I Used to Be a Bike Activist. Now I Work for Lyft.

Caroline Samponaro
Dec 13, 2018 · 9 min read

When private cars no longer dominate the streets, we can transform transportation.

For 15 years, I fought for protected bike lanes to transform streets in New York, and policy changes that I knew would save lives. What might be surprising is what got me involved in bike advocacy in the first place — I got arrested riding my bicycle.

Picture this: February 2005. I am riding my red fixed-gear bicycle down 9th Avenue in Manhattan surrounded by 500 other people on bikes. We fill a whole city block and spill over onto the next — police cars, sirens blaring, surround us. Everyone is ringing their bike bells, chanting to drown out the officers on their megaphones telling us to dismount our bicycles or face arrest.

February 2005, Manhattan. Photo Credit: Andrew Hinderaker

It was Critical Mass — a loosely organized phenomenon where hundreds of cyclists gather once a month in cities around the world and go for a ride together. I don’t remember what we chanted that night, but I do remember that the message was simple: cars are a problem.

I knew that truth all too well. I helped install ghost bike memorials all over Manhattan, a painted white bicycle at the site where a driver killed a person on a bicycle. Without the safety-in-numbers protection of Critical Mass, almost every day, someone in a car threatened my life.

Human protected bike lane. Photo Credit: Stephanie Keith for Transportation Alternatives

But that night, when people on bicycles were the majority on 9th Avenue, it was suddenly a safe space. We transformed the street simply by changing the mode of the majority. A street built for cars instantly became a street built for bikes. For decades, traffic engineers have built our transportation systems for a private car majority. What if we could change that just by changing who used the streets?

A few years later, I would run a successful grassroots campaign to support the New York City Department of Transportation’s plans for protected bike lanes on 8th and 9th avenues — New York City’s first two. The transformation reduced crashes, speeding, and sidewalk cycling, and saved countless lives. I used that data to run many more successful campaigns for protected bike lanes, on nearly every major avenue in Manhattan, and on streets in the outer boroughs which had long been considered impossible to make safe, like Prospect Park West, Queens Boulevard, and the Grand Concourse.

Today, I am the head of bicycle, scooter, and pedestrian policy at Lyft — yes, the company that got its start sharing rides with cars. How did an anti-car bike-lane-loving advocate end up at Lyft? The answer is complicated, and it begins with a trip to Paris.

Bicycles are Transportation

I joined the staff at Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group, around the time Critical Mass petered out in New York City, and a few years later, in 2007, I heard that the City of Paris — an urban center not so different from New York — would be launching a public bike share program.

Paris’ bike share system was not the first, but it would become the largest, and I was there when it all began. On Paris’ mixed-bag of cobblestone village roads and wide Haussmann streets, I saw the potential for a city of true transportation diversity: a person could take the bus to work and bike home; they could use bike share to keep their private car outside the city center. The possibilities were endless. I knew that I needed to bring it to New York City.

When I returned from Paris, I wrote a memo to New York City officials about what I had seen, and laid out a feasibility plan for a Big Apple version of bike share. It took a few years of prodding, but the system launched in 2013, under the name Citi Bike.

With Transportation Alternatives, I became a watchdog for Citi Bike, and its parent company, Motivate, pushing them toward equitable membership rates and accelerated expansion. When Lyft entered into an agreement to purchase Motivate, I knew I had a chance to make the vision of transportation diversity that I first dreamed up in Paris into an American reality. That is when I signed on to manage Lyft’s efforts to make biking, scooting and walking better nationwide.

I am now am proud to announce a step toward that vision: Lyft will soon transform its app into a multi-modal, all-in-one space where you can request a shared car, or find a scooter or shared bike. The new version of our app integrates directly with public transit, showing you when your trip might be quicker or more efficient using a local bus or subway — even though that does not benefit Lyft’s bottom-line.

That trip to Paris made me an evangelist for shared, connected transportation, and building city streets that can support cars and buses, walking and biking — plus scooters and hoverboards and whatever transportation trend is next. But that still does not explain why I am here, working at a traditional car rideshare company, to try to make safe space for everything BUT cars. To explain that, I need to tell you the story of a young man named Asif Rahman, and his very brave mother, Lizi.

What It Takes to Transform Streets

On February 28, 2008, a young man from Queens named Asif Rahman, who loved to ride his bicycle, rode to work, as he always did, on the only direct route between his house and job: Queens Boulevard — one of most notoriously unsafe streets in America, dubbed “The Boulevard of Death”. That day, a truck driver ran over Asif on his bicycle. He died instantly. A few weeks later, I helped Asif’s mother, Lizi, install a ghost bike at the site where he died. As she spoke to reporters that day, she decried the danger of the street, and vowed to change it. From there, we embarked on a multi-year campaign together to get a protected bike lane added to Queens Boulevard.

