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; Mary Frances Dunham, behind Steve; 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 the online version of the Bicycle Blueprint (33 MB pdf). 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.