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

by Leslie Hendrickson ’06JRN
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Podziba once had a car.

As sports commissioner, he enjoyed the privileges of a town car and a parking space in front of his apartment just in case he had to speed out to Queens to distribute trophies or give a proclamation at Gracie Mansion. But when he left city government, he also left behind, more or less, the internal combustion engine. Now he rides his Cannondale to work every day, cruising from his home on York Avenue and East 71st Street through Central Park to Bike New York’s new offices at the Interchurch Center, across the street from Barnard College. It takes him about 20 minutes.

“I’m more connected when I bike,” he says. “I’m healthier, I’m breathing fresh air, I’m more alert when I get to work.”

Bike New York moved to Interchurch just a few months before this year’s tour, leaving its original home at the American Youth Hostels building on Amsterdam at West 103rd Street, where the Five Boro Challenge was organized in 1977 as a way to teach and practice bike safety in the city. When Bike New York was formed to organize the event in 2000, the number of participants had grown from a few hundred to about 20,000. It cost $7 to enter, and there was precious little in the way of Porta-Potties and snacks along the route. These days the tour has rest areas in every borough, where people can also compost banana peels and refill water bottles with New York City tap water. The entry fee, now $75, helps support Bike New York’s ambitious education initiatives.

Podziba has greatly expanded this public outreach. Bike New York holds bike-safety and maintenance classes for adults and has designed a bike-safety curriculum for teachers to use in the classroom. After piloting the program in city schools, Bike New York education director Emilia Crotty realized the organization needed to go further.

“Teachers were saying, ‘We love your organization, we love what you’re doing, but our kids don’t have bikes,’” Crotty says.

Last year, Bike New York organized a series of Bike Bonanzas, where kids can get a used bike or swap a bike for a better one. The Department of Transportation (DOT) provides helmets and bike maps, and the Bike New York team teaches students the rules of the road — a road that is getting more and more crowded each year.

According to DOT’s 2010 Sustainable Streets Index, commuter cycling increased more than 262 percent in the past decade. Under Bloomberg, the city has added over 200 miles of bike lanes to many streets, and a bike-share program, proposed by the DOT, is in the works. While the program is still in the planning stages, Podziba says it could open up a whole new world for New Yorkers.

“In New York, we tend to stay in our neighborhoods. How great would it be if I could just say to my wife, ‘Let’s go to the East Village’ and not have to spend $20 on cabs?” (Podziba’s York Avenue address is four long blocks from the nearest subway.) For $50 a year, residents could have unlimited bicycle access, and rides under 30 minutes would be free, Podziba says. The DOT hopes the bike-share program will begin in the spring of 2012.

But as many pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists can attest, Bike New York has a lot of teaching to do. Many riders blow through red lights and travel the wrong way on one-way streets. Community groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn have organized protests against the added lanes and bicycle traffic in their neighborhoods. Police have increased the number of tickets given out to scofflaw riders in recent months, especially in and around Central Park.

Podziba is convinced that with enough education, the bike culture in New York will evolve and harmonize with the city’s cars, buses, taxis, joggers, walkers, and delivery trucks. The curve in the road he is most concerned with is the learning curve.

The Five Boro Festival ended at mile 39 on Staten Island, with food, raffles, a rest area, and information booths for those interested in learning more about cycling in the city. Podziba and the Bike New York staff were there to celebrate, but were also posting traffic-jam updates on Facebook and Twitter.

A few days after the race, Podziba posted a letter on Facebook to address the complaints from angry riders that had lit up Bike New York’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“In the previous months,” wrote Podziba, “we made planning and logistical decisions for the Tour, taking into consideration construction schedules and other outside information. We were fully aware of potential delays and made plans to deal with them. However, the reality is that the delays were greater than we anticipated and planned for.”

Podziba and the Bike New York staff have taken rider comments to heart and are working to make sure similar problems don’t affect future tours. Podziba personally telephoned many riders who complained about delays, and already has been meeting with DOT and NYPD officials about next year’s route.

“It’s all about coordination,” Podziba says. “I wish we could just fast-forward to 2012 — it’s going to be an excellent event.”

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