The Spokes-Man of New York: Ken Podziba '91GSAPP

by Leslie Hendrickson ’06JRN
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Podziba took a post as the assistant commissioner of finance at the New York City Community Development Office, a body that decides which community organizations to fund with federal money. The job satisfied “the social worker in me,” he says. Then he moved to the Taxi & Limousine Commission, where he led efforts to help New Yorkers with disabilities. He was also the mind behind those talking messages in taxis, with celebrities reminding passengers to buckle up.

Then, in 1998, Podziba got a call from City Hall.

“I was told, ‘Come right away and don’t tell anyone.’ I was really scared. I thought I was going to get fired.”

Photo: Sara ShatzInstead, Mayor Giuliani and the deputy mayor for economic development, planning, and administration, Randy Levine, offered Podziba the job of sports commissioner.

“I wasn’t aware we had a sports commissioner,” Podziba remembers saying. “And they told me, ‘We do now.’” The New York City Sports Commission had just been created to attract sporting events to the five boroughs.

The first event Podziba brought to the city was outdoor bowling in Bryant Park with the Professional Bowlers Association. “It was live on CBS,” Podziba says. “The mayor rolled out the first ball.” Podziba served for 12 years, working to bring huge events like the 2014 Super Bowl to the

New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, while performing such civic errands as judging Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island. When Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, Podziba was one of only a handful of government officials who were reappointed.

The centerpiece of Podziba’s wish list was the 2012 Olympic bid. He and his team needed to show the International Olympic Committee that the city was ready to host the games. “At the time, New York was only known as a professional sports town,” he says. “We needed to build a résumé for amateur events.”

In 2000, Podziba helped establish the New York City Triathlon, which includes a 40-kilometer bike ride on the Henry Hudson Parkway. The race, which was planned as a one-time event to impress the committee, is now in its 11th year. Podziba also worked with New York Road Runners to establish the New York City Half-Marathon, which starts in Central Park and ends on West Street in Tribeca. The Olympics bid was ultimately unsuccessful, although New York was among five cities to make the short list.

Being sports commissioner was gratifying, but the demands and the pace were intense. “I’m only one person,” Podziba says, “and I had a huge constituency — 8.3 million New Yorkers.” Podziba, the tireless pedaler, wanted to slow down, spend more time with his wife and two kids.

It’s one thing to streamline a bicycle. But how do you streamline your life?

In 2009, Podziba’s phone rang again. It was Bike New York, wanting to know if Podziba could recommend someone to replace the retiring executive director, Pam Tice. Podziba thought it over for three months, then called back to recommend himself, thinking the position would already be filled. It wasn’t. Podziba got the job.

On January 20, 2010, which Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed “Ken Podziba Day,” Podziba left city government. After a long weekend, he began his new role at Bike New York.

“As sports commissioner, I was spread so thin,” he says. “Now I can focus on bicycling and dive into the project to the fullest.”

Bikers had already experienced bottlenecks in Central Park and at the entrances to several bridges along the tour route. When they arrived at the BQE, most were excited to be back on a wide thoroughfare. Although Bike New York had issued warnings about construction, no one — not the riders or the Bike New York staff — anticipated the extent of the delays ahead of them.

For those who began the tour right at 7 a.m., there were no problems. But riders who started later found themselves stuck on the BQE in the late afternoon. Delays of up to two hours kept thousands standing in wheel-to-wheel traffic just before the exit to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, waiting to merge from three lanes to one. Some fumed about the “Five Boro Walking Tour.” Veterans said they’d never encountered delays like this in the past. Others turned around and biked back to Dumbo instead of pushing to make it to Staten Island.

For many, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, generally closed to pedestrians and cyclists, is one of the highlights of the ride, and was worth the wait. Podziba knew how complicated such events could be in a city of millions, but even his years as sports commissioner didn’t prepare him for the bumps in this year’s tour. The road construction reminded everyone that the byways of New York still belonged to Toyota, Ford, and General Motors.

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