From the Magazine: Paul Steely White

This story originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 issue (members only) of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

By Dan D'Ambrosio

The Big Apple is a long way from Adventure Cycling Association’s front desk, but Paul Steely White has found himself at the forefront of cycling in New York as the head of Transportation Alternatives.

If you visited Adventure Cycling’s Missoula headquarters in 1997, you may have been greeted at the front desk by a young University of Montana student named Paul Steely White.

White was working part time at Adventure Cycling while studying in the university’s graduate program for environmental science, a program well known for its grizzly bear studies. But White wasn’t interested in bears; he was interested in bicycling and, in particular, bicycling’s power to change the world. 

“I had a really great advisor who said, ‘You’re really passionate about bicycling. Everybody else is studying grizzly bear habitat, there’s no shortage of those folks,’” White remembered. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to figure out what I wanted to do while working at Adventure Cycling Association.”

One day White was opening the mail when he found two magazines, one from Transportation Alternatives (TA), and the other from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). Both were based in New York, and both were concerned with the potential of the bicycle as a means of solving not only some of the world’s transportation problems, but also its social problems.

“They shared the same address,” White said. “That seemed to be the epicenter of bike culture, at least in New York, and maybe the world. I decided I better start a correspondence.”

White wrote a letter to ITDP, saying he was a graduate student in Montana looking for a good project to work on. The response was more than he could have hoped for.

“They sent me to Africa to evaluate their microfinance programs dealing with bicycles,” White said.

White then landed an internship at ITDP, which sees bicycles as “one of the most affordable and practical ways to reduce CO2 emissions while boosting access to economic opportunity for the poor.”

White described his first trip to Africa as a “dream gig.” He was in Mozambique and South Africa for two months before returning to New York where ITDP told him if he could raise his own money by landing a grant he could work there.

“I managed to eke out a little niche for myself,” White said. “As I was doing all that, I got to know the folks next door at Transportation Alternatives.”

White describes the staff at TA as a “very spirited bunch of New Yorkers” who were trying to make Central Park completely car-free by banning cars from Central Park Drive.

Out of Africa

White later returned to South Africa with his wife, working on projects in Senegal, Ghana, and Tanzania from his base in Cape Town. He worked for ITDP until 2003, living in Africa full time from 2001 to 2003.

“I was there representing a different point of view that hasn’t turned out the way we wanted,” White said. “I think for a lot of people Africa represents an exotic, attractive, adventurous kind of place. When you get there, you realize that’s all true, but you also realize that like a big city, you can never really know the place.”

White’s message of looking to the bicycle as the centerpiece of transportation policy and a vehicle to lift people out of poverty was not particularly well received, especially considering that he is an American.

“A lot of people in Africa and all over the world were looking to America for answers, for exemplary policy,” White said. “Modernism equaled motorization. The way to modernize a city or a country was to build highways and get people in cars.”

Ultimately White said he was seen as a “carpetbagger” — an outsider — telling the people of Africa to reject cars in favor of bicycles while America continued its century-old love affair with cars. The message White began to hear more and more frequently was, “Why don’t you go back home?”

In 2003 that opportunity presented itself when White and his wife were attending Velo-city in Paris. Velo-city dates back to 1980 in Bremen, Germany, and has become one of the most influential annual cycling conferences in the world, bringing together advocates and experts, and inspiring the founding of the European Cyclists’ Federation in 1983.

While in Paris, White learned that the executive director position at Transportation Alternatives was open, and some of his friends believed he would be the perfect person to fill it.

“One of Transportation Alternative’s board members generously flew me to New York to interview with other board members,” White said. “Despite a lack of experience, I was chosen for the job.”

If you can make it here …

White described his first years as executive director as a “trial by fire.”

“I was lucky to have a lot of patient people working for me, and we managed to get a few things done,” White said.

Settling into his new job, White said he began to realize that the best way to change the world was to change New York.

“New York is a pretty big deal,” he said. “If New York can make bicycling an easy, everyday thing, it sets an example and becomes a beacon for other cities. So many cities have copied designs and approaches we achieved. It’s very satisfying.”

