Streetsblog Interview: Ryan Russo

Ryan Russo is the New York City Department of Transportation’s Director for Street Management and Safety, a newly-created job that he started in July. Previously, Russo worked as DOT’s Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Coordinator where he was instrumental in designing and developing a number of improvements for pedestrians, cyclists and more livable streets (PDF file) over the last three years. Streetsblog caught up with Russo on Tuesday, a few hours after the City’s big bike safety announcement:

Ryan_Russo_DOT.jpgStreetsblog: The City just released a major bicycle safety study and announced a plan for "unprecedented" bike infrastructure improvements. What does today’s announcement mean for cyclists?

Ryan Russo: In the past, we were doing about twenty-five miles of bicycle facilities a year. Right now we are on pace to build forty miles in the current fiscal year (Editor: New York City’s fiscal year starts July 1). Next year we’re going to pick up the pace and build seventy miles. In 2009 we’re going to build ninety miles. So, we are, essentially, quadrupling the output of our bike facilities. That is unprecedented and will create a dramatic change in the city’s bicycle network.

SB: Do you see bike lanes as a critical safety feature on New York City streets? Do they really help make cyclists safer?

RR: I think bike lanes are very helpful. I’m a cyclist myself. I bike to work. I bike for my errands, I don’t own a car and am very bike dependent. In fact, sometimes I bike too often. I don’t want to take the subway and I’ll get stuck in the rain a lot. Bike lanes help with safety in a lot of subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways. For motorists they help create the expectation that they are going to find cyclists on the roadway. And they help to make the movements on the roadway more predictable in terms of where the cyclist is expected to be and where the motorist is expected to be. Bike lanes are also useful for laying out the core network. They help aggregate cyclists onto particular routes so that they all end up on the same street rather than dispersing throughout the network. This helps motorists on those corridors get used to the cyclists. There is a lot more to bike lanes but the bottom line is, yes, I think they are very useful.

SB: So, now I’ve got to ask: What kind of bike do you ride?

RR: Laughing. I ride a model of a Giant bicycle. It’s called the Bowery. It’s a messenger-style bike although I replaced the drop bar with a straight bar because I prefer a more upright position on my bicycle even though it’s less hip.

SB: Does your bike commuting inform your job? Are you riding around the city looking at design issues and thinking, "I’m going to take care of that when I get back to the office?"

ryan-russo-bike_1.JPG
Ryan’s bike.

RR: Absolutely. My design perspective and my idea of what makes sense on the streets are informed by my experiences on the road and my interactions with motor vehicles. My learning as a designer evolves and is an iterative process and I’m always looking for opportunities to make improvements.

SB: What is your advice to advocates and community organizations who are working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users? What would be the most productive way for the Livable Streets Movement to work with DOT?

RR: That’s a really interesting question. The reality on the ground right now is that cyclists are a minority street user. On most corridors cyclists don’t outnumber pedestrians or vehicles. When we install bike lanes we give cyclists a disproportionate percentage or roadway space relative to their numbers. Some communities have had a problem with that given all of the competition there is for different uses of our valuable street space. So, I think that the Livable Streets Movement can help educate people who might see bike lanes as a less-than-worthwhile use of street space.

SB: Other advice?

RR: I’d like to see a more cooperative relationship. I think there’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of common ground in many of the things that we all want to accomplish. So, let’s find that common ground and make things happen.

SB: Towards that end, what are your goals in your new job? What are you trying to accomplish?

RR: I’d like to improve the interconnectedness of the bike network and make sure the network works at key connections like we did on Tillary Street and we’ll be doing on Sands Street in Brooklyn. I’d like to make sure we have good connections to popular bicycling facilities like the Hudson River Greenway, Prospect Park, and Central Park. And obviously, safety is something we’d like to see improve.

tillary_bike_path.jpg
Before and After: Tillary Street in front of the federal court, Downtown Brooklyn.

sands_street_lane.jpg
Before and After: The plan for Sands Street beneath the Manhattan Bridge.

SB: In a recent letter to the Times you noted that the City’s plans for bike lanes are sometimes voted down by community boards. Why does DOT even allow community boards to vote on whether to improve important safety measures? Why not treat bike lanes as a kind of non-negotiable design element, like crosswalks?

RR: Well, how do you think we’re going to get 200 miles built in three years!?… Look, what I said in the letter is that we have to work harder to get community board support for these projects which is why I suggested that Livable Streets advocates give us a little hand. At the end of the day the street is ultimately DOT’s purview. But we’re not going to stop working with communities. We’re keeping them in the loop and advising them of our plans and listening to their feedback and we’re going to take it into account. But we’re also going to try to meet our targets and make these improvements to bike facilities. If you want to see how difficult this can be do a background search on the local newspaper articles that were written when we installed bike lanes on the Shore Front Parkway (pictured below) and Commonwealth Boulevard in Queens .

ShoreFrontPkwyLane.jpgSB: Those weren’t popular with the community?

RR: That’s an understatement.

SB: But you went in and put them in anyway?

RR: Yeah. In August.

SB: What kind of complaints do you hear in communities like those when you come in with a bike lane?

RR: If I had to boil it down into three categories of complaints, first there’s the worry that bike lanes might somehow slow down traffic. Second, there are concerns about the impact of double parking during street cleaning operations and the higher fine for a parking ticket in a bike lane. Finally, there are negative perceptions of cyclists themselves.

SB: I know we’ve got to wind up here, so the big question is, do you read Streetsblog? And do you love it?

RR: Laughing. You know, I think there are a lot of people here who read it but I’ve got a new job and I’m very busy with a big commitment to pedestrians and schools and I’m just not finding the time.

