The case for complete streets: A Q&A with Danny Harris, the new leader of TransAlt
"Regardless of the way you want to move in New York, it's broken for you."
Danny Harris is taking the helm of one of New York’s most influential street-safety advocacy organizations at a particularly dangerous time for New York cyclists. Since the start of this year, 18 cyclists have been killed citywide — with 13 deaths in Brooklyn alone. The casualty count is a sharp uptick from the total of 10 killed citywide in 2018.
Enter Harris, who will come onboard as the new executive director of Transportation Alternatives in early September, following the departure of longtime TransAlt leader Paul Steely White.
The Brooklyn Eagle caught up with Harris last week about his plans for expanding the group’s impact, tailoring streets to specific community needs, addressing the bikes vs. cars narrative, community board tensions — and a lot more.
The below interview has been condensed.
Brooklyn Eagle: What’s your overall vision for TransAlt; how do you see TransAlt under your leadership?
Danny Harris: Sure, the organization has an incredible track record. For 46 years of working across the city, bringing transformational change. My vision is to support and expand that. Our goal is to build the city for people, which means giving residents more options than just driving their cars. So, the vision is: How do we bring more people into that tent? How do we give people real options in terms of getting out of their cars and walking and biking, using public transit?
Eagle: What’s your background in the world of transit advocacy?
DH: I worked for the Knight Foundation for four years, which is a foundation that invests in cities around the country where the Knight brothers own newspapers. In my portfolio centers in California, my role was to help reshape a big California suburban city and reorient it around people — so working with City Hall and local leaders on building the infrastructure inside City Hall to think about people.
We were working to build one of the most ambitious better-bike-lanes projects in North America, building open-streets programs and empowering residents to demand that their neighborhoods be built for people, not cars. I’m a native New Yorker, I’m coming back home and very excited to take the work that I’ve had success with in San Jose and bring it to New York.
Eagle: One of the biggest things on everyone’s mind right now is the uptick in cyclist deaths this summer. There’s a lot of momentum to change the city’s reliance on cars. Corey Johnson is calling to end car culture and people are out in the streets organizing around the cyclist deaths. How do you plan on harnessing that momentum moving forward?
DH: Well, I think there’s two pieces to it. There’s the obvious anger of individuals who died while living in New York. It’s important to say that they were not were biking or walking, but they were living in New York and they were killed doing it. The city is duty-bound to protect them. We need to ensure that we get ahead of future deaths or fatalities by bringing in the systems, the infrastructure to save those people.
The other side of it is the hope and vision for Mayor [Bill] de Blasio. If he wants to build the fairest big city in America, then he needs to start by building the safest big city in America. You have to create a vision for a city where people of all ages and abilities, from my 3-year-old daughter to my 95-year-old grandmother, can walk and exist and thrive in the city. And until we have those pieces of the vision of what we’re trying to create, we’re taking a piecemeal approach of bike lanes here, a project there.
We need a comprehensive system that New Yorkers can believe in and they can get, even if they’re not excited about this. They can see it as a realistic alternative to just being stuck in the car.
Eagle: Especially because of the recent spike in deaths, the tension between car drivers and pedestrians and cyclists has really escalated. How would you describe the climate of the attitudes of cyclists towards drivers and vice versa?
DH: The truth is that New York fails everybody when they want to move. When I walk with the stroller, I deal with challenges of curb cuts or getting on the subway when I ride my bike. There’s the absence of protected bike lanes getting me where I want to go. And I don’t have a car. But if I have to take a taxi or drive, there’s endless gridlock. So regardless of the way you want to move in New York, it’s broken for you. It’s too myopic to see this as a zero-sum game where bikes win, and cars lose.
The point is, we want all New Yorkers to win, and all New Yorkers win when they’re given options. So, if you’re stuck out in Bay Ridge and you only have a car, bikes haven’t failed you. The city has failed you because they couldn’t give you options. The car companies have failed you because they have created this system where you’re dependent on their automobile and you’re spending thousands of dollars on parking.
