Speaking of Nyawk
- The Spokes-Man of New York: Ken Podziba
featured in Columbia Alumni Magazine
The New York City subways were full of bicycles on the first Sunday of May,
packed with people on their way to Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, where
thousands had been gathering since daybreak. They came from Queens, the
Bronx, New Jersey, California, France. Weekend cyclists rubbed elbows
(literally) with spandexed athletes straddling $5000 titanium frames.
Manhattan office workers in wedge heels pedaled alongside nuclear families
from Connecticut. On tandem bikes, the sighted rode with the
vision-impaired, and wheelchair users propelled themselves on cycles powered
by arm strength. And, as will happen at these endurance events, some riders
wore tutus, or strapped boom boxes to their handlebars, or attached rubber
chickens and stuffed flamingos to their helmets.
At the center of this sea of 32,000bicycles, Ken Podziba
<http://www.bikenewyork.org/about/staff/> 91GSAPP, president and CEO of
Bike New York, smiled. The weather for the 34th annual TD Bank Five Boro
Bike Tour, a 42-mile ride through car-free city streets, was perfect: a
not-too-sunny day with a cool breeze. The tour, which sold out in just one
day, is Bike New Yorks signature event, and Podziba, now in his second year
at the nonprofit, could look around and believe that bike culture in New
York was accelerating faster than his own Cannondale SuperSix 3 on a Central
Park straightaway. But could New Amsterdam really switch lanes and become
more like, well, Amsterdam?
Podziba hopes so. While the Five Boro got the headlines, Bike New Yorks
overarching mission to teach New Yorkers to be safe, courteous bikers who
stop at red lights would now kick into high gear. Summer was coming, and
that meant more bikes on the streets, and, inevitably, more heated
discussion over the vehicles proper place on what has long been, at least
in Manhattan, a grid dominated by pedestrians and cars. On this day,
however, the two-wheeler ruled. As the thousands of participants took off
for uptown Church Street north to Sixth Avenue to Central Park, up to the
Bronx, down FDR Drive, over the Queensboro Bridge, through Astoria Park and
Long Island City, over the Pulaski Bridge to Greenpoint and Williamsburg and
over to Dumbo, down a stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and across
the Verrazano-Narrows Podziba hitched a ride in the director of securitys
car to the finish line on Staten Island.
As a kid, Ken Podziba spent a lot of time on wheels, but it was a
skateboard, not a bike, that got him around the hamlet of Oceanside, Long
Island. He went to college at Syracuse University, where he majored in
advertising, then returned to his parents house after graduation.
Determined to make some quick cash, he took a job in real estate,
cold-calling lot owners to see if he could broker deals for them. He enjoyed
researching the buildings and properties, and soon started looking for work
as an urban planner at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation
and Development (HPD).
I showed up physically, says Podziba. I was very aggressive, very
persistent, and I got an amazing job.
Photo: Sara Shatz
One of Podzibas first projects was Brooklyns MetroTech Center, a $1
billion revitalization project that his bosses didnt think would fly.
Podziba seized the chance: He met people and enlisted tenants for the
center, a mixed-use facility that now houses the headquarters of the New
York City Fire Department. Excited by the work, Podziba applied to
Columbias Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He
began the Urban Planning Program in 1990. After graduating, he returned to
the HPD, where he worked on the revitalization of South Street Seaport.
It was during this time that a chance encounter changed Podzibas direction.
He was at a party in a friends parents backyard, and among the guests was
mayoral hopeful Rudolph Giuliani.
I thought, This is a man who could turn the city around, Podziba says,
quickly adding that hes not a Republican. Still, he threw himself into
Giulianis campaign. He started out answering phones, and was soon digging
up the voting records of other candidates in the race. After Giuliani won
the election, he handed Podziba a Green Book, the official directory of the
citys government offices, and told him to choose the department where he
wanted to work.