Driving the transformation of bicycling in New York have been the hundreds of volunteers who work for Transportation Alternatives, magnifying the influence of the full-time staff of approximately 35. There were four employees on TA’s staff when White took over in 2003.

White estimates Transportation Alternatives can count on between 1,200 and 1,300 volunteers to show up for community board meetings, call their elected officials, and “otherwise badger people in power to make the streets more humane.”

“They are a selfless bunch of people who believe in the power of bicycling,” White said. “It’s a joy to work with them.”

White also gives credit to New York’s elected officials for the progress bicycling has made in that city.

“A lot of our ascendancy has been spurred by the leadership of people like Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg and Mayor (Bill) de Blasio,” White said.

Under Bloomberg, and now de Blasio, New York’s network of bike lanes continues to expand, including protected bike lanes, which put a row of parked cars between cyclists and city traffic. Protected lanes are the brainchild of Danish designer Jan Gehl, an architect based in Copenhagen, Denmark, who has made a career out of reorienting cities toward cyclists and pedestrians.

The first protected lanes were on eighth and ninth avenues in Manhattan, the result, White said, of “door-to-door advocacy,” helping residents understand why the street was about to change and how protected bike lanes would make the streets more functional for everyone.

“We do that every day — provide political cover for innovations the city is inclined to do but won’t do without knowing people will respond to the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who will cry foul,” White said.

White credits Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, with dispelling “persistent canards” who kept previous commissioners from pursuing bike lanes in the city.

Those canards included the notion that no one would use bike lanes and that more people would be injured and killed if they were put in place.

“The opposite came to pass,” White said. “They create safer streets for everyone. It’s been a virtuous cycle.”

Right now New York only has about 100 miles of protected bike lanes, but for White the game is about expanding that network.

“As much as bicycling has grown, we’re not going to grow it to a more meaningful portion of the population until we can provide the safety of protected lanes,” he said.

Saving the world one bicycle at a time

White’s passion for bicycles and the good they can do in the world is very  personal. It goes back to when he was a six-year-old boy and his parents were going through a difficult divorce.

“My sister went to visit my mom, and I went to live with dad,” White said. “It was a tough time for all of us.”

That summer White’s father bought him a new Schwinn bike with a five-speed gearshift, like the stick in a car. His father also taught him to ride the bike, which White remembers as a grueling and frustrating experience.

“I’ve never been super athletic,” White said. “I didn’t get it right away. There were lots of scrapes and bruises and bloody knees. Everything seemed to be going wrong for me.”

But finally White did get it, achieving what he calls “escape velocity.”

“Staying up by myself, riding, it really did feel like flying,” White said. “It was so liberating. I achieved escape velocity from all I was experiencing that summer.”

What Adventure Cycling Association taught White in the summer of 1997 was that bicycling could become a way of life, something you did as an adult.

“You didn’t have to give up that joy of riding as a kid on a Schwinn Stingray,” he said. “It could carry over into adult life. That was an important step for me.”

Today White, 46, has three children of his own — an eight-year-old girl and two-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. His wife is a cyclist as well. As newlyweds White and his wife Zoe did a self-contained bike tour from Chicago to Minneapolis, through the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, which escaped the land-altering effects of the glaciers.

White said the region has “small, peaky hills” and rich farmlands with well-paved country roads.

“That was very special, a very special time for us,” he said. “It’s hard to remember times before the kids were born.”

White and Zoe recently celebrated their 15th anniversary by inviting friends to a place they have in upstate New York for a barbecue. Many of their friends rode bicycles up from the city.

White isn’t sure what’s next for him, but he says he’ll stay at Transportation Alternatives as long as he has the support of the board and the staff, and as long as he feels useful. White is also cognizant, however, of the need to make way for new voices and new leaders. 

Whatever he does next, it will involve bicycles and it will involve cities, where White believes the most important social battles are fought. 

“Most of humanity lives in cities,” he said. “The challenge of making cities livable is one of the main projects facing humanity. Bicycling can make cities livable in a way no other form of transportation can. Bicycling has a lot more potential to shape our cities and our lives. Who knows how far it can go? Maybe we’re just at the beginning.”  

Dan D’Ambrosio is a contributing writer for Adventure Cyclist magazine.