If you’re a good person, your inbox is probably full of emails from Paul Steely White. As the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, White is the name on every email that the bicycle-promoting, environmentally conscious organization sends out. And they have a lot to email about. Even though it gets bike-friendlier all the time, certain parts of New York still fiercely hate bikes and bikers, almost to the point of literally wishing them dead. White and his organization are on the forefront of protecting bikers’ rights (their lives!), and building a better city for all of us.
How and why did you become involved in your line of work?
In 1997, I moved to Park Slope and saw cars streaming into Prospect Park just as I was trying to gain some peace from the big city I had only recently began to call home. I learned about a group of whip-smart rebels fighting to make the park car-free. That group was and is Transportation Alternatives. Today the park is almost completely car-free, and hopefully this will be the year we reach that goal.
What would you even call what you do?
On my good days, I am a visionary change-maker who is transforming New York City streets. On not so good days, I am just another annoying complainer spinning his wheels.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliffs Notes version of your day to day and what is at stake.
I love the friction of my work. The push-pull-push with politicians, funders and the media; the celebrations and activism with our members; the day-to-day of running a growing organization. In a typical day I do all that, and if I am lucky, I have a breakthrough or two. I love walking or biking down a newly redesigned street with some of my colleagues and getting to say, “Hey, we helped make this happen!”
What is at stake: It’s life or death. It’s true for so many New Yorkers who are severely impacted by traffic crashes, but also for the quality of our lives and the life of the city. Streets can be humane, nurturing, spontaneous and wonderfully social, or they can be deadly and disinviting. We can shape that outcome, and we do it everyday.
What do you find most fulling about your work?
My favorite moment is when someone who has given you their time, their money or their faith looks you in the eye and says, “You delivered,” or “We delivered together.” I strive to recreate that moment.
What is your proudest achievement with this work and what is your greatest challenge?
Transportation Alternatives has transformed lots of streets. More than that, we have changed what city streets can and should be in the minds and eyes of New Yorkers and people around the nation and the globe. People now expect more from their streets, as they should. I think a critical mass of city dwellers now understand that dangerous, inhumane streets should not just be accepted as part of urban life; streets can and should be places that nurture us, make us better. My biggest challenge is wondering if my work is sufficiently relevant to the really big issues of our day: creeping autocracy, climate change. I am proud that biking and walking is now seen as a real solution to global warming, and that we are leading a new movement to expand our streets and public plazas as vital platforms of public speech and activist democracy.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future?
We have to turn the L train shutdown into a giant opportunity to prove what our main streets like Manhattan’s 14th Street and Williamsburg’s Grand Street can be if we simply design them for the majority of people who use them most efficiently, read: bus riders, bicyclists, walkers.
Who would you nominate for this list?
Tracey Capers, Andrew Tarlow. Steve Hindy. Garrett Oliver, Annie Hart, Adam Mansky, Gene Russianoff, Matt Levy from Levy’s Unique.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.