Downfall of the Williamsburg Hip

Cycling advocate pounds the pavement, but not the way he wanted

One of the city's most ardent supporters of cycling closed out Bike Month NYC in a hospital bed after he crashed while riding home from Williamsburg.

Paul Steely White, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, hit a slick spot as he turned south onto Wythe Street from North 12th on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. His city cruiser skidded out from under him, and he smashed into the pavement, breaking his left hip bone.

It was the kind of random encounter with crummy conditions that keeps the nervous public from cycling and gives intrepid gearheads a case of the willies. One minute, you're on good pavement, and the next, you're in a slide or vault or tumble toward who knows what.

Noah Budnick, Trans Alt's deputy director, got the news in a text message from White around 11 p.m. on Friday, May 25. "I knew just what to do," says Budnick, who hightailed it to Woodhull Hospital, where an ambulance had taken his boss and friend. He spent the next hours asking doctors about the care being given White, who for once was in no condition to advocate for anyone. (Continuing his recovery in a Manhattan hospital last week, White declined an interview request forwarded by Budnick.)

Part of why Budnick was so sure of the right response is that he survived a nightmare crash of his own. In March 2005, Budnick cratered into a monster pothole near the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge. Like White, he was wearing a helmet. Even so, he spent nine days in intensive care and two months in rehab.

Citywide, statistics show that the number of people hurt or killed while cycling is on the decline. Despite a one-third increase in daily ridership between 1998 and 2005—the last year for which figures are available—serious crashes and fatalities dropped by 40 percent.

But ask around among city cyclists and you'll hear a litany of horror stories. Last summer, Lindsay Dostalek got her ticket to the hospital courtesy of a divot in the bike lane on Berry Street, not far from where White bit the tar. "I flew off my bike and hit my head on the metal curb," Dostalek said. "The pothole's still there. I see it every time I go by."

A few months ago, Kadria Al-Khatib snagged a bike wheel in a crack on nearby Kent Street, which the city had just finished repaving. A co-owner of Artship Fine Art on North 12th, Al-Khatib happened upon the aftermath of White's crash. She describes seeing a man curled in a fetal position, surrounded by people reaching to help. "I get really excited to ride my bike again," she says, "and then something happens and I get spooked."

For the record, the New York City Department of Transportation says that anyone can report a pothole by calling 311, and that it will be filled in a matter of days. Also for the record, Budnick says White will get back on the bike as soon as he's well enough, just as Budnick got back on his.

"If you broke your leg while walking," he asks, "do you think people would ask you, 'Are you nervous to walk again?' "

 
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