What do safe streets advocates need more of? Trust, says New York City leader

Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, speaking at the Kimmel Center on the campus of NYU in Manhattan this morning. (Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, New York’s leading safe streets advocacy group, opened the Vision Zero Conference this morning with an important insight for everyone involved in making streets safer.

In order to make real progress in the work, more people need to trust the intentions and messages from advocates and their partners in politics and city agencies. Harris’ remarks leaned on how people pushing Vision Zero need to remember that the core of the work is to lift those less fortunate out of danger, out of poverty and ask themselves, “How we can create a city where truly everybody can thrive?”

In a 10th floor pavilion overlooking Washington Square Park in Manhattan this morning, Harris said the lack of trust by much of the public is one of the key reasons safe streets measures are failing to take hold fast enough to save lives. (According to Transportation Alternatives, New York City is on track to have the deadliest year for bike riders since 1999.)

“All of us are here are navigating a world where there’s a declining amount of trust in the media, in our elected leaders, the ability to deliver on promises,” Harris said. “The fundamental challenge that we have, regardless of what the issue is, is just simply that of trust.”

Harris went on to explain how a lack of trust is the reason many communities bristle at things like traffic calming, bike lanes, and other things cities propose as ways to make roads safer. His remarks can help explain pushback in places like the North Williams Avenue corridor in Portland, where longtime residents strongly opposed plans for a bike lane in 2011.

“Going into a community that has been left behind for decades,” Harris continued. “Largely because they may be low-income, or communities of color, for communities that have largely undocumented individuals who’ve been given promises over and over again — and what it means to come in and make promises or to talk about new opportunities, when somebody may simply be waiting for a stop sign they requested 10 years ago.”

While Harris identified a trust deficit as a big problem among transportation advocates, he said practitioners should not be paralyzed by the challenge of overcoming it. “Our goal here isn’t to solve trust in the media or trust with elected officials; but simply trust in how we can engage with each other and communities that are on the frontlines. It’s a very big job. It’s a huge responsibility. But in order to move forward with Vision Zero, in order to create the conditions where all of us can thrive on the streets, each of us has a responsibility to come back and ask yourself that question. How is it that we are building and instilling trust in our partners?”

Harris then introduced one of his most important partners, NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez.

NYC DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” said Rodriguez, “My first job was washing dishes. I used to walk around this area on my break time.” Rodriguez built on Harris’ remarks about the perception of transportation reform from lower-income communities.

“For many decades poor people were told that riding a bike is equal to being poor,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s why when you see cycling in New York City, it’s mainly composed by the upper class and middle class. So we need to have this socio-economic conversation. How can we help all working class New Yorkers to understand that if you ride a bike, that’s not a luxury; that’s good for your health, that’s good for you environment, that’s good for your economy.”

Rodriguez also said if transportation agencies want to move forward on Vision Zero goals, they must look like the communities they serve. “When I got to DOT, I said, we need to diversify this agency if we want to be trusted.”

These remarks kicked off a full day of workshops and panel discussions. I attended sessions on e-bikes, the impact of oversized trucks and SUVs, and a panel on alternatives to police enforcement — all of which touched on how economic and racial inequality are playing into the fight for safe streets. Stay tuned for coverage of those topics.


Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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7 months ago

Who trusts The Street Trust, Bike Loud PDX, Oregon Walks and Sam Balto/Bike Train? Very few outside of a small percentage of the population. I love riding and want to see more bike share but I have found these groups have not earned my trust.

Kyle Banerjee
7 months ago

Trust is a big deal. It doesn’t help when community involvement is only considered legit when it only supports a particular outcome and real concerns are basically dismissed when the voices don’t say the right thing.

Cycling is associated with gentrification partly because those who dominate it (including myself), do it by choice. As a group, they have shorter distances, easier riding conditions, friendlier times, you name it.

Public transit sucks except for people who happen to live in the right place and have needs that line up.

For people who’ve never had the choice, cars represent a lot more emotionally and practically to those who had the choice — so the anticar messaging resonates with few.

Not useful for building trust or credibility.

7 months ago
Reply to  Kyle Banerjee

Well said. Cars are a sanctuary and sanity pod for many lower income people working and commuting in the most demanding but available jobs for them, you ain’t going to win friends threatening to make their commutes(thus lives) more difficult.
Can’t help but think the regulations need to be on such a larger scale for any real change to happen….Thinking vehicle taxes by weight, raising the licensing age and mandating drivers education, among other things….Seems like neighborhoods would by default be much more bikable and walkable(and appealing) if there are less 17 year olds driving twice the speed limit down your street.