The problem is we’re directing the fight against each other when there are these bigger players that have caused us to be in this situation. It’s city planning that creates a dependence and addiction to the automobile. This isn’t a fight between bikes and cars.
Eagle: Right now, there’s a tendency on both sides to dig in. How do you see the organization soothing those tensions or making people realize that they’re in the fight together?
DH: For Transportation Alternatives, our goal is to elevate people’s transportation alternatives. It’s in our name. Our goal is for people to know that when they walk out of their home that there are realistic other options for them. Even if they’re forced to be in a car, they still have to walk to the car where they park; they have to walk from there to somewhere else.
New Yorkers need to demand better transportation, better mobility. And our job as Transportation Alternatives is to listen to residents — all residents. And help to not only translate their message to the elected officials, but also to share with them better options. Because I think our goal is to fight for every bike lane network across the city and also to work with people to have them see that this is not just about cycling. This is about the dignity of all New Yorkers.
Eagle: That’s an admirable goal, but there are times when conflict is unavoidable. For instance, building up bike infrastructure will necessarily remove parking. In that sort of conflict, how can we meet the needs of everyone?
DH: You need leadership to make difficult decisions. We have community boards and there’s a reason that we have them. But the point is that we have the directives and we have a vision of what we’re doing.
If you look at the mayor’s Green Wave [plan] or what he wants to do, he said he was going to do something. Now we need the leadership and the backbone to actually do it and go into the communities and say, “This would be hard, but it will make the situation better for not just your neighborhood, but our city.” We need that leadership, and you need these leaders who will stand up with us to make the hard decisions.
We’ve also seen how it’s played out positively in New York. Look at the decision to remove cars from Central Park or Prospect Park. Look at the decision about what to do with the High Line. Look at the decision bringing in the first set of bike lanes. These were not easy decisions, but we can prove and work with New Yorkers to show them cases where we had to make difficult decisions. Not everybody was happy, but look at how those neighborhoods are thriving now.
Eagle: You mentioned community boards, and I wanted to talk about that a little bit. Commissioner Trottenberg recently spoke about how community boards were one of the biggest challenges to building out the bike network. What’s your overall philosophy toward community boards?
DH: Well, I go back to where I started, which is you need strong leadership to recognize where things are broken. So, the process of democracy in our neighborhoods shouldn’t be those who have the time and the knowledge to show up and scream the loudest and because of that we make decisions around them.
We need to build coalitions. We need to work with neighborhood groups; we need to listen to those who are going to be unhappy and need the leadership that works with us to make difficult decisions. Community boards — our goal is not to dissolve them or to remove the notion of democracy at the local level. But a few loud voices can’t be the ones who keep creating a situation where cyclists and pedestrians are dying on the streets.
How many New Yorkers will have to die before community boards, or the city, will start to make real decisions? We can’t wait for that moment. We have to get ahead of it.
Eagle: What about car-heavy, working-class communities? In Brooklyn, Canarsie is a largely working-class neighborhood where more than 70 percent of households own cars. What is TransAlt’s role in a community like that?
DH: I think those are the communities who should be fighting the most for options. If you’re looking at studies of economic mobility, there are studies that suggest that access to transit and the amount of time that you commute is the single largest indicator about elevating out of poverty. So when we look at the statistics — whether it’s that or if you ask a family in Canarsie, “How much money do you spend every month on your car?” — we’re crippling individuals with debt, with car payments, being stuck in a car with giving their children asthma because of pollution. These communities deserve better. So we need to go and be a voice for all New Yorkers to help them.
Our goal is to give New Yorkers the voice to demand options and alternatives for transportation, whether it’s Canarsie or Bay Ridge or out in Staten Island. Many of these communities, unfortunately, were never given options. Of course, they’re car dependent. We need to come with realistic options for them. But also, these forces need to be coming from the neighborhoods.
Eagle: In a community like Canarsie, a commute into Manhattan by bike is not feasible for most people. What should TransAlt be advocating there, is it building out the bike lanes or investing in mass transit?
