The Man Who Saved NYC Cycling

Steve Athineos _ photo courtesy of Sheila Cobb-Athineos
Steve Athineos, who led the uprising against the 1987 Midtown bike ban, died yesterday at 59. Photo courtesy of Sheila Cobb-Athineos

“Our streetwise Dionysian godhead,” is how one veteran of the 1987 Midtown bike ban protests described Stephen Athineos, who died yesterday of a heart attack in Inwood, where he lived.

Amen. You could also call Steve “the man who saved NYC cycling.”

Without his charismatic field generalship, the rolling demonstrations that mesmerized the city in the weeks after Mayor Ed Koch disclosed his intent to ban cycling on Fifth, Madison, and Park Avenues might have sputtered and died. Without that “bicycle uprising,” as I’ve called it, the open eyes with which New Yorkers regarded bike messengering and all bicycling that summer would have remained closed. And the lawsuit that blocked the ban, with Steve as a plaintiff, might have been summarily tossed out of State Supreme Court as an irrelevance.

A confession: I doctored the quote at the top. In her fond look back at the bike ban protests, which she published in Bicycle USA magazine in 1989, Mary Frances Dunham actually called Steve “our streetwise Dionysian figurehead.”

Steve wasn’t a figurehead in the sense of a “nominal leader without real power.” But he did fit another sense of the word, one that denotes “a bust or full-length figure set at the prow of a sailing ship.” Steve was, that whole uproarious summer, both seemingly carved from stone and alive as any human could be, with a dancer’s grace, an athlete’s swagger, a cascade of tumbling hair, and a forehead brimming with intelligence and conviction.

City Cyclist Oct-Nov 1987 pic w Steve Athineos + other bike ban plaintiffs
Steve Athineos, center; author Komanoff, seated right; with other bike ban plaintiffs and attorney.

And he guided our ship, alright. Here’s how I summed him up in “Uprising”:

Transportation Alternatives assuredly did not direct the uprising against the ban. Leadership came from the ranks of those whose livelihood was directly threatened, most notably in the person of Steve Athineos, a 31-year-old cycle courier with training in communications. Athineos had a commanding street presence, a gift for truth-telling sound bites, and street cred built from three years of messengering.

All this was apparent “in Steve’s character, in the way he communicated, in how he rallied the forces,” as Charlie McCorkell, a past-president of TA and owner-founder of Bicycle Habitat bike shops, told me today.

That we should ride en masse from “messenger park” on Houston Street to Central Park, taking up the full width of Sixth Avenue, was a given. But it was Steve who had us ride no faster than a strider’s pace so the press could keep up with us, so people on the sidewalks and hanging out office windows could read our signs and cheer us on, so we could fill the street all evening long, and so pedestrians could safely cross and see the messengers up close as young, hungry, and vulnerable (not just badass). And it was Steve who sizzled sweetly in TV and radio clips and laid out, in his low-key but direct style, that scapegoating cyclists for the city’s failure to deal with traffic was both unfair and insane.

So striking was Steve’s command — of the issues, the streets and the troops — that McCorkell secretly arranged with Steve’s boss to pick up half his salary so he could devote time to organizing. It worked. The demonstrations rolled, the NYPD kept its distance, coverage turned positive, editorials rolled in, Koch was put on the defensive, TA got a cut-rate deal with a law firm, the lawsuit was filed. That the ban was quashed on a technicality (the city’s failure to publish “official notice”) was beside the point. We had won in the streets. The city chose, wisely this time, to put the ban to rest.

Steve and organized bicycle advocacy largely went separate ways afterwards. The energy unleashed in fighting and stopping the bike ban propelled TA into a higher orbit that led to other victories not linked directly to bike messengering. Steve lent his prestige and aura to the cause, but he wasn’t much of a joiner and was busy making a living. He started his own courier service, Mothers Messengers, on the Lower East Side, but like most of the business it was eventually overwhelmed by the digital revolution.

Steve was devoted to his wife Sheila Cobb and a doting father to Madison, 20, and Lexington, 16. He was 59.

