Special gravel coverage

Q&A: NYC’s top biking advocate wants you to talk more about death

Posted by on March 27th, 2015 at 10:50 am

Paul Steely White at the 2010
National Bike Summit.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Talking about “livable streets” is out; talking about “safe streets” is in.

That’s the advice from Paul Steely White, executive director of the country’s largest local transportation advocacy group. The executive director of New York City-based Transportation Alternatives since 2004, White was a major force behind the city’s emergence as a national leader in reimagining streets as pleasant public spaces.

But as he heads to Portland for a keynote address Monday to the Oregon Active Transportation Summit, White is urging his fellow believers in livable streets to readjust their message when talking to politicians and the public. We spoke by phone on Thursday about why and how his organization has put Vision Zero, the campaign to completely eliminate road deaths, at the middle of their message.

Are you on a national Vision Zero tour, or is this a one-off thing?

“It’s coming to terms with the fact that we have tens of thousands of road deaths. It’s a bummer message, but it gets people’s attention.”
— Transalt Executive Director Paul Steely White on Vision Zero

My old friend Rob Sadowsky invited me out to the summit. I tend not to travel much at all lately. I did a lot of traveling a lot of years ago and sort of got it out of my system. There’s so much happening here in New York these days.

What’s something people misunderstand about the New York streets renaissance?

I think we’re trying to get away from livable streets reinassance, livable streets, vitality, etc. All of that stuff is great, but with that frame, with that language you’re still reaching only a certain segment of the population. Safety is a much stronger common denominator.

The best way to be a successful bike advocate is to be a successful Vision Zero advocate. Lowering the speed limit, as we were successful at doing, is going to have as much an impact on New York’s bikeability as anything we’ve done.

That’s interesting. What do you think puts people off about “livable streets”?

I don’t think it puts people off necessarily, but it’s just much harder to activate and communicate with people. I think the portion of the population that is civically engaged and understands all the economics … it’s a longer conversation you have to have with people. Also, I think it hits people in a different place. It’s a hopeful message, but it’s a complicated one. When you’re talking about safety, not only is it really easy to understand what you’re talking about, but it hits people in a really emotional place.

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I’m actually sort of a Vision Zero skeptic personally. I realize I’m an outlier in lots of ways, so I’m not representative, but the message of a complete lack of risk just doesn’t resonate with me emotionally. Vision Zero feels to me like it’s a worship of death instead of life. Is that something you ever hear?

That’s often a reaction we get, actually. But I’ll tell you what happens: the very people who have lost loved ones, who are staring death in the face, are the ones who become our most positive advocates. Queens Boulevard, for years people called it the Boulevard of Death. Now they’re talking about it as the Boulevard of Life.

It’s coming to terms with the fact that we have tens of thousands of road deaths. It’s a bummer message, but it gets people’s attention. And if you follow it up really quickly with a solution, as the mayor has I think really well, you can win more battles than not.

We’ve also found that it’s much easier to educate bike people about the advocacy around Vision Zero than it is to activate pedestrians around walking. The bike people are special because we are more engaged than maybe any other constituency out there. We do show up. We write our legislators. We’re proud that we’ve brought Vision Zero to the streets.

What advice do you have about setting the table for politicians to get interested in transportation issues?

For us with Vision Zero, it’s been largely about Families for Safe Streets. I’ve never seen a campaign have so much influence over elected officials in such a sort time as Families for Safe Streets. It’s very difficult for an elected official to deny a mother or father an ear, to not listen to what they have to say.

Whenever politicians talk about Vision Zero, they’re talking about their kids. They’re talking about their role not as politicians but their role as fathers. You’re just hitting a different part of their brain. You’re hitting them right in the heart.

The third step, that we’re just getting to now, is you have seen pedestrian fatalities going down pretty rapidly already. Now we have a virtuous cycle where we can go back to the politicians and say “Thank you for saving these lives.” And then they can take credit for that. Now all of a sudden instead of living in fear, people are now going to Queens Boulevard not because they have to, but because they want to.

