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

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.


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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