Did Steve Athineos really save NYC cycling? I believe he did. Steve didn’t just stop the 1987 bike ban. He made it our launching pad to revive urban bicycling. Putting his body on the line, with fire and intelligence, he energized the generation of bike activists that began carving out space, literal and figurative, for cycling in New York and that seeded bike advocacy in San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, and other cities.

Steve had a large ego and a larger heart. I owe him so much. We all do.

Mary Frances Dunham’s LAB mag piece, “Fifth Park and Madison,” can be read in TA’s online version of the Bicycle Blueprint. The 38-minute video of the same name, by Dragan Ilic and Charles M. Fraser, with terrific interviews and riding shots of Steve Athineos, is on YouTube.

  • Steve. I could never thank you enough and pray I can thank you even more.

  • Wow, thank you for that Charlie. I never pretend to know everything about cycling history in New York City because, really, who can? But here’s one man I never knew of and we are all lucky to live in his wake.

  • Riddley_Walker

    Great story.

    There’s a lot of people out fighting for cycling rights, some high profile, some who might just write the occasional letter to the local rep. or convince a neighbour that cycling is OK.

    But some really do stand out, and most especially those in the 80s. Clearly this man was one of those!

  • Pete Lang

    Thank you Charles. I knew Steve as one of his messengers. Great dude. Heart of gold. We lost one of the good ones today.

  • Marc Turkel

    As a life-long childhood friend of Steve’s I can testify to what a “lover” Steve was of his family and friends, of life itself AND yesterday with Steve’s untimely passing, the world got smaller. He was proud of his role saving NYC biking and the livelihood of his profession.

  • One of the flyers Steve handed out:

  • Kevin Love

    I am not seeing the link.

  • David Hackert

    Steve will be so missed by so many for so long. But he will always remain a life force through his wife Sheila, his children Madison and Lexington, and all his family and close friends. His great energy will guide us through this terrible time and stay with us as we cerebrate his life. Steve used to like to use the quote:
    “I just want to be loved, is that so wrong?!”? Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy- You are loved Steve, and it feels so right.

  • Steve O’Neill

    Thank you Charlie, for this moving obituary. I wish I had known him. I’m sorry for his family’s and all of our loss.

  • Miles Bader

    So who on earth was pushing this ban…? oO;

  • DRDV

    Great piece, Charles. Steve sounded great — very sorry for his family and friends.

  • Shelly

    I remember being on the front lines with him during those protests, Im
    glad i was there for it all.Up until a few year ago we’d still see each other out there after all these years.
    RIP …Do what u love doing, whatever it is!
    Shelly Mossey – Born to Run,Chick Chack and Urban Mobility Project

  • geezitswarm

    I remember those demonstrations as perhaps the most successful battles against the demagoguery of Koch and the city bureaucracy that ever happened. Steve was the figurehead but the real strength was in the hundreds of bike messengers who joined the protest and the fellow bikers who joined in support of the fight to keep NYC streets open to bicycles. They had police on scooters trying to curb out movement and one of the greatest episodes of defiance happened when the demonstration paused for a moment —- and when we started up again the police officer found that some “miscreant” messenger had placed a U-lock on his wheel and he was immobilized. The look on the face of that dude (who frequently ticketed bike couriers for such absurd violations as having no bell) and the laughter and cheers of the crowd holding their bikes in the air is a memory that I will cherish forever. RIP Steve, you were a good dude who led the most successful act of public defiance in this city in my lifetime. Rick Wells

  • Okay, glad the picture got through… It is NOT a link… I have the original, paper copy, scanned it, and uploaded it to this site, streetsblog dot org…

  • Esther Regelson

    I remember being so angry at the ban, but unable to take part. Thank you Charles for calling attention to a soldier in the cause for a bikeable city.

  • i’ll miss you buddy

  • Komanoff

    Here’s Steve in Carl Hultberg’s epic shot of a messenger bike lift that summer.