Qs & As edited; the views in the Qs above are my own. Paul Steely White will discuss Vision Zero at 8:20 a.m. on Monday, March 30, at the Sentinel Hotel. 614 SW 11th Ave., as part of the Oregon Active Transportation Summit.

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  • 9watts March 27, 2015 at 11:19 am

    “The best way to be a successful bike advocate is to be a successful Vision Zero advocate.”

    Interesting. I too think Vision Zero is one of the most promising concepts to show up here in a long time, but reading up on it some I’ve been intrigued that it doesn’t actually problematize the automobile, seek to advance human transport, or look forward to a post-automobile infrastructure, but rather is focused on rounding off *all* the sharp edges of automobility so the rest of us can get across town alive. This is a far less radical program than I assumed when I first encountered the concept of Vision Zero.

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    • paikiala March 27, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      The Safe Systems approach is all about attacking the problem from all possible fronts. It is not about divide and conquer. Better road design, better vehicles, better right of way users, better enforcement, better laws, better adjudication, even better emergency response and better trauma centers. All of these can change the outcome of serious crashes.

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      • 9watts March 27, 2015 at 1:43 pm

        “is all about attacking the problem from all possible fronts.”

        Well except from the one front I’d have thought of first: Since the danger emanates overwhelmingly from what we’ve allowed the ubiquitous auto to get away with, making alternatives to sitting in a car easier, more likely to be chosen, favored by policy, etc. This is clearly not on the agenda, and I was a bit surprised to discover this. If you instead recognize the choke hold that Car-head exerts on our imaginations, recognize the automobile for the menace it has become, then I think it is hard to not consider ways to decrease and discourage automobility when there are other, long overlooked, alternatives that could be advanced.

        “It is not about divide and conquer.”

        I get that. What I am saying is Why not? Who makes these decisions? And why are they afraid to offer the full critique, or alternately, recognize that the looming demise of the automobile for reasons quite unrelated to safety could be leveraged here?

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    • GirlontwoWheels March 27, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      I think that to move towards Vision Zero, actions need to be taken that will inconvience people who drive, and thus it is going to be a challenge to move forward. Some of the fringe benefits may include seeing people who want to bike more but are concerned about safety take the leap to more frequent trips by bike. However, it is important to realize that some people either cannot or willnot ever move away from driving.

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      • Pete March 27, 2015 at 1:35 pm

        Ironically it’s other people who drive that inconvenience people who drive the most, but neither society nor media and advertising seem willing to acknowledge that. I think your point is very important. I am already seeing places where drivers are being inconvenienced for pedestrian safety, such as at a slip lane removal in Sunnyvale on Homestead where I ride. (Unfortunately at this particular location it seems to maybe pose an increased danger to cyclists in the bike lane, but we’ll see what they do with it).

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      • 9watts March 27, 2015 at 1:52 pm

        “However, it is important to realize that some people either cannot or willnot ever voluntarily move away from driving.”

        I think it is important to be specific here. One of these days what you or I or our uncle with the Cummins diesel pickup truck will settle for is no longer going to be relevant. Constraints that remove the pillars of easy automobility (end of cheap gas, climate change) will make those decisions for us. We should, in policy conversations, at a minimum allow for the possibility that tomorrow won’t be at all like today, and prepare for nonlinear transitions to a different kind of mobility.

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        • Alan April 3, 2015 at 2:41 pm

          Even if the US immediately needed to transition to a low-carbon, low-fossil fuel world over the course of a year, a Nissan Leaf and a rooftop solar system could probably be purchased without subsidy for a monthly cost of $800 or so, which, though more expensive than a gasoline-powered car, is within the range of affordability for most families.

          Such a world would see less car usage and more demand for alternatives, and long distance electric railroading would likely return to its former glory, but even without any technological progress in solar panels or electric cars, I don’t see cars disappearing from common usage anytime soon.

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          • 9watts April 3, 2015 at 2:59 pm

            “…transition to a low-carbon, low-fossil fuel world over the course of a year…is within the range of affordability for most families.”

