Our new series on women who are leading the way to encourage and support cycling in New York City begins with Ellen Jaffe, president of the New York Cycle Club.
At the January meeting of the New York Cycle Club (NYCC) in Midtown Manhattan, guest speaker Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, delivered a wide-ranging update on the advocacy organization’s efforts on behalf of cycling. The crowd was engaged; club members peppered White with questions and voiced their own perspectives.
Business as usual, one would think. A leading cycling advocate talking to a room-full of road cycling enthusiasts. Probably an annual event on the NYCC calendar, right?
In fact, this was a first in the 75-year history of NYCC and the 39-year tenure of Transportation Alternatives. Inviting advocacy into the room — officially — is one indicator of how the oldest and largest recreational cycling club in New York City, with a stated mission of “having as much fun on a bicycle as possible,” is boldly embracing the shifting landscape of cycling under the leadership of its president, Ellen Jaffe.
Jaffe (above), a partner in the media production company Davis + Jaffe, has been an NYCC member since 1999 and took the helm in 2011. She overseas a 2,300-member, all-volunteer organization that counts among its myriad offerings a highly regarded spring training series for road cyclists of all levels, a robust schedule of organized rides and special events, and monthly meetings featuring noted speakers.
What the organization has not been involved in publicly is cycling advocacy.
“Issues have been addressed over the years, albeit with unevenness, as much due to the volunteer nature of our club as anything,” Jaffe says. “We became advocates last year in a way that we had not been accustomed to before.”
Ticketing Blitz Galvanizes Club
The impetus for change was a highly publicized “bike lash” against bad behavior by cyclists in the winter of 2011. Its centerpiece: an unprecedented city-wide ticketing blitz that hit recreational lap-riders on the popular 6-mile Central Park loop particularly hard. NYCC’s message board, Jaffe recalls, lit up with accounts of $270 tickets dispensed for running red lights in the park, even during traffic-free hours at intersections free of pedestrians. During what turned out to be a dark period for cycling in the city in general, NYCC’s Jaffe played a key role in uniting diverse interests to “become part of the solution” for a fair and equitable approach to enforcement.
“There was no question that we had to get involved,” says Jaffe. “If not us, then who? We had to harness the anger in the club to effect positive change.”
Over a three-month period, NYCC joined with the Century Road Club Association, Transportation Alternatives, the Central Park Conservancy and others to work with the New York City Police Department to broker a move away from a “zero tolerance” stance regarding the 47 traffic signals in Central Park.
Beginning in February, NYCC mobilized its membership for a petition drive in Central Park and outreach to city council members and Speaker Christine Quinn. Negotiations that examined a variety of options to support safe, shared recreational use by cyclists and pedestrians in the park led to a new “understanding,” announced in early April: Cyclists are to yield to pedestrians and to slow or stop at a red light any time pedestrians are in the crosswalk. The law remains the law, but officers now have discretion and the focus has shifted to summonsing for reckless behavior.
In NYCC’s Diamond Jubilee year in 2011, the League of American Bicyclists named it a “Club of the Year,” calling NYCC “extremely active” in its community and making note of the Central Park petition drive.
Question for Ellen Jaffe: What would you like non-members of NYCC to know about the club?
‘We have a wonderful training program that starts in March for every level of rider. If you’re interested in increasing the distance that you ride, your fitness, meeting a life time’s worth of friends and having a blast, this is a great way to get acquainted with the club.’
‘We Have to Step Up and Follow Through’
As Jaffe and the NYCC board see it, engagement with the broader cycling community in the Central Park controversy set a new course. “2012 will be a year of tremendous opportunity because of the building out of infrastructure and growth in cycling in NYC,” Jaffe says. “We have to step up and follow through.” As one example, she cites supporting enforcement of the “vulnerable users” statute that holds motorists who injure pedestrians and cyclists accountable.
A Bronx native who started riding a bike at age 12, Jaffe is a passionate road and touring cyclist who in one year completed 18 century (100-mile) rides. She has led a variety of the club’s spring training series and chaired the organization’s signature Escape New York Century Ride.
Jaffe and the club’s board of directors have put inclusiveness and unity at the top of the agenda for a club in which speed in the pace line has historically been the coin of the realm.
“I think it’s important to remove judgment from the pace people ride; there’s no reason why people can’t feel equal,” Jaffe says. “I want to underline that we’re one club with common goals: to be outstanding members of the cycling community, to promote the thing we love, and to have a great time doing it.”
Growth in Membership and Diversity
Unlike some clubs that have stagnated, NYCC’s membership has grown from 1,800 in 2009 to its current level. It’s a trend that Jaffe attributes partly to improved and more assertive marketing and communications. Among her first orders of business was to whip the NYCC website into a more comprehensive and user-friendly format, to cast a broader digital net through social media, and to further strengthen programming and the club’s volunteer base.
Jaffe is the third female president in the club’s history. Its current membership is 38 percent female and 62 percent male. Within the context of the continuing gender gap in both recreational and commuter cycling, Jaffe says that although the club does not make special efforts to attract women, this is happening “organically” as membership grows. “Last year we had more women and more diversity in our (introductory level spring training series) than ever before,” she says. “In addition, our newcomer ride attracted half women and half men.” Jaffe also notes that the club sponsored lower-mileage, Sunday social rides for the first time last May during Bike Month, attracting about 40 riders per event.
Although the odometer on her 12-year-old titanium Litespeed road bike has clocked more than 50,000 miles, Jaffe concedes that she has little time for the road these days. Registration for the club’s noted SIG (special interest group) training series of progressive rides, which draws 500 participants and leaders annually, kicks off this week. Among upcoming events is a March 26 film screening at the Crosby Street Hotel to benefit the Kids Ride Club, which encourages cycling and healthy habits among youth. The scheduled speaker for club’s March meeting? NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
“Now, more than ever,” says Jaffe, “with all the changes going on in cycling, there’s a broader role for the club.”