Podziba took a post as the assistant commissioner of finance at the New York
City Community Development Office, a body that decides which community
organizations to fund with federal money. The job satisfied the social
worker in me, he says. Then he moved to the Taxi & Limousine Commission,
where he led efforts to help New Yorkers with disabilities. He was also the
mind behind those talking messages in taxis, with celebrities reminding
passengers to buckle up.
Then, in 1998, Podziba got a call from City Hall.
I was told, Come right away and dont tell anyone. I was really scared. I
thought I was going to get fired.
Instead, Mayor Giuliani and the deputy mayor for economic development,
planning, and administration, Randy Levine, offered Podziba the job of
I wasnt aware we had a sports commissioner, Podziba remembers saying.
And they told me, We do now. The New York City Sports Commission had
just been created to attract sporting events to the five boroughs.
The first event Podziba brought to the city was outdoor bowling in Bryant
Park with the Professional Bowlers Association. It was live on CBS,
Podziba says. The mayor rolled out the first ball. Podziba served for 12
years, working to bring huge events like the 2014 Super Bowl to the
New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, while performing
such civic errands as judging Nathans Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in
Coney Island. When Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, Podziba was one of
only a handful of government officials who were reappointed.
The centerpiece of Podzibas wish list was the 2012 Olympic bid. He and his
team needed to show the International Olympic Committee that the city was
ready to host the games. At the time, New York was only known as a
professional sports town, he says. We needed to build a résumé for amateur
In 2000, Podziba helped establish the New York City Triathlon, which
includes a 40-kilometer bike ride on the Henry Hudson Parkway. The race,
which was planned as a one-time event to impress the committee, is now in
its 11th year. Podziba also worked with New York Road Runners to establish
the New York City Half-Marathon, which starts in Central Park and ends on
West Street in Tribeca. The Olympics bid was ultimately unsuccessful,
although New York was among five cities to make the short list.
Being sports commissioner was gratifying, but the demands and the pace were
intense. Im only one person, Podziba says, and I had a huge constituency
8.3 million New Yorkers. Podziba, the tireless pedaler, wanted to slow
down, spend more time with his wife and two kids.
Its one thing to streamline a bicycle. But how do you streamline your life?
In 2009, Podzibas phone rang again. It was Bike New York, wanting to know
if Podziba could recommend someone to replace the retiring executive
director, Pam Tice. Podziba thought it over for three months, then called
back to recommend himself, thinking the position would already be filled. It
wasnt. Podziba got the job.
On January 20, 2010, which Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed Ken Podziba Day,
Podziba left city government. After a long weekend, he began his new role at
Bike New York.
As sports commissioner, I was spread so thin, he says. Now I can focus on
bicycling and dive into the project to the fullest.
Bikers had already experienced bottlenecks in Central Park and at the
entrances to several bridges along the tour route. When they arrived at the
BQE, most were excited to be back on a wide thoroughfare. Although Bike New
York had issued warnings about construction, no one not the riders or the
Bike New York staff anticipated the extent of the delays ahead of them.
For those who began the tour right at 7 a.m., there were no problems. But
riders who started later found themselves stuck on the BQE in the late
afternoon. Delays of up to two hours kept thousands standing in
wheel-to-wheel traffic just before the exit to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,
waiting to merge from three lanes to one. Some fumed about the Five Boro
Walking Tour. Veterans said theyd never encountered delays like this in
the past. Others turned around and biked back to Dumbo instead of pushing to
make it to Staten Island.
For many, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, generally closed to pedestrians and
cyclists, is one of the highlights of the ride, and was worth the wait.
Podziba knew how complicated such events could be in a city of millions, but
even his years as sports commissioner didnt prepare him for the bumps in
this years tour. The road construction reminded everyone that the byways of
New York still belonged to Toyota, Ford, and General Motors.
Podziba once had a car.