            Looking at this as about purchase price is mistaken. How many car-reliant households are there in the US currently? 80 million? How quickly could production of electric cars/batteries/solar panels, controls be ramped up to that level of output? Assuming everything else (charging stations, consumer demand) fell into place. What about the 100,000,000 or so gasoline powered cars currently in peoples’ driveways that would cease to be sellable? Logistics are a larger hurdle, by orders of magnitude, than the nominal monthly charge for those two pieces of hardware. I agree that when the time comes we’ll scramble to do anything we think we can to pursue something like you suggest; I also think we will fail miserably.

            “I don’t see cars disappearing from common usage anytime soon.”

            Time will tell.

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  • Blake Goud March 27, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I presume he meant to say “Whenever politicians talk about Vision Zero, they’re talking about their kids. They’re talking about their role not as politicians but their role as MOTHERS AND fathers”

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    • Anne Hawley March 27, 2015 at 12:49 pm

      Yeah, I thought that was weird, too, in 2015.

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      • Paul Steely White March 29, 2015 at 3:52 am

        i was speaking specifically about Bill deBlasio, the Mayor, and Ydannis Rodriquez, the chair of the city council transportation committee. both happen to be men. they both frequently talk about their role as fathers in the context of vision zero. Michael did not print my specific mention of both of these males.

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
          Michael Andersen (News Editor) March 29, 2015 at 2:26 pm

          Thanks, Paul. As noted in the post, our Q&As are always built from direct quotes but edited for brevity, but if I’d caught the explicit Rodriguez reference in my notes, I would have included it for context. It’s entirely possible you mentioned the name explicitly and I just didn’t recognize it and as a result it didn’t register. (You definitely mentioned the mayor by title earlier in the conversation; that part is quoted.)

          Whether or not you mentioned Rodriguez explicitly (and I believe you that you did) it was pretty clear from the context of our conversation that you were thinking of specific politicians when you said this.

          In any case, I apologize for any confusion.

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  • paikiala March 27, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    “a complete lack of risk ” will never happen. Safe Systems/Vision Zero is not about eliminating risk. It’s about eliminating the serious and fatal outcomes of crashes. Risk will always exist, even if you completely separate all modes of travel. Users will always and forever make mistakes.

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    • Anne Hawley March 27, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      This is an important . I’d hate to convey the impression, though, that risk reduction isn’t part of the picture.

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      • Anne Hawley March 27, 2015 at 1:29 pm

        Um, important idea…

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    • Alan April 3, 2015 at 2:44 pm

      A complete lack of risk is the goal. It’s obviously an unreachable goal, just as all goals are, but having it as a core priority in roadway design is important to greatly reduce risk.

      The aviation industry, through years and years of effort, has nearly eliminated accidental aircraft crashes in the first world. Most recent aviation-related tragedies have been intentional.

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  • rick March 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Hit-and-runs are sickening.

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  • Dwaine Dibbly March 27, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    When you try to get anything to zero, you end up spending an enormous amount of money for that last 10% of benefit. There are usually better things to spend those dollars on. Sure, I’d love it if there were no traffic deaths, but I’d also like to reduce homelessness, hunger, climate change, and a bunch of other things.

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    • 9watts March 27, 2015 at 7:21 pm

      One difference in the case of Vision Zero is that Sweden is well on its way to solving this one without, to my knowledge, breaking the bank. I too would like to see lots of other problems solved, but in contrast to the other ones you listed this one seems to come with a plausible plan of action.

      If we got to within 10% of the goal and someone decided we couldn’t afford to continue this, I don’t think the effort to that point would have been for naught. Maybe we would even discover that having made that kind of progress it would be impossible to give up on it; that the public wouldn’t allow it.

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  • gutterbunnybikes March 27, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    Well, historically you really can’t argue.

    Copenhagen didn’t start out as a bicycle town, even the bicycle movement there started not on it’s own – but from a larger cause of safer streets for all.

