Interview with Aaron Naparstek


“These days the real cycling radical in New York City is the 40-year-old mom whose taking her kids to school on a bike. I really think that’s the thing that’s different and new and radical on New York City streets right now.”

Interview with Aaron Naparstek
Aaron Naparstek is the editor of Streetsblog, a network of Livable Streets Movement bloggers from around the world. He works in New York City and is the author of Honku, a book of haikus on road rage. He also takes his sons to daycare in his Dutch-made “box bike”.

Interview with Christopher Sumpton

Why ride a bike in New York City?

One of the things that I really like about the bike in New York City is that it’s the most predictable form of transportation. If I have to meet you in mid town at rush hour, I can’t necessarily tell you for sure what time I’m going to meet you there, or I have to leave really early to make sure that I get there. But if I’m on the bike, I pretty much have control over the trip and know how long it’s going to take. It’s almost always a very reliable, predictable mode of transportation in New York, unlike the bus, unlike the car, unlike the subway.

Do cyclists get any respect on the streets of New York?

Very often cyclists don’t get respect. It’s like driving down the street and someone honks at you to get out of the way. I think we just live in a culture that really promotes automobiles in so many different ways. Whether it’s like, you know, Beach Boys song or a rap song, to just like an endless stream of commercials that you see on TV. So, I think a lot of people just don’t see the bike as a serious form of transportation, or even something that belongs on the street. I think a lot of people see the bike as something that, you know, is recreational or for kids. And as a result the bike often doesn’t get respect, particularly from drivers or policy makers for that matter.

What effect does that have on cyclists’ safety?

One big problem in New York City is that the justice system is way behind the Department of Transportation in terms of protecting cyclists and pedestrians and the more vulnerable street users. I mean there’s a kind of morbid joke that people tell that goes, you know, if you ever wanted to kill someone in New York City, do it with a car. Because you basically are allowed to get away with murder. Killer drivers, if they’re not drunk, if they’re sober it’s very rare that they’re prosecuted.

We had a case last August, a Brooklyn woman named Rasha Shamoon was biking home from Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge. She was hit by a car at Delauncy and Bowery, which is a really busy intersection. It was a pretty bad collision and she died as a result. The way that that case was dealt with by the city was just so unjust and wrong. A lot of people are very upset about it.

Rasha was hit by a young guy, like a 20, 21 year old guy, in a brand new fancy Range Rover that was borrowed, and he had 5 or 6 violations on his driver’s record. One of them was, in fact, a personal injury case against him, and despite of that there was no real investigation.

The only witnesses that the police interviewed were the two passengers in the car, so the driver’s two buddies. The driver and his two buddies said that the cyclist ran the red light, which honestly is pretty hard to imagine at this particular intersection. That an experienced, knowledgeable cyclist would ever run a red light at this intersection. Meanwhile, it’s sort of more believable that a young guy out on the town on a Friday night, you know, with his buddies in his Range Rover and who’s got five or six violations on his very new driving record already, I mean you’d think like maybe he’s not telling the truth. But the cops just put him back in the car and he drove away. They blamed, they basically blamed the victim.

It’s possible that the cyclist ran the red light. I mean we really don’t know. But the point is, it just seemed like a very clear case where we should probably investigate a little bit further, maybe even in a panel, like a grand jury. And so there’s something very broken in the justice system now, you know, when it comes to protecting cyclists and pedestrians. And that’s something that a lot of advocates are starting to turn their attention to.

Why is cycling suddenly so much more popular in New York?

Well, that’s a good question. The bike advocacy movement in New York City has been around for a good 30, 35 years. It really started around the time that Earth Day started in 1970 and that’s when you started to see people starting to, you know, in a corporate political way advocate for better biking in New York City. So, bike advocacy’s been around for a long time. But really it’s only been, I’d say the last four or five years that things have really kind of started to reach a tipping point and we’ve begun to see biking kind of move into the mainstream.

