They Call B.S.
My very best moments happen on city streets. Is that true for you, too? Riding slowly, two abreast, deep in conversation with a friend. Exchanging smiles with a stranger about a funny, fleeting moment you both happened to catch. Sitting in the window seat at the cafe, finally remembering to look up from your phone, and being captivated, as if for the first time, by the bustling human drama unfolding before you.
Our streets, at their best, pull us into the moment, delivering what the digital world cannot: an authentic connection to everything we share. They are our common ground.
But often our streets only divide: the tourist bus belching diesel soot in your face, the pothole that knocks you out of your saddle, the motorist honking at you for walking in the crosswalk instead of running.
And at their very worst, our streets will steal our lives right from under us.
The lives of Kevin Flores (13), Abigail Blumenstein (4), and Joshua Lew (1) were all stolen just this year on streets that should have been safe, by drivers who should not have been driving.
The office gets quiet when news of a dead child arrives. For the staff of Transportation Alternatives, I think that working all day to prevent these tragedies makes the shock extra sharp when they do occur. But then, after the quiet, the office gets extra loud. It is the hum of doing something, anything, to prevent it from happening again.
I am proud to work with people so devoted, not only to fixing our streets at their worst, but to cultivating them at their best. Our staffers are as dedicated and smart as they are courageous. But what impresses me most, and should impress you, too, is that the staff of TransAlt stretches so much without breaking — stretching from evening community board meetings to morning staff meetings, from talking about bike lanes to arguing for congestion pricing to explaining parking policy reform, from designing our technology to paying our bills to crafting our speeches. And most importantly, no matter what their job title is, the staff stretches into action in the face of tragedy, enduring the emotional roller coaster of compassion and resolve required to move our mission forward in the darkest times.
By the time you read this, I suspect that the staff of Transportation Alternatives will have stretched into action ten times over. But as of this writing, the most recent example of their acrobatics occurred in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when a thousand New Yorkers gathered on a street corner to protest the killing of Kevin, Abigail, and Joshua.
From Parkland to Ferguson, we have learned how important it is to hand the megaphone over to children. Even the youngest among us know what is best, and what is B.S. Much of what keeps our streets unsafe is the latter: politics and pandering and parking spaces. In Park Slope that night in March, the kids who led the march did not flinch to call B.S. when they saw it.
“Grown-ups, I know you have the tools to fix our streets and I’m depending on you to make the streets safe so that all of us, including you, can cross the streets without risk of death,” Valerie, a first-grade student at P.S. 9, told the crowd. “It’s unfair that kids and seniors can’t be safe in the crosswalk, or even on the sidewalk. We need you, the adults, to give us that chance.”
Alison Collard de Beaufort, who lost her friend, 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein, to a traffic crash in the same Park Slope neighborhood in 2014, spoke of buying 40 teddy bears after his death, and strapping 39 of them to lampposts along the street in order to remind drivers of the children who lived nearby. That night, she brought the 40th bear with her, and climbed a lamppost to strap it above where Abigail Blumenstein and Joshua Lew were killed.
“I want this to be the last time that my friends and I have to stick bears up onto lampposts because another child has been killed,” she said. “That is why this evening’s march is so important to me, to my friends, to all the kids with us here today, and to all New Yorkers. The younger population is here to fight back and demand that action be taken so that we don’t have to attend the funeral of another one of our friends.”
Transportation Alternatives was founded on a utopian ideal of city streets for people, not cars. The more I meet of the next generation, the more confident I am in the future of this organization, and in New York City’s ability to ascend to our vision.
It is true that our greatest victories — new public spaces, scores of protected bike lanes, a growing public bike share system, and a lower citywide speed limit — sprung out of the frenetic fight against our streets at their worst. But each of those victories brings us closer to our vision of streets that are humane, vital, inclusive, and safe. And that vision? It is fueled by all the very best moments that happen on city streets.