Ex-DOT Bike Director Speaks

In today’s New York Sun Bradley Hope scoops up the first follow-up interview with former DOT Bicycle Program Director Andrew Vesselenovitch after his controversial resignation letter. Vesselenovitch has a big story to tell and I have a feeling that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of it:

Mr. Vesselinovitch relinquished his job as director of the bicycle program at the Department of City Planning to get to what he thought was a position that had some power, he said. Having done similar work in San Francisco, he said he knew there was potential for change once the ball got rolling.

Things weren’t what they seemed, he said, and earlier this month he quit his position at the Department of Transportation after five years to pursue a degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His decision was based mainly on disenchantment with his boss, Commissioner Iris Weinshall, he said in his first interview since leaving the department.

"The city certainly hasn’t done everything that it can do to make it safer, or to really use bicycles," Mr. Vesselinovitch said. "My goal was to see bicycling as an easy way to get around town. Right now there are a lot of obstacles that the city can improve and in recent years has even created."

"I want streets to be living places," he said, "places more dedicated to social activities, rather than just conduits for motor vehicles."

Bicycle Tsar Quits, Saying Goal To Increase Safety, Lanes Is Stymied

BY BRADLEY HOPE – Staff Reporter of the Sun
July 24, 2006

When he was first tapped to be director of the bicycle program at the city’s Department of Transportation in 2001, Andrew Vesselinovitch, a Chicago-born alternative-transportation advocate, said he jumped at the opportunity.

"There was a new commissioner," he said. "She held some promise. It was felt that she could be good on biking issues."

The city was only four years out from the landmark 74-page Bicycle Master Plan that, in the minds of many transportation advocates, was going to make bicycling a part of everyday life on the gridlocked streets. The plan referred to New York Ciy as a place that is "in many ways ideal for cycling." It recommended the city boost the miles of bicycle lanes to just more than 900 – an increase of about eight times over what the city then had under Mayor Giuliani.

Mr. Vesselinovitch relinquished his job as director of the bicycle program at the Department of City Planning to get to what he thought was a position that had some power, he said. Having done similar work in San Francisco, he said he knew there was potential for change once the ball got rolling.

Things weren’t what they seemed, he said, and earlier this month he quit his position at the Department of Transportation after five years to pursue a degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His decision was based mainly on disenchantment with his boss, Commissioner Iris Weinshall, he said in his first interview since leaving the department.

"The city certainly hasn’t done everything that it can do to make it safer, or to really use bicycles," Mr. Vesselinovitch said. "My goal was to see bicycling as an easy way to get around town. Right now there are a lot of obstacles that the city can improve and in recent years has even created."

He said the commissioner shot down about half of the proposals his six-person office put forward while he was there. A year after he started, Mr. Vesselinovitch said, he watched the miles of bicycle lanes diminish to 20 from 30, and then to 12 miles by the 2005-06 fiscal year. Since Mayor Bloomberg was re-elected, the department has added about five miles, he said.

At that rate, it would take the lifespan of a tortoise to achieve the goals in the Bicycle Master Plan, Mr. Vesselinovitch said. Considering that each direction of bike lane is counted as one mile, the plan requires about 1,800 miles of lanes, of which about 400 miles are completed so far, he said. The parks department and the state Department of Transportation also are responsible for some of these miles, he said.

"We could have done about 50 miles a year without an increase in our staff, and I had a small staff," he said. "It’s not a question of money. The city has federal reimbursement funds."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, Kay Sarlin, said the department decided in the last months to increase the quota of bicycle lanes per year by several-fold. Refusing to address Mr. Vesselinovitch’s claims, she pointed to the department’s bicycling victories, including lanes on the East River bridges and an upcoming report about bicycle fatalities.

Mr. Vesselinovitch said that when Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff in April asked the department for more miles of bicycle lanes, his superiors asked him to come up with excuses to refuse to do so, including the need for more staff and the interference of other city agencies. In fact, he said, there was nothing impeding the new lanes except for Ms. Weinshall and her insistence on giving community boards veto power over proposed lanes.

"Involving someone in a discussion is very different than giving them the final word," Mr. Vesselinovitch said. "Whether someone’s life should be saved should not have to win a popularity contest."

Bicycle lanes aren’t just a matter of convenience, but safety, Mr. Vesselinovitch said. In the last decade, about 200 people have died while bicycling in the city, he said. According to police, five people have died while riding their bicycles so far this year. For the same period last year, 12 people died while riding their bicycles, the statistics show.

With his degree in architecture, Mr. Vesselinovitch said he hopes to again join a city government that envisions healthier and more efficient ways for people to get around.

"I want streets to be living places," he said, "places more dedicated to social activities, rather than just conduits for motor vehicles."

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