The Spokes-Man of New York: Ken Podziba '91GSAPPby Leslie Hendrickson ’06JRN
The New York City subways were full of bicycles on the first Sunday of May, packed with people on their way to Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, where thousands had been gathering since daybreak. They came from Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, California, France. Weekend cyclists rubbed elbows (literally) with spandexed athletes straddling $5000 titanium frames. Manhattan office workers in wedge heels pedaled alongside nuclear families from Connecticut. On tandem bikes, the sighted rode with the vision-impaired, and wheelchair users propelled themselves on cycles powered by arm strength. And, as will happen at these endurance events, some riders wore tutus, or strapped boom boxes to their handlebars, or attached rubber chickens and stuffed flamingos to their helmets.
At the center of this sea of 32,000bicycles, Ken Podziba ’91GSAPP, president and CEO of Bike New York, smiled. The weather for the 34th annual TD Bank Five Boro Bike Tour, a 42-mile ride through car-free city streets, was perfect: a not-too-sunny day with a cool breeze. The tour, which sold out in just one day, is Bike New York’s signature event, and Podziba, now in his second year at the nonprofit, could look around and believe that bike culture in New York was accelerating faster than his own Cannondale SuperSix 3 on a Central Park straightaway. But could New Amsterdam really switch lanes and become more like, well, Amsterdam?
Podziba hopes so. While the Five Boro got the headlines, Bike New York’s overarching mission — to teach New Yorkers to be safe, courteous bikers who stop at red lights — would now kick into high gear. Summer was coming, and that meant more bikes on the streets, and, inevitably, more heated discussion over the vehicle’s proper place on what has long been, at least in Manhattan, a grid dominated by pedestrians and cars. On this day, however, the two-wheeler ruled. As the thousands of participants took off for uptown — Church Street north to Sixth Avenue to Central Park, up to the Bronx, down FDR Drive, over the Queensboro Bridge, through Astoria Park and Long Island City, over the Pulaski Bridge to Greenpoint and Williamsburg and over to Dumbo, down a stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and across the Verrazano-Narrows — Podziba hitched a ride in the director of security’s car to the finish line on Staten Island.
As a kid, Ken Podziba spent a lot of time on wheels, but it was a skateboard, not a bike, that got him around the hamlet of Oceanside, Long Island. He went to college at Syracuse University, where he majored in advertising, then returned to his parents’ house after graduation. Determined to make some quick cash, he took a job in real estate, cold-calling lot owners to see if he could broker deals for them. He enjoyed researching the buildings and properties, and soon started looking for work as an urban planner at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
“I showed up physically,” says Podziba. “I was very aggressive, very persistent, and I got an amazing job.”
One of Podziba’s first projects was Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center, a $1 billion revitalization project that his bosses didn’t think would fly. Podziba seized the chance: He met people and enlisted tenants for the center, a mixed-use facility that now houses the headquarters of the New York City Fire Department. Excited by the work, Podziba applied to Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He began the Urban Planning Program in 1990. After graduating, he returned to the HPD, where he worked on the revitalization of South Street Seaport.
It was during this time that a chance encounter changed Podziba’s direction. He was at a party in a friend’s parents’ backyard, and among the guests was mayoral hopeful Rudolph Giuliani.
“I thought, ‘This is a man who could turn the city around,’” Podziba says, quickly adding that he’s not a Republican. Still, he threw himself into Giuliani’s campaign. He started out answering phones, and was soon digging up the voting records of other candidates in the race. After Giuliani won the election, he handed Podziba a Green Book, the official directory of the city’s government offices, and told him to choose the department where he wanted to work.