What do you do?
I am a tech entrepreneur and writer. I helped build some of the early tools for blogging and social networking. In recent years, I’ve refocused on advocacy around ethical reform of the tech industry.
When did you start riding a bike?
When Citi Bike launched. I had only ridden a bike once in the last 20 years, but I was fascinated by Citi Bike, and immediately started riding every single day. Fortunately, there’s a reason we use riding a bike as the metaphor for something that you don’t forget how to do.
Has cycling affected your relationship to New York?
Very much so. Being on a bike has opened up spaces that were off-limits; basically all of our surface roads are now mine, too. Until I was riding a bike every day, I didn’t realize how much of the city was not for me, and not for most people who live here. Our roads are set aside for people passing through. Not to say I don’t sometimes hop in a cab, but before I started riding a bike, the streets weren’t designed for anything I would do in my life, like taking my kid to school. All of a sudden that was flipped. The first Summer Streets where I had a Citi Bike and I could ride up Park Avenue and through Grand Central was a revelation.
New York isn’t the archetypal tech city. How did you end up here?
My father is a civil engineer who came to this country as the U.S. was allowing immigrants to come in to work on the highways. I grew up going to construction sites with my dad, seeing how he built bridges and tunnels, the dining room table covered in road bed samples and reflectors. But I was in a totally disconnected suburb, no sidewalks, no mass transit to speak of, riding on the rough shoulder of a four-lane divided highway to get to the mall on our bikes. I moved to New York City as soon as I could because it fit how I thought the world should work. It spoke to me as the place I should be, because you could just walk down the street.
Why should your average New Yorker care about the tech industry?
Uber, for example, is massively affecting the streets of New York right now. Anyone who cares about transportation could tell you what we learned from Jane Jacobs and the impact of Robert Moses. But the level of literacy about those concerns in the tech industry is astoundingly low. When we talk to them about redlining or how highways were built in this country and which neighborhoods were displaced, the basic building blocks of history about how transportation affected communities, there’s almost no literacy. That’s true for tech companies that are building transportation systems, building self-driving cars, building elaborate systems for routing around the carefully-built, carefully-balanced systems that we’ve created over the last several decades. But when they make a self-driving car and they know nothing about the history of transportation policy in this country, there’s almost no way to make a good decision, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll screw it up.
That sounds pretty bleak.
It’s not all bad. There’s a civic mindedness in the tech community in New York, a willingness to contribute to a project that will help the whole city. That has me very excited. I hear the same things from people at the top to the bottom of tech companies: we all have to get on the subway. Everybody organically realizes the horizontal nature of New York. That unavoidability of seeing your neighbors is one of the great advantages of being a New Yorker and one of the reasons why New York’s tech scene is one of the fastest growing in the country.
Could ride-sharing ever be good for New York?
As a concept, ride-sharing is very powerful. It’s inarguable that cars are severely underutilized. Massive efficiencies can be brought to that; the question is how to do it in a way that’s thoughtful. I would at least want an equal seat at the table for people who know transportation, like Transportation Alternatives, as people who know technology. Just because you know how to make an iPhone app doesn’t mean you know anything about how to get people around in this city.