  • It does sound like Mr. Russo is trying to be sensitive to the biking community, and obviously the city is moving in the right direction. But it doesn’t help the relationship between cyclists, communities, and drivers when he chooses the following terminology:

    The reality on the ground right now is that cyclists are a minority street user. On most corridors cyclists don’t outnumber pedestrians or vehicles. When we install bike lanes we give cyclists a disproportionate percentage or roadway space relative to their numbers.

    Why are cyclists a minority street user? Perhaps because it’s currently unsafe to bike in New York City. If the plan is to encourage more New Yorkers to use cycling for transportation (as it should be), then it is up to the city to provide safe ways for them to do that, just as they install crosswalks to make pedestrians safe, or stop lights to make drivers safe.

    He’s right though–somehow people must learn that cars and drivers do not have an inalienable right to the streets that they currently think they have, and I hope that somehow a giant PR campaign can be mounted.

    Also, secret message to Mr. Russo: If you’re interested in what the communities have to say about cycling and pedestrians, then you SHOULD find the time to read Streetsblog. It’s not like it’s a commitment of more than 5-10 minutes a day, and we’re your main constituency.

  • One thing for everyone and Mr. Russo to consider about “community input” is that the community boards do not necessarily represent the full diversity of views of local residents. They are unelected volunteers that do a lot of great work and provide a nice forum for community input, but often the membership is an older age segment that simply don’t bike. Also time is limited at those meetings for more nuanced and indepth discussion. I urge the DOT, Mr. Russo and other agencies to consider opening a dialogue on a more personal basis with advocates, community neighborhood associations and engage them more outside formal meetings.

    My organization Upper Green Side stands ready to work with Mr. Russo and others on making cycling safer in the Upper East Side.

  • I am pleased that Mr. Russo bikes everywhere…therefor he knows first hand how dangerous the drivers are out there. I am sure he has to hold back when speaking in a public forum since he works for the city, but if he really does bike ‘everywhere’ then he definitely knows the score.

    I expect him to be an ally to cyclists and pedestrians. But I also agree with ianqui, I fear he might be too fair to motorists…
    I guess in our wildest dreams we would have a hair on fire environmentalist – like a warrior for our cause – but I guess that not very realistic.

    I do feel that cars are automatically in the wrong for simply using precious fuel, and polluting on a mass scale. But we will never have that sentiment echoed in the beurocracy of the government…or will we?

  • Books for a Penny

    Ianqui, i second your point. Plus, if Ryan and the DOT metted out street space according to the proportion of travelers, then bus riders and pedestrians would get a HELLUVA lot more than they get now.

  • Paul

    If we follow the argument that cyclists are a minority so we should not accommodate them, then we must apply the argument to car drivers too. We must tear up all the roads because car drivers are most certainly a minority group as well. Pedestrians far outnumber everyone else in NYC.

    Shall we repave all of New York, or at least all of Manhattan, with sidewalks instead of streets? I think the anti-bike-lane/pro-car crowd wouldn’t like its own argument used against itself, would it?

  • ddartley

    Another “we should write” comment:

    We should write DOT and request that Mr. Russo read Streetsblog as part of his job. Both the blog entries and the user comments contain insights inspired by real people’s real use of NYC streets, and they could be very useful to DOT. It is not the common kind of blog full of thoughtless or meaningless raving, and that might not occur to people at DOT.

  • d

    By Russo’s logic we should widen sidewalks and plant grass in the streets of Times Square, closing it to traffic, since on any 100-foot stretch of roadway through that crossroads there are easily 500+ pedestrians for every 50 cars.

  • someguy

    In Russo’s defense, A) what he said wasn’t a lie, and as some of you have pointed out, the argument can go both ways. Like any truth (as opposed to opinion), it can both help and hurt any cause. B) He wasn’t saying that the fact that currently a small proportion of street users are bicyclists is a reason to not expand bike facilities – in fact he is an extremely strident supporter of bike facilities. He also happens to be very pragmatic and knows how to speak politically and in language that appeals to different perspectives rather than polarizing people, and for better or worse that’s what will get you places in government, particularly NYCDOT. Like he said, it’s all the more reason to convince average NY’ers why we should invest in these facilities, which isn’t such an unreasonable thing to do, is it?

  • Maureen

    Ianqui spoke my thoughts. It’s true; cyclists are a minority as a “street user” because it’s unsafe in New York City to ride your bike or roller blade, and it’ been that way for quite some time. I work all day in an office and hoped that I could cut costs and get in an exercise program at the same time by biking or blading to and from work, but I nearly got killed. Some people have actually gotten a kick out of screaming at bicyclists to get out of the way, like we don’t have a ride to be in the road! Meanwhile, it’s disgusting how cars have gotten larger and louder (since the suv’s can’t get around eachother they are honking ALL of the time), and nothing is being done.

    Another travesty is the lack of road rule enforcement:
    Cars in bus lanes, cars parked at bus stops, bicyclists not following road rules and ignoring traffic signals and riding the wrong way on a street.

    These are all concerns that need to be addressed by the DOT, and Mr. Russo should realize part of his “new job” is to connect with the public so he might want to give reading streetsblog a shot as opposed to being too busy. Man, am I tired of hearing how people are too busy like nobody else in the world is busy. What a lame excuse.

  • Jerry Ciotola

    What is DOT doing to improve bike safety on the South Shore of Staten Island, particularly from New Dorp Lane to Buffalo Street via Hylan Boulevard, a major thorofare and dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians alike. I would like to solicit DOT’s proposals.
    thankyou.

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