COBBLE HILL – The first thing one notices when approaching Thomas DeVito is a beautiful Jindo-mix puppy named Lennie who, much like her owner, doesn’t like to sit still. DeVito is the Director of Advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, an organization on a mission to “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile”.
The 33-year-old, who sometimes has a short beard, sometimes a long one, lives in Cobble Hill. He’s surprisingly good at archery, he said and is a self-proclaimed pizza snob. If DeVito’s going out to try the artisanal pizza, he will always go with the simple cheese, with a bit of basil, and sometimes garlic if he’s really feeling it. If he’s just going out to eat a slice, his go-to is mushrooms. But this is all when he’s not working. And DeVito is almost always working.
TransAlt is at the forefront of the fight for street safety. It’s an organization made up of 100,000 supporters and activists who advocate for street redesigning, congestion pricing, better public transportation, bikers, pedestrians, and just about anyone that uses the street.
DeVito is in charge of advocacy and works a lot with Families for Safe Streets – a passionate group made up of family members and friends who have lost someone (or have someone that was seriously injured) in traffic crashes. They fight for change and provide support for one another. In the midst of it all, they grieve.
“There’s a lot of pain. But, it’s very gratifying to be able to be a guide. For a lot of families, it’s a very therapeutic process,” DeVito said. “The idea of advocacy is something that is part of the healing process for the folks who engage in it.”
Families for Safe Streets are the most amazing people he has ever met, DeVito said. “It’s a continual source of inspiration, as well as that you never want to fail the families. That’s something that we at TransAlt, and myself particularly, feel very deeply.”
Hearing about people being hit by cars is something DeVito, who grew up in New Jersey, had been used to. Every single year around prom time, he said, the school board would drag a mangled car and place it in front of the school. They’d have the students see it and tell them “This could be you.” And every single year, either someone from his school or a neighboring school ended up in a crash.
“These stories are extremely common,” DeVito said. “We’ve become numb to them as a society and it takes shaking in order to snap people out of it and say this shouldn’t be normal.”
Even though he hears about traffic crashes all the time, it doesn’t make it hurt any less. The first thought that runs through his mind (and the minds of members at TransAlt) is they want to get the right information. The first details that come out of crashes are usually wrong, DeVito said, and there’s often a tendency of blaming the victim.
“There are a number of members of Families for Safe Streets that have been on that side of the story where the victim was blamed,” DeVito said. “That pain then adds to the unbelievable pain of the crash and the loss itself. To have families go through that and also blame them is very traumatizing.”
In 2013, on one of his very first days working at TransAlt, he was asked to come to 135th Steet and Amsterdam Avenue to speak with a representative from then-Council Member Robert Jackson’s office. It was there he met a mother whose son was attending City College. He was about to graduate when he was hit at an intersection and lost his leg. Because of the injuries he sustained, he did not end up finishing college at that time. To this day, that story is engrained in DeVito’s head.
“They all stick with you,” he said.
The other part of DeVito’s job is advocating for better street designs and cyclist safety, even though he isn’t really a biker himself. He identifies as a militant pedestrian, though he sometimes does tool around on a CitiBike where there are protected bike lanes.
“I often say my job at TransAlt will be done the moment I personally feel safe enough to ride to work,” DeVito said. “Most New Yorkers are in the same boat. People are interested, people want to ride bikes, but they don’t find the streets to be safe enough to do that.”
“We have 6,000 miles of streets in New York and 80 percent of those streets are dedicated to a vehicle that very few New Yorkers are relying on a daily basis,” he said. “We should see major avenues having dedicated protected spaces for bikes, dedicated protected spaces for buses, pedestrian islands, and make sure they don’t get intruded upon by double parkers.”
More street seating, bike sharing socks, E-Charging stations, and more environmentally friendly car-sharing services are also important to serve New Yorkers better, he believes.
“The cause of a lot of issues we have in urban living is just how much space we dedicate to cars. It really limits what we can do.”
“Community boards very often do not, in any real sense, represent the communities they are supposed to. Often times, they are representative of long-entrenched power interests that have divergent interests to the community they are supposed to represent,” DeVito said.
“It’s frustrating for me, but more importantly, it’s frustrating for the community folks at large who have been pushing for street changes and for family members who have made it their mission to make sure what happened to them doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
As he was talking, a little girl, who had been eyeing Lennie for a while from afar, walked over and told DeVito, “I like your dog.”
“Oh, she likes you too, I am sure,” DeVito told the little girl. “You can say hi. She’s a puppy so she might jump a little.”
And Lennie did jump. Perhaps, she was bored from playing with the small branch. The little girl petted the puppy, smiled, and then walked away.
DeVito, who had been drinking his black cold brew, now started throwing small pieces of ice on the floor next to Lennie.
How does he relax? He pointed to his puppy who was playing with a branch.
“I got this one. She’s been great and a good distraction from the daily grind,” he smiled. “I also read a lot and go running.” DeVito has been with his girlfriend Danielle Gibson for two and a half years now, they love to travel together. “My girlfriend is a brilliant, funny, comedian writer who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movies,” he said smiling, and perhaps blushing a little. “She’s been opening my eyes to all of that.”
Has the universe been good to him? Yes, DeVito said without hesitation.
“What keeps me going? It’s the intense urgency of moving our cities away from cars. The environmental perspective is always there,” he said. “It’s the intense urgency of preventing people from getting killed on the street. That will never go away.”