Speaking at the Los Angeles Bike Summit. Photo by flickr user Gary Rides Bikes
Noah Budnick is Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City bicycling, walking, and public transit advocacy group. TransAlt is regarded as one of the leading-edge transportation advocacy groups in the United States and Noah is right in the mix organizing and educating New York residents, pushing for policy and infrastructure reform, and more. In part one of this two part interview, Noah discusses his early love affair with bikes, his views on the severe crash that hospitalized him in 2005 and his eventual recovery and return to bicycling, his appreciation for transportation options, and more.
When did you first get into bikes? Were you one of those kids who learned to ride and never stopped or did bikes come later?
I rode growing up in Vermont. Low traffic dirt roads, potholes to “jump,” lots of coaster brake skids. Fun.
I don’t think my experience growing up and riding is that different from most people. In fact, if you’re the type of person who rides a lot and is really into bikes and doesn’t think there’s much more to say about biking, then I’m writing this for you. I’m writing this for me too, to see what kind of new ideas come out, what new ways there are to talk about ideas, how people will react to them and then what we can do with it all.
What attracts you to bike advocacy? How did you start working as an advocate?
My bicycling breakthrough was a truancy scheme. It was all about getting an extra free block my senior year in high school and it all revolved around bike riding. The thing was that if you played a team sport at my high school, then you could “contract” out of gym class for that season, meaning you didn’t have to go. They figured that you got more than enough exercise at practice and games and students could use the extra time during the day to study since time after school was committed to the team. I took advantage of this for most of my high school career.
However, two of the things standing in my way of having a glorious final spring semester were my required gym class and the fact that I hadn’t planned to play a team sport, so, as high school senior, I was stuck in gym.
At the time, my friend Marc and I were really getting into mountain biking. We had started a club at school the year before and we managed use everything we’d learned in high school to put together a case to convince the head gym teacher that our rides should count towards gym class. We set up a regular riding schedule and kept a log of the days, times, and miles we rode and he let us “contract” out.
There are two great lessons that I take from this. One is that you have to meet people where they are. This is what my colleague Brodie always says and it’s true. There’s no way I could’ve convinced the head gym teacher to let me out of class if I told him I had better things to do in the final warm months of high school than run laps. I had to put my idea in his terms, so he’d believe I wanted what he wanted.
The second thing is that emotional experiences are very powerful and if you experience positive emotions around an activity, you’ll probably like that activity and want to do it more. Getting out of gym to ride my bike is just one of the great experiences I associate with bicycling. I’ve had so many good ones that even the few not so good ones don’t deter me from riding. Even with the bad, I’m usually able to see a silver lining in them, learn something, and continue to keep riding something I love.
You had a really terrible crash in 2005. What happened?
I don’t know and here’s the thing: when we talk about bicycling, the conversation comes around to crashes too often. I’m trying to promote this activity, get more people to do it, so the last thing I want to do is tell them about a scary experience I had doing it. What is it with us? It’s like the anti-cycling, highway builders, auto-industrial complex conspiracy put a chip in our heads that gets us to tell horrible crash stories as soon as we start talking about bicycling. I mean, if you owned a restaurant would you tell everyone about the time your customer got food poisoning?
If people want to know about my crash, I’m happy to talk to them. There’s a great ending: I’m back on my bike, I still love to ride; the City of New York built an amazing protected bike path on the street where I crashed; my life goes on. If I can ever be a resource to anyone recovering from a crash or people dealing with the trauma of a loved one who’s suffered a crash, please reach out to me. I’d love to talk, tell you what happened during my recovery, what I went through, what my family and friends did for me. It was amazing, really amazing.
Noah at the site of his crash in Brooklyn, four years later. Formerly a dangerous stretch of road for bicyclist, the city built a high-quality, separated bike path in 2009. Photo by Sean Patrick Farrell.
Was it hard to return to riding after you recovered? Did it change your viewpoints about advocacy in anyway?
The first time I got on a bike after my crash, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was in physical therapy and one day the therapist said, “OK, next time we’re going to go for a bike ride.” They didn’t ask me if I wanted to or not, they just said we’re going and I didn’t question it. When the day came and I got on the bike, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I would be able to pedal or balance. Would I fall off, starting crying, lose it, have a breakdown?
I got on and started pedaling and everything was OK. You know the saying…
The ride was amazing and I couldn’t wait to do it again. The catch was that part of my rehab program was that I wasn’t allowed to bike in traffic for a year. I bought my first monthly unlimited ride MetroCard.
During that year, I learned to embrace other ways of getting around. Before my crash, I was one of those people who pretty much rode everywhere, all the time, which was fine and I think is awesome. For me, being forced to take a break from riding made me appreciate the ability to live without bike or a car. I got to read a lot because I took the train and bus everywhere. I walked a bit more too. Going on seven years after the crash (so six years back on my bike), I love riding as passionately as I did before my crash, but I ride less and take transit and walk more.
These days, the thing I love about riding is that when I ride, I ride because that’s how I want to travel. I ride for the pure enjoyment of bicycling. I don’t ride because I feel like I have to prove anything or because I’m a “cyclist” and I have no other choice. Or because bicycles are superior to other forms of travel and I can’t use any sort of less healthy, less environmental, less city-friendly way of getting around. Other times, I take the subway for the pure enjoyment of taking the train (i.e. reading or listening to my walkman). I take the bus because I want to take the bus or I walk because that’s how I want to get from A to B. I’ve even been known to take a taxicab from time to time.
As an advocate, I’ve come to appreciate the necessity of having multiple of ways of getting around everyday, especially in a city. If you want to live in a healthy city, then we all need access to transportation choices (transportation alternatives, if you will). It’s like your diet: everyone knows that a healthy diet includes a mix of grains, fruits, and vegetables; you can also throw in some meat and diary, a little fat and sugar from time to time. It’s a mix, that’s my point. People are healthy, streets are healthy, neighborhoods are healthy, and cities are healthy when choices are available. People will pick them if they offer competitive advantages; we like variety.
In recent years, I’ve worked a lot on public transit advocacy, ensuring secure, sustainable funding for transit in New York. Transit is the lifeblood of the city, region, and state (given the size of New York City’s economic wealth, you could even say it’s critical to the U.S. economy). Even if you drive, you benefit from transit. What would happen if the eight million people who ride subways and buses everyday decided to drive? What would the air be like? Imagine the traffic jams. Where would they park?! Transportation Alternatives has advocated for programs like road pricing and other innovative ways to fund public transit. This is essential to keep New York’s hundred year-old transit system running for another hundred years and to keep the city prosperous and ensure a good, healthy quality of life for the people here.
I’ve also done a lot of work on road safety. We need to set a goal as a city, as a country, and as a society that no one should be killed or seriously injured in traffic. In Sweden, they call this Vision Zero. All traffic crashes have contributing factors, so if you understand what happened, then you can work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Almost all traffic crashes are preventable. It’s like any other public health problem: you examine what leads to it, and you apply countermeasures to keep it from happening in the first place. Like a vaccine.
This is the 21st century. We’ve wiped out scores of infectious diseases; we identified environmental harms like lead and have stamped out lead poisoning. We know what causes traffic crashes, so no one should be killed or seriously injured on our roads. We have the greatest engineers, the best designers, the savviest media who have ever lived. How can we not design our streets and public space to be as safe as possible?