    The automobile was punished, travel by car became slower, more round-a-bout, less parking, more difficult. As a result people naturally started to look for options within the existing infrastructure and they started riding bicycles. Then the bicycle infrastructure started in earnest when the public (not an enthusiastic fring group) started demanding it.

    And as rude and as harsh as it sounds, the whole thing started largely on backs of dead children.

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  • Doug Klotz March 29, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    So eliminating minimum parking requirements in 1981,.and moreso in 2006, could have been a first step in the right direction?

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  • Jonathan R March 30, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I believe that sharing the streets with motor vehicles, even slow-moving Volvos, diminishes the enjoyment of bicycling significantly. The goal of Vision Zero is not to remove motor vehicles from the streets, but to create an environment where motor vehicles can interact safely with people on foot or bike. This kind of environment is always going to be more favorable to motor vehicles because their spatial requirements are so much greater; cars are much larger and take up much more street area than bicycles or people on foot.

    Committing to Vision Zero goals means accepting an environment that is not particularly favorable to people on bicycles, an environment that does not necessarily devote more space to bicycles, but asks people on bicycles to share the space they need with newly tamed motor vehicles.

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    • 9watts March 30, 2015 at 7:34 am

      So what do we call the approach that seeks to diminish the presence of the automobile, for the benefit of all?

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  • Trek 3900 March 30, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    Quote: “So what do we call the approach that seeks to diminish the presence of the automobile, for the benefit of all?”

    The answer to your question is “communism”? It’s been tried and they were extremely successful in diminishing the presence of the automobile – not many could afford automobiles in communist nations. Unfortunately, they diminished the presence of other things like happiness, prosperity, freedom, enough to eat, decent medicine, etc, etc, etc; and many of the countries that dabbled in that experiment are exceptionally unpleasant places for the inhabitants. Top-down control always fails – it sounds good in theory (to the ignorant) but never accomplishes the desired result.

    Quote: ” And why are they afraid to offer the full critique, or alternately, recognize that the looming demise of the automobile for reasons quite unrelated to safety could be leveraged here?”

    The goal is reducing deaths from bike/car accidents, not pissing off the public to the point that they cause a backlash against bicycles. People will get out of their cars as economic forces make cars unaffordable. But first, because people LOVE cars (I do too), they will try every thing possible to come up with sustainable cars – and maybe someone will be successful and actually do it. THAT would be nice.

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  • Trek 3900 March 31, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Too bad that dude ran into an illegally parked SUV – but if you are moving and you hit ANY parked vehicle then you are at fault because if you can’t miss a parked vehicle you are not paying attention. He wants to live in a world that does not exist in the USA. He thinks the world he prefers is in Europe – maybe it is. Maybe he should move there because it will be a long time before significant parts of the USA become what Europe has become. You might get small inner-city pockets to be like Europe but that would be the extent of it.
    As a pedestrian or as a cyclist I do not expect cars to stop because I am waiting to cross the street – I want them to get out of the way and I’ll cross when it’s safe; similarly, if a car comes up behind me as I’m going 5 mph up a hill I do not want them to get behind me and go 5 mph up the hill – I expect them to have enough awareness of where their wheels are that they can slow down, put their left wheels on the double yellow, and pass me with a foot or 2 of clearance as I ride the white line. And I don’t want them crossing the double yellow on a blind hill or curve to pass me – risking a head-on collision with opposing traffic. And if I do something stupid and run out in front of them and they hit me I don’t think it’s their fault – it’s my fault. Being alive is dangerous – it will result in death 100% of the time.
    Cars are big and heavy – if they’ve spent the fuel to get up to speed I want them to keep moving – and keep those behind them moving and not be stopping for every pedestrian trying to cross the road. The pedestrian (me, many times) can wait. Keep the cars moving – get them out of the way – don’t make them waste fuel for 1 pedestrian – UNLESS perhaps the pedestrian is very old, in a wheel chair, on crutches, is blind, etc.

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    • 9watts April 1, 2015 at 8:37 am

      Did you click on that link, Trek? Because what you just wrote is a perfect encapsulation of the Car-head mindset. Thank you.

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