DH: We would advocate for what the community believes is right for them. So in a community where we need public transit first, then in that case of course we would look out for public transit.
But the truth is, with all of these things, what we’re really advocating is a network built around complete streets. Complete streets have places for buses, rapid transit, spaces for dedicated bike lanes, spaces for pedestrians. And yes, they have places for cars and for parking.
We’re just sort of redoing the geometry to prioritize what’s most important. The goal is to say, yes, we want to protect a bike network across the city that can connect residents across all five boroughs. And at the same time, we have to understand the realities of distance and how people move and prioritize the options that work for them.
Eagle: You mentioned focusing on what the community is asking for first. What if the community is adamantly attached to driving their cars? How do you combat that deep-seated attitude?
DH: In my work in San Jose, we did a lot of work to help people reimagine the city. We would work with communities all across San Jose’s 188 square miles. What was apparent was that when you would ask people — especially in lower-income neighborhoods — “What do you want?” or “What do you need?,” they typically point to the rich neighborhood and say, “I want that.”
Maybe they would want wider lanes. Maybe they’d want a nicer playground. But the truth is, when you actually go and you start to see some of the problems that you’re trying to solve, it helps you to understand what the pain points are and what your actual realities are. The outcomes are very different … We were able to create more custom stock options for neighborhoods that responds to their actual needs.
So, I think when we’re working with community, yes, people may say, “I want more parking,” “I want our cars.” But when we start to ask set of questions: “Okay, let’s take a look at your monthly payments. What does that look like? Let’s take a look at your kids, physical and mental health. Are they actually able to play outside? When they do play outside, are they suffering from asthma or other issues like pollution? Well, if those are sort of main issues that are in your household on a daily basis, maybe the option isn’t more parking and more access to cars — maybe it’s finding ways where you can move around with ease and your children can play safely in the neighborhood.” I think in some ways we got to reframe that conversation. And again, we empower people. We give them an agency.
We can’t keep having this fight about bikes vs. cars. We will keep having that. I’m not naïve enough to think it goes away, but we need to elevate this conversation.
Eagle: Do you see that kind of political education as a fundamental goal of TransAlt?
DH: Our logical partners are those who do work with the disabled, those who are working on children’s physical health, those who are thinking about aging, those who are thinking about how to reimagine what neighborhoods could be. We have so many logical partners in this work because we want the same thing: [to] create a livable, safe, wonderful city. As more people thrive, the closer we get to that goal.
Eagle: What does TransAlt prioritize under your leadership? If you added an extensive bike lane network in our city, in communities with lots of cars that’s going to greatly reduce parking. It’s going to make driving slower, and they may not have the access to mass transit they need. Where do you lay the emphasis?
DH: Well, if you look at the numbers, 18 people have died this year on bikes. Thirteen of them were killed in Brooklyn. So, we can look at the statistics and know where bikers and pedestrians were killed, we know where we need to prioritize bike lanes. You need to find that balance of being reactive and proactive.
The data suggests where you’re more likely to get hit in New York than not. We need to start there, and while we’re building and responding to the dangerous conditions, those are the places where we should be having these thoughtful conversations about how these elements come together. How do we bring better bus service? How are we bringing together the bike networks? Other conversations about new types of mobility, those are great, but we have real problems that we need to solve today. And we have the tools to do that. We have a bus network, we have a subway network, we have protected bike lanes and we can figure out how to use these things more effectively to move New Yorkers with dignity.
Eagle: The MTA is in poor shape and needs a lot of work. Where does TransAlt start in fixing and growing public transit?
DH: Well, we’ve obviously had a long relationship of working with and advocating for walking, biking and public transit. It will remain a significant part of how we think about the suite of options that we can provide New Yorkers. So we can recognize where we have opportunities and where we have limitations.
Eagle: How do you get around New York?
DH: True to brand, I walk. I use public transit, I bike. We have more bikes than strollers, which is a telling sign of how we get around.
Eagle: What kind of bike do you ride?
DH: I have two bikes, a Public — which is my around-town bike — and I have a Scott road bike as well.
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