Letter: Bike New York Should Become ‘Actively Anti-Racist’

Photo: Julianne Cuba
Photo: Julianne Cuba

Note from Streetsblog Publisher Mark Gorton: After initial publication of this story on July 2, 2020, new information has come to light raising questions about key elements of our work.  

Streetsblog’s original story gave the impression that the overwhelming majority of the full-time staff signed the letter. Streetsblog now believes this is not true, and at this time, Streetsblog has not been able to verify that even one full-time staff member has signed the letter. As publisher, I apologize to the members of the Bike New York staff and community who were offended by the mistaken impression that we gave. Given our inability to verify the support for this letter, I, as publisher, believe we should not have posted a story on it.  

In the interest of full transparency, we have re-edited the story below — first written by Julianne Cuba and edited by Editor Gersh Kuntzman — to clarify how it was put together. But one thing is unchanged: A group of former employees, including, perhaps, some current employees, of Bike New York did indeed post an open and anonymous letter to the group’s CEO and COO on Medium on June 29. Streetsblog’s original article attempted to amplify the issues raised in the letter, put them in context, and offer Bike New York a chance to respond.

Bike New York leadership strongly believes that no current employees signed the letter. Several employees of Bike New York — also anonymous — told Streetblog that they didn’t speak publicly because they did not trust our outlet after the original version of this story gave the impression that a majority of current employees had signed the letter. As such, they declined to be interviewed as we sought to clarify our original story, the edited version of which is below:

Bike New York — the largest bike education program in the country — is being urged to more forcefully respond to the Black Lives Matter movement by announcing transformational change in the organization.

The request came in the form of a letter, posted on Medium, that demands that Bike New York actively work to be anti-racist beyond the solidarity statement the organization put out earlier in the month after the killing of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis. An organizer of the letter initially told Streetsblog that it was signed by 55 people, including current staffers, but Streetsblog has not been able to confirm that any current Bike New York staffers signed the letter. Streetsblog spoke to four people who claimed to be former employees, and one agreed to be quoted on the record.

Elliott Ray Lassi, a recently laid off instructor, said he signed the letter to urge Bike New York to sever its relationship with the NYPD, with which it partners on its biggest money-making event, the annual TD Five Boro Bike Tour. In the wake of incidents of police brutality during the protests over the the killing of Floyd, Black Lives Matter supporters called on many  groups to alter their relationship with the police forces nationwide to strike a blow against police brutality and cops’ disproportionate enforcement against Black and brown Americans (including, in New York, those on bikes).

The letter to Bike New York makes just such a demand.

“Especially when bikes are freedom and fun and then when you have police departments using bikes as an actual weapon and it’s something many instructors and superiors need to shake our heads at,” said Lassi. “Having a relationship with the NYPD will make people outside of Bike NY not trust the company. And my own personal experience with the NYPD, and advocating since I am a black voice in a white space. If I don’t say anything then why am I even here if not to really be an advocate for my community. I’ve been harassed by cops on the job. I didn’t know what to do, not in the employee training.” (Publisher’s note: Bike New York disputed Lassi’s knowledge of the organization, claiming he was a part-time, seasonal instructor who didn’t work at the group’s office.)

Bike New York’s June 2 solidarity statement came after members of the NYPD were seen using their bikes as weapons against Black Lives Matter protesters. It did not include any immediate tangible action. In 2014, after the Parkland shooting, the group stopped purchasing helmets from a company that also manufactures guns.

Like Bike New York, Trek Bicycles issued a solidarity statement, but declined to divest from police departments that used their bikes as weapons. But Trek also announced six tangible reforms to address its own structural racism, including some of the specific agenda items currently being sought from Bike New York in the letter.

Bike New York currently has a staff of about a dozen full-timers after a round of layoffs earlier this year. Some signers of the letter told Streetsblog they were recently laid off. Some had positive things to say about the group’s work in communities of color. But the letter points out that the group’s 10-person board comprises nine white people and only one woman. When two seats on the board opened up in the middle of last year, the positions were both filled by white men. (Publisher’s note, for full disclosure: The board and staff of Streetsblog include no Black members or employees.)

The letter makes eight demands:

  1. Increase board diversity (reserving at least two spots of an 11-person board for Black board members) and hire executives who represent and are cyclists living in NYC.
  2. Respond and outline the specific steps BNY will take to “continue to work with [your] partners in city government and the private sector to achieve these ends and ensure safe and equal access to opportunity.” Invest organizational resources to Black Lives Matter consulting to make Bike New York an actively antiracist organization.
  3. Require Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training for all staff, led by the community organizations with which Bike New York partners, and new partner organizations as well.
  4. Allocate 5 percent of Tour profits on initiatives to amplify existing Black, Indigenous and People of Color-led cycling organizations in the NYC area.
  5. Increase opportunities for participatory budgeting at Bike New York and have greater financial transparency, including public Chief and Director pay.
  6. Divest from all Expo vendors and organizations that sell to police.
  7. Release a public statement decrying the specific ways NYPD has unfairly treated cyclists and working cyclists of color, the way the NYPD recently used bicycles as weapons against people protesting for Black Lives Matter, and to redirect $1 billion from the NYPD into NYC DOT, SYEP, and NYC DOE for bike education.
  8. Establish a supported bike ride event in and for communities of color, including youth, that BNY serves. The majority of ridership should be reserved for our past class participants over the previous season or two, and be at little to no cost to those riders.

Bike New York CEO Ken Podziba responded privately with a letter to his staff, which he shared with Streetsblog. It invites Bike New York employees to convene discussions about how to best move forward, starting with making “diversity of the board a top priority.”

“This is a defining moment in our history, and while we grapple with emotions of anger and pain, this moment calls for action; for all of us to do better and to be better — and definitely myself included,” Podziba wrote to his staff. “But in order for us to effectuate real changes at Bike New York we must begin by examining ourselves and our organization. We have not proactively made needed changes to the organization as we should have and … I was saddened and embarrassed that we have not addressed many of the concerns raised in your letter.”

After initial publication of this story, Podziba requested a retraction because he believes no current staffer signed the letter. Streetsblog responded with this edited version and publisher’s clarification.

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