One of the things we’d really like to see happen in New York City is for bicycling to just become normal. A lot of people talk about this idea of normalizing cycling. Making it so that cycling doesn’t feel like this really weird or unusual activity. Making it more so that people can feel like they are able to just walk out the door in the morning, hop on a bike and run an errand.

To my eye these days the real cycling radical in New York City is pretty much, you know, it’s the 40 year old mom whose taking her kids to school on a bike. I really think that’s the thing that’s different and new and radical on New York City streets right now.

And you’ve got your two kids in your box-bike. Is that radical?

Right now there are the families like my own, you know, in our late 30s, we’ve got young kids, we’re getting out there on the street with our kids in the bike, and that’s something that’s pretty new for New York City. And in a lot of ways I that’s what’s really helping to kind of push the change, just the sort of willingness to integrate the bike into kind of just regular family life. That’s not something that we’ve seen, you know, so much of prior to the last couple of years.

What’s causing the change?

I think there are a number of factors why biking is becoming more popular in New York. I think one of the most obvious reasons why is because we just have more bike lanes on the street. We now have a city department of transportation that is really kind of helping to facilitate biking by making the street more friendly to cyclists. And that has…if you can look out your door like on this street and you see a bike lane out there and it puts it in your head. I mean, what did it for me is they striped a bike lane on my street in my old place in Brooklyn. And one day I was just kinda like, why don’t I give this a shot? I’m going to try to bike into Manhattan and see how it is.

This bike lane is really new. It was just put down in the last year or so. New York City is just massively expanding its bike lane network. It’s increased by about 200 miles in the last 2 years or so. So a lot of these bike lanes are brand new. One of the results is the numbers of cyclists in the city has jumped like…I think it was more than 100% since 2000, 35% in the last year. People are really, increasingly just getting out on bikes.

How does that change your neighbourhood?

One of the things you can see now…you can really see at a lot of schools now in the neighbourhoods, a lot of parents are taking their kids to school on bikes. That’s not something we used to see very much. In fact, you’d see the opposite. You’d just see massive traffic jams every morning as parents dropped off their kids in cars. That’s a big change. People feeling comfortable enough to take their kids to school on a bike.

That means you don’t get this kind of massive traffic jam in front of every school in the neighbourhood. And the streets are more useable for people who are going to work or riding the bus. So, from a traffic perspective it’s a real benefit. It’s also nice because, when we’re out here on the bike, you can really just stop and chat with people. You’re not just ensconced in this three ton kind of plastic glass bubble. And you do feel kind of more connected to the neighbourhood in a very tangible way.

Aren’t bike lanes controversial, though?

Yeah, the debates over bike lanes in New York City are just intense and ongoing and it’s kind of incredible because the bike lanes, actually, for the most part, don’t take anything away from motorists. Up here on 5th Avenue, in Brooklyn, I worked really hard, actually, to get the city to install that bike lane and walked up and down the street, got signatures from about 120 merchants saying they�d like the bike lane. But now some of the merchants are saying that the bike lane is preventing their customers from loading and unloading, you know, in front of the stores. But essentially what they’re saying is like, we want to be able to double park for free and this bike lane is in the way of our illegal double parking.

Sometimes, too, it just gets so profoundly cultural. We just had a big fight over these new bike lanes that went in over in Williamsburg Brooklyn which has a very large Hasidic Jewish population. And one of the issues they raised was that too many young women biking with their arms showing were going to be coming through the neighbourhood now that these bike lanes were here. And it’s like, okay, so the city has to think of everything.

What do you see as the future for cyclists here?

I’m pretty convinced that 15 years from now New York City will be one of the best bike cities in the world, and that we’ll see something like a quarter of all the trips in parts of Manhattan being done by bike. I think we’ll see a huge percentage of trips being done by bike. I mean, this city is relatively flat, it’s compact. We actually have tons of street space to use for bikes if we choose to do so. And it’s perfectly suited for the bicycle. I think that’s hard for a lot of people to imagine, but I really think 15, 20 years from now we’ll look back and we’ll just be like, wow, I can’t believe we had so many cars on the street, what were we thinking back in 2008, 2009? Why did we think that was a good way to get around town?