Memorial for Asif. Photo Credit: Transportation Alternatives

That was a turning point for me. I did not know if we could transform one of the most notoriously dangerous streets in the United States, but I knew if we did, then we could fix anything.

In 2015, after years of petitions, protests, mass bike rides, and memorials — and miles of on-street proof that protected bike lanes in other locations around the city worked — we finally convinced the City of New York to spend $100 million transforming Queens Boulevard into a safe passage for people walking and biking. I stood beside Lizi on the day that she introduced Mayor de Blasio and he cut the ribbon on the protected green bike lane that would forever transform the “Boulevard of Death” into the “Boulevard of Life”.

We had done it. We had fixed the unfixable street. No one has been killed walking or biking on Queens Boulevard since. This street redesign happened in New York City, but my travels tell me it is a beacon of hope for cities across the United States.

As remarkable as transforming Queens Boulevard was, the single most effective thing I did at Transportation Alternatives happened before we reached that milestone. I formed a coalition with mothers like Lizi, who lost a loved one in a traffic crash, and wanted to fight for change. We called the group Families for Safe Streets and chapters of this coalition now exist in nearly a dozen other cities, housed within bike and pedestrian advocacy organizations like Transportation Alternatives.

Families for Safe Streets forced city officials and legislators to listen to the stories of parents, children, and spouses who lost so much to streets dominated by private car traffic. Their stories inspired a lower speed limit, and the introduction of automated speed enforcement cameras, among countless other laws and policy changes.

The community joining together for safe streets. Photo Credit: Transportation Alternatives

Listening to the members of Families for Safe Streets taught me not to accept the status quo. Its members had lost everything, but nothing could preclude them from fighting for a more equitable transportation system and safe streets. Queens Boulevard was dangerous, but nothing would stop us from trying to make it safe. A 30mph speed limit was too fast and we made sure to change the law to slow drivers down. Private car owners were at the top of the transportation pyramid, would that stop us from standing the pyramid on its head?

At Lyft, I am working on exactly that. Transportation must work for everyone, whether in a car, on foot, on a bike or scooter, and that requires a commitment to safety. Lyft has pledged to support protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety infrastructure even when it does not benefit the bottom-line.

We are rolling out an anti-dooring decal for Lyft drivers to promote awareness of others on the road, and we are piloting geofencing programs, to keep Lyft drivers out of bike lanes, reduce congestion, and calm traffic on major streets.

Lyft plans to stand with advocates to build on the progress they have made growing networks of protected bike lanes. We are investing in local advocacy organizations, to support the labor it takes to fight for safe streets, and local equity organizations, to make sure that when Lyft rolls out bikes and scooters in a city, we are working to mitigate, systems of inequity and oppression.

The Future is Shared, Diverse Transportation

I know that there are bike advocates out there reading this, skeptical of the switch I made. In truth, bike lanes, and our fight for more of them, matters immensely. But even the best bike lane is just a band-aid if the transportation system around it is broken.

Lyft has built its vision of the future around mobility — and that is much more than just ride-share. Communities across the U.S. need more diverse transportation ecosystems — ones where you do not have to own a car to get around, where people can safely, affordably, and efficiently get wherever they need to go. We need safe sidewalks and crosswalks, safe routes for bicycles and scooters, convenient, affordable ridesharing options, and efficient public transit.

And to the skeptical advocates out there, please know this: I helped bring Vision Zero to the U.S., and nothing will convince me to give up on it. I want to do right by the Vision Zero community, and that community has an ear inside Lyft. I expect you to hold me accountable. I cannot promise I will respond to every message, but I can promise that I will hear everyone.

Vision Zero. Photo Credit: Transportation Alternatives

One thing that I learned from riding in Critical Mass — with hundreds of people on bikes packed into the street where only a few cars fit on a normal day — is how illogical it is to have a city filled with private cars. If we can transform our cities from gridlock to shared transportation diversity, we can do more than prevent the loss of lives like Asif Rahman’s, we can promise a real urban future for our children.

At Lyft, we are institutionalizing the safety in numbers I first felt on 9th Avenue, surrounded by cyclists, just as the protected bike lane that I fought for on 9th Avenue continues to protect people walking and biking today. Lyft is making it possible to put more people on bikes, and scooters, reaching public transit, and never needing to own a car. And that’s a future from which we all can benefit.

Head of Bike, Scooter & Pedestrian Policy at Lyft

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