Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Second Viewing of Bike Film Raises Questions, June 27, 2006

“Contested Streets” Raises More Questions
June 27, 2006--Transportation Alternatives brought together the media, city advocates, and TA members to a viewing of the now completed film “Contested Streets” on Tuesday. But the absence of significant New York City officials at the showing demonstrated just how difficult it is for the advocacy group to retain alliances with a city administration that is often the target of their criticism.
The new and improved version compares innovative cycling and pedestrian plans incorporated in Copenhagen, Paris and London, with the dangerous streets of New York. Cyclists are still reeling from the devastating news of two more cyclist deaths in the past week, Dr. Carl Nacht, 56, along the Westside Greenway, and Derek Lake, 23, on Houston St., pointing to the ever more perilous environment here, even on the coveted and heavily used cycling-specific greenway.
Directed by Stefan Shaefer, and produced by Diane Crespo, the film was first shown earlier this year. Perhaps largely for that reason, the second viewing lacked the magnificent energy and momentum of the first. And although some city officials were present at the first viewing, Iris Weinshall, the city's transportation commissioner was notably absent on Tuesday.
Empty also was the seat being held in the first row, center, for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a reflection perhaps of the lack of political will in this city for change, but also perhaps of the difficult role of TA to be both a champion of change while also cajoling important players to come view this hopeful portrayal of what needs to be accomplished .
The film's impact for those who are willing to go see it, even viewed for a second time, is still great. It raises the faraway hope that one day, we too can ride carelessly to work with our ties flying behind us, our children strapped into front-cargo cabooses, whilst sporting flip-flops and skirts, our hair flying in the breeze. Interviews with New York City historians Mike Wallace and Kenneth Jackson about the need for more space for people—not cars---are so to the point and articulate they take your breath away.
While the film was elevating, inspiring and forward thinking, it also left the audience wanting more specific examples of what can and should be implemented. To be fair, to do so presumably would have taken more time and more work by the filmmaker and his producer, and getting the film out to the public was likely an imperative, as it should be: It is an excellent piece that should serve well as a calling card for change.
But achieving that change may prove difficult, primarily because TA has not been successful in gaining cooperation from the city departments responsible for traffic, possibly the inevitable result of being an advocacy organization whose goal is to create change.
But the blame cannot entirely fall on the process or even on the failings of Mayor Bloomberg and his subordinates. The alliances TA is willing to create could well make a difference, as well as their methodology. Past actions serve as a good example, such as TA’s “young turks” of 1966, who chose defiance—blocking traffic and laying their bikes down in front of cars to get Central Park closed to car traffic on the weekends-- over the present-day more passive use of marketing campaigns.
It brings to mind Al Gore’s very well executed film “Inconvenient Truth,” which is waging its political battle on the media front instead of at the polls.
And the importance of strategic alliances and deciding where effort and funding is best focused should perhaps be rethought in the cycling community: Although the audience and the film were peppered with important bicycling and pedestrian advocates, such as Tim Tompkins, head of the 42nd St. Business Improvement District, and Kathryn Wylde, head of Partnership for New York City, TA has curiously chosen to add previous first deputy commissioner of transportation Sam Schwartz to the film in the second version.
On the face of things, the choice is deft because of Schwartz's media association with the term "gridlock." But by his own admission Schwartz has been largely a car man since his government stint some 20 years ago. And perhaps irksome to the more media shy Commissioner Weinshall, Schwartz’s media blitz every time there is a traffic jam in New York City might feel like an affront to her job function and a repetitive irritant.
Lest we forget, Ms. Weinshall is not allowed to make many public statements should they be thrown back at her by New York’s merciless media troops. And she is also wife to NY State Senator Chuck Schumer who actually rides his bike to work, arriving in sweat pants, not tie and jacket, to some important political events.
An important side note, you can hardly take Al Gore seriously on emission controls when he is depicted in “Inconvenient Truth” in summertime suited up in grey wool, being chauffeured to his media jaunts in a luxuriously appointed, air-conditioned, black limousine. Which is precisely the point: you must be thoroughly consistent in all your choices.
Further, viewers can hardly come to any conclusion about the changes Weinshall wants or has made because we never hear from her. It might have been more politically expedient to quote her and show what efforts the city has made no matter how small and insignificant they may seem to cyclists.
Still, the film does depict previous New York Metropolitan Transit chief Robert R. Kiley who was in charge of transportation planning in London from 2000 to 2006, and comes off as very evolved, since he made changes to London's bike routes, and instituted congestion pricing there. The film practically breaks your heart that Kiley—or someone like him-- cannot be elevated from his status as London planner, to New York City DOT Commissioner.
With all the money spent on the film, its two showings, and the trip by Jan Gehl previously, all reputedly costing well over $100,000, it is a shame that someone did not think of sending flowers to or taking to lunch (both under $75) Ms. Weinshall, as well as kinder words opined in public about her department.
In many areas, TA is doing an excellent job balancing their need to create change and controversy with the need for political alliances. Their viral marketing plan, offering viewers a chance to set up a private DVD showing of “Contested Streets” with their friends and neighbors is a great idea, and it may work in spreading the word that change is necessary and doable in this great city of ours.
And one could argue that it is difficult to know just how hard it is to navigate the quagmire of New York City politics: It’s always easier to wag your tongue or your pen from the outside than to be a player deep in the swirl of underwater currents.
It is clear, nonetheless, that the driven energy and creativity of Paul Steely White and his resourceful staff, including Dani Simons who organized the film event, has done wonders for the organization, reenergizing its members, and hopefully will take New Yorkers one more big step towards the path of bike Nirvana.
Get the DVD, and show it to your friends—and we may well be there soon.
To obtain a DVD copy of the film contact Dani Simons at

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