  • Walter Crunch

    We need more of this real activism.

  • LN

    I didn’t know him by name, whenever I took the subway to work, in the second car of the A train heading downtown from Inwood, there he was sitting in the end of the car, reading the paper, with his gold bike rubber-banded to the pole, a tattered stuffed animal attached to the seatpost. We used to talk about biking in NYC in the 1980s. May he rest in peace.

  • MrBlifil

    Having no bell is not a minor infraction, especially on bike couriers. This is how pedestrians get hurt, by not knowing a bike is approaching.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    whistle or a ‘hey’ is rather effectve way to get pedestrians attention, even a double lick of brakes calipers works. bells are useful but there are plenty of effective substitutes.

  • Joe R.

    Clicking the brakes is my preferred method. I think it works better than a bell or horn. Pedestrians are desensitized to bells or horns with all the unnecessary honking going on.

  • geezitswarm

    MrBlifil is the problem. As other posters have noted there are other methods of letting people know that they are in the way, such as just shouting “Yo!!” distinctly. Also, he says it is not a minor problem. That was not the response I got from the officers who gave me the tickets. They just sort of grinned in acknowledgment of the stupidity of the violation. We also grinned rather listlessly, accepting this “No bell” prize as the cost of living on the edge of society. a place that this Blifil idiot has never been near, obviously.

  • geezitswarm

    In my softest voice, lest he hear me approaching on my bike, let me just murmur that Mr. Blifil is about to run into the metaphorical bike of reason. He is an idiot.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    it Is remarkable how attention getting clicking the brakes is in the loud city

  • Kyle Rudy

    A great neighbor to all of us at 251 Seaman Ave. His smile and humor and infectious love of life will always be missed. They say they take the good ones early – in Steve’s case that is all too true. Love to his family, and may he continue to watch over them from his new vantage point. Bless you Steve.
    Kyle

  • Robert Kotch

    Charlie,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and wonderful explanation of Steve’s enormous contribution to cycling in NYC. He made a difference. Thanks for the reminder that one person matters and that we all can make a difference. I knew Steve from afar as a charismatic formidable competitor. My heart and prays go out to Steve’s family.

    Regards,

    Rob Kotch
    Owner
    Breakaway Courier

  • Thrixdog

    Steve was a tax client of mine and I just found out that he had passed after I received a call from a lawyer. We had met maybe three weeks ago for a tax planning session and I hadn’t heard back from him and I was planning to call him when I got that call. He was really a good guy and I always enjoyed meeting with him. May he RIP.

  • Yes, reaching for a bell is dangerous.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    bells are useful, but Many effective substitues

  • KJD

    So sorry to hear of Steve’s passing, I knew him well from Washington Square park in the ’80s. He was a great guy and major bike advocate, it was a pleasure to work with him as a bike messenger my deepest condolences to his family.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

The Bicycle Uprising, Part 4

|
This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series looking back at the victory over the Midtown bike ban, 25 years ago. Read parts one, two, and three for an overview of the bike ban, the advocacy of the 1970s and 80s, and the aftermath of the ban. Activists are planning a September 28 bike ride and forum […]

The Bicycle Uprising, Part 5

|
This is the concluding installment of a five-part series looking back at the victory over the Midtown bike ban, 25 years ago. Read parts one, two, three and four for an overview of the bike ban, the advocacy of the 1970s and 80s, and my recounting of the activism that followed the uprising against the ban. Activists are […]

The Bicycle Uprising, Part 2

|
This is the second installment in a multi-part series looking back at the victory over the Midtown bike ban, 25 years ago. The first part provided an overview of the response to the ban. This post looks at that activism in the context of the previous two decades of bike advocacy. Activists are planning a September […]

The Bicycle Uprising, Part 3

|
This is the third installment in a multi-part series looking back at the victory over the Midtown bike ban, 25 years ago. Read parts one and two for an overview of the bike ban and the advocacy of the 1970s and 80s. Activists are planning a September 28 bike ride and forum to commemorate and celebrate the […]