are a key part of the city’s transit system, an argument the group has made since the 1970s.

At the same time, the arrival of bike share — whenever it occurs — raises a sort of existential question for the once-fringe group. With a staff of 23 full-time employees, roughly 8,000 dues-paying members and an active e-mail network of more than 40,000, not to mention a deep bench of alumni working in government, the group has become a potent political force.

But when the City of New York has made your agenda its official policy — including pedestrian plazas and a vast bike-lane network — how alternative can you continue to be?

Very, Mr. White said. “We see this as the beginning rather than a culmination,” he said in a May interview. “Now we have a mainstream audience.”

FORTY years ago, the ragtag collection of environmental advocates and bicycle riders, dissident city planners and urban preservationists who would coalesce into Transportation Alternatives sat decidedly outside the mainstream.

“Ban autos from Manhattan!” urged a psychedelic poster for a demonstration at the General Motors building in 1968. Four years later, another poster demanded “free bicycles” and “millions for public transit.”

The group made its public debut in a traffic-snarling protest ride down Fifth Avenue in 1973. Momentum grew when Edward I. Koch, then a congressman, joined the next big ride a year later.

The oil crisis created a surge of interest in alternative transit during the 1970s, and the pro-bike atmosphere helped land David Gurin, an urban planner who designed the posters and helped found the group, an appointment as deputy transportation commissioner in the Koch administration. While there, he brought short-lived separated bike lanes to a few Manhattan avenues.

But biking for transportation took a nose dive as New York’s economy rebounded.

“In ’87, things were really at a low ebb,” said Charlie Komanoff, a transit analyst and economist who ran the group at the time. “The plucky bike commuter had been replaced by the mergers-and-acquisitions specialist partying in the back of an idling limo.”

In the late 1980s, the city even moved to ban bicycles from Midtown Manhattan. A large street sign from that effort — a bicycle with a slash through it — still hangs in the 10th-floor Chelsea offices of Transportation Alternatives as a reminder of bad times.

The group slowly built support and membership while staging protests. At the same time, it was making inroads with city government and growing its full-time staff thanks to a change in federal law in 1991 that resulted in some big grants. But it remained small until the past decade, when interest in cycling again took off nationally and an infusion of cash from Mark Gorton, a hedge-fund manager and the group’s largest single donor, helped it expand.

The major turning point came in 2007, when Janette Sadik-Khan took the reins of the Transportation Department. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave Ms. Sadik-Khan a mandate to remake the city’s streets, and, as part of an aggressively pro-bike agenda, she brought in a number of people from the group.

One of those hired was Jon Orcutt, who once ran Transportation Alternatives. In 1990, he was arrested and charged with blocking the Queensboro Bridge during a protest, though he was acquitted at trial. Today, he is the Transportation Department’s policy director. Critics quipped that the inmates had taken over the asylum.

Changes came quickly: hundreds of new miles of bike lanes appeared around the city; pedestrian plazas were built; parking spots were eliminated; and streets were narrowed to slow traffic. When these initiatives sparked a backlash, the city called upon Transportation Alternatives to rally supporters to beat it back, Mr. White said.

Some New Yorkers continue to bristle at this close relationship. “T. A. has contributed to the demonization of cars,” said Louise Hainline, a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, whose group, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, publicly tangled with Transportation Alternatives and the city over the 2010 installation of a bike lane on Prospect Park West. “They’ve been very effective, but I don’t think our city is better for it.”

LOOKING back at the utopian signs he created four decades ago, Mr. Gurin, now a city planning consultant, marveled at how much the times had changed. “In a certain sense, all of this has come about,” he said.

He pointed to the bicycle-share program (free bikes, after a fashion), better financing of subways and buses since the 1990s (billions for transit, in fact) and even the failed congestion-pricing plan advocated by the Bloomberg administration (not quite a ban on cars).

Not that the battle has been won. “I actually think they’ve done about 2 percent of what needs to be done,” said Mr. Gorton, who has given Transportation Alternatives roughly $10 million over the past decade.

He knows a few things about radically disrupting powerful established orders. His peer-to-peer file-sharing system, LimeWire, picked up where Napster left off in challenging the recording industry’s business model — before it in turn was shut down by a federal judge. And his current venture, a financial firm specializing in computer-driven high-speed trading, is part of a movement threatening the status quo on Wall Street. (He also acknowledges having an obsession with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, calling it a “massive, massive conspiracy” perpetrated by the Central Intelligence Agency.)

“I’m certainly comfortable taking positions that are the opposite of the vast majority of people,” he said. With transit philanthropy, he takes the long view. “You’re talking about changing the role of the automobile in our society,” he said. “It’s a big, long, slow push.”

The group is currently pushing the New York Police Department to conduct more in-depth investigations of car accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists, part of a larger effort to slow traffic and bring the hammer down on speeding or negligent drivers — all with the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. It’s also talking about next-generation bike improvements, like a wider path across the Brooklyn Bridge, endorsed last week by several City Council members, and looking to slow traffic in more neighborhoods in boroughs outside Manhattan.

The group has also been active in trying to curb dangerous cycling, passing out pamphlets that urge lawful riding in an effort to defuse tensions between pedestrians and cyclists.

But Transportation Alternatives is also preparing to play defense, Mr. White said. The current mayoral candidates have not made explicit promises regarding the Bloomberg bike legacy, but Mr. White, who said he had “good access” to the candidates, is bracing for an administration less friendly to alternative transit. “I would characterize their positions as fluid,” he said.

If the bike-share program is embraced by New Yorkers, it would be the most visible and enduring symbol of Mr. Bloomberg’s policies. But if it runs into trouble, it could make any new administration skittish about bringing similarly sweeping changes to city streets.

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Mr. White said. “That what has happened over the last four years was just an aberration.”