Meet Vision: Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

Arguably the brawniest man in New York City’s environmental movement, Eckerson, Director of Film Production at Streetfilms, shares biketales, bus stats and his personal wisdom on walking. Streetfilms is a vlog of 50-80 films a year on cycling, pedestrians life, transit, and green space, and has a project on ioby to raise money to produce a film on NYC’s Pop-Up Cafés.


It all boils down to this: We give cars too much space and we don’t give alternatives enough space.

I always have some kind of recording device with me. I’m always looking for the newest interesting thing in transportation that one city has that another doesn’t that I can bring to our viewers.

I have family members that think I’m nuts for living in the city. I try to convince them all the time that it’s just a wonderful place, that the expense of living in the city brings you so much more reward than you can get sitting at home watching television in the suburbs.

I lived in Brooklyn for 20 years and just recently moved to Jackson Heights. I have an 11-mile bike commute on my 52-pound Dutch bike to work. I love my commute. It’s safe, it’s wonderful, I see so many people, I see the NYC skyline, I ride over the Manhattan Bridge.

In Copenhagen, 38% of people ride bikes. It’s incredible. You see every kind of person on a bike. You see a four-year-old kid. You see an older woman. You see a guy with his business suit on. You’re there videoing and taking pictures, and people look at you like, “What are you doing?” It’s like taking pictures of cars going by in New York City.

I’ve been riding since 1993. I can remember riding over the Brooklyn Bridge alone.

Buses carry a lot of people. They really deserve their own lanes. I ride over all of the bridges, and especially when I ride over the Queensboro, I look down and see how unfair it is for a bus to be stuck in traffic. There’s 40 or 50 people stuck behind one single person taking up almost as much space.

When you’re riding around there’s so much to see. It’s so thrilling to see a street one day and then the next day notice that they planted four trees! The city is changing so fast, and I think people in cars don’t see it.

In New York, pedestrians are the kings.

Below 59th Street only six percent of people do their shopping by car, and only another six percent do their shopping by taxi or other hired car. The rest are doing their shopping by transit, foot and by bicycle. You look at the street, and the street is 75% or more devoted to cars. That’s got to change.

We got to document the Ciclovia, which is probably StreetFilm’s biggest success story. We did a film that we posted in December of 2007. Every Sunday from 6 am to 2 pm, they have 80-90 miles of streets that are just closed off for people to do whatever they want, not just bike, but walk, run, have a picnic, play tic-tac-toe… you see everything. We did this film because it was not really a known commodity outside of South America. We put the film up, and it was like wildfire. I don’t want to say we caused summer streets in New York, or Sunday streets in San Francisco, or Chicago, or Boston… but none of them had them before we did that video.

People used to say that streets are closed to cars, but now you hear more people saying that they are open to people. It’s a big change. It’s not often in New York City that we get to be in a space where we don’t have to worry about what a car could do to us.

There’s so many people now who are like mini Jane Jacobses.

Moveable seating is so important in a public space. A lot of times I’m sitting there filming, and I see these people just pull up a chair, even if it’s only a few inches—it’s so important that they’re able to do that. “If I turn it this way I can avoid the sun, if I angle it this way I can be more comfortable, if I turn it this way I can see a lot of sexy or interesting people walking by!”

I think it all starts with the sidewalk. It starts with a beautiful walking environment. Wide enough sidewalks where people can stop and talk to each other.

I just ride with a camera in my hand, riding my bike. I don’t have the time or the money for someone to do a perfect dolly shot. That’s one of the main reasons I started lifting weights back in the mid-90s: so I could ride and hold a camera steady.

You need to take care of cyclists, because they’re a growing population. It only requires extremely cheap infrastructure. Even a painted bike lane says a lot to a cyclist.

In the late ‘90s, the New York Times did a long story article on how incredibly dangerous traffic at the Lincoln Center was for pedestrians. It was a great story, but it only had one photo. It was just a photo of two people about to cross the street. It didn’t look dangerous. It didn’t capture the danger. There was no impetus to change anything, and nothing did happen after that story. 

My favorite place to go on a bike in the summer is the Rockaways. Coney Island is crowded and a little dirty. Long Island is a little too uppity; you have to pay to get on the beach. You can ride your bike to the Rockaways and not run into anybody, even in the middle of the summer. With a bike, you can go anywhere.

I would install bus rapid transit everywhere. In a traditional city, I would say the subway is the way to go. But we’ve already maxed out our capacity for the subway, so we have to support the buses. They’re pitiful. Some of them average three or four miles an hour.

I am inspired by the DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. She is accomplishing change that no city in America has every seen. I’ve been trying to change the city on my own, in my own little way, for so long, since I started riding a bike in the mid-90s. We had so little change happen until about 2005. We’d get a bike lane here, or a pocket park there, but the scale of what Sadik-Khan is doing is not only inspiring change in people in New York, but people all over the country.

Thank goodness I’ve only had three accidents since I moved to New York, and none of them had to do with filming.

There was a woman on 57th Street that I’ll never forget—this was about a year ago. I was on foot that day. It was 90 degrees. There was a woman in full professional clothes, probably in her 70s. She pulled up to the light, all smiles, and then just rolled away and I thought, “I’m in love with that lady right now. I wasn’t brave enough to ride a bike today, and here she is, doing her business, almost twice my age, sweating, and there she is smiling through the haze of the day.”

I fall in love every day when I’m riding a bicycle.