As sports commissioner, he enjoyed the privileges of a town car and a
parking space in front of his apartment just in case he had to speed out to
Queens to distribute trophies or give a proclamation at Gracie Mansion. But
when he left city government, he also left behind, more or less, the
internal combustion engine. Now he rides his Cannondale to work every day,
cruising from his home on York Avenue and East 71st Street through Central
Park to Bike New Yorks new offices at the Interchurch Center, across the
street from Barnard College. It takes him about 20 minutes.
Im more connected when I bike, he says. Im healthier, Im breathing
fresh air, Im more alert when I get to work.
Bike New York moved to Interchurch just a few months before this years
tour, leaving its original home at the American Youth Hostels building on
Amsterdam at West 103rd Street, where the Five Boro Challenge was organized
in 1977 as a way to teach and practice bike safety in the city. When Bike
New York was formed to organize the event in 2000, the number of
participants had grown from a few hundred to about 20,000. It cost $7 to
enter, and there was precious little in the way of Porta-Potties and snacks
along the route. These days the tour has rest areas in every borough, where
people can also compost banana peels and refill water bottles with New York
City tap water. The entry fee, now $75, helps support Bike New Yorks
ambitious education initiatives.
Podziba has greatly expanded this public outreach. Bike New York holds
bike-safety and maintenance classes for adults and has designed a
bike-safety curriculum for teachers to use in the classroom. After piloting
the program in city schools, Bike New York education director Emilia Crotty
realized the organization needed to go further.
Teachers were saying, We love your organization, we love what youre
doing, but our kids dont have bikes, Crotty says.
Last year, Bike New York organized a series of Bike Bonanzas, where kids can
get a used bike or swap a bike for a better one. The Department of
Transportation (DOT) provides helmets and bike maps, and the Bike New York
team teaches students the rules of the road a road that is getting more
and more crowded each year.
According to DOTs 2010 Sustainable Streets Index, commuter cycling
increased more than 262 percent in the past decade. Under Bloomberg, the
city has added over 200 miles of bike lanes to many streets, and a
bike-share program, proposed by the DOT, is in the works. While the program
is still in the planning stages, Podziba says it could open up a whole new
world for New Yorkers.
In New York, we tend to stay in our neighborhoods. How great would it be if
I could just say to my wife, Lets go to the East Village and not have to
spend $20 on cabs? (Podzibas York Avenue address is four long blocks from
the nearest subway.) For $50 a year, residents could have unlimited bicycle
access, and rides under 30 minutes would be free, Podziba says. The DOT
hopes the bike-share program will begin in the spring of 2012.
But as many pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists can attest, Bike New York
has a lot of teaching to do. Many riders blow through red lights and travel
the wrong way on one-way streets. Community groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn
have organized protests against the added lanes and bicycle traffic in their
neighborhoods. Police have increased the number of tickets given out to
scofflaw riders in recent months, especially in and around Central Park.
Podziba is convinced that with enough education, the bike culture in New
York will evolve and harmonize with the citys cars, buses, taxis, joggers,
walkers, and delivery trucks. The curve in the road he is most concerned
with is the learning curve.
The Five Boro Festival ended at mile 39 on Staten Island, with food,
raffles, a rest area, and information booths for those interested in
learning more about cycling in the city. Podziba and the Bike New York staff
were there to celebrate, but were also posting traffic-jam updates on
Facebook and Twitter.
A few days after the race, Podziba posted a letter on Facebook to address
the complaints from angry riders that had lit up Bike New Yorks Facebook
and Twitter accounts.
In the previous months, wrote Podziba, we made planning and logistical
decisions for the Tour, taking into consideration construction schedules and
other outside information. We were fully aware of potential delays and made
plans to deal with them. However, the reality is that the delays were
greater than we anticipated and planned for.
Podziba and the Bike New York staff have taken rider comments to heart and
are working to make sure similar problems dont affect future tours. Podziba
personally telephoned many riders who complained about delays, and already
has been meeting with DOT and NYPD officials about next years route.
Its all about coordination, Podziba says. I wish we could just
fast-forward to 2012 its going to be an excellent event.
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