Interview: Riding Bikes and Building A Movement in South Brooklyn

Bike New York’s Laura Shepard interviewed Brian Hedden about his advocacy with Bike South Brooklyn! This is the first of many Bike New York interviews with #bikenyc leaders around the city.


Bike South Brooklyn! organizers Brian Hedden, Kerrin Stokes and John Tomac. Photo courtesy Dan Hetteix/Bike South Brooklyn!


When did you start biking?

I started biking more and more on a very gradual basis over the last 10 or 11 years. Around 2015-2016, I started to take my bike out a lot more on weekends. Concurrent to that, I’ve also been more and more aware of general street safety issues. Going further back, the post 9/11 environment geared safety so much to antiterrorism, but it was clear to me that the most dangerous thing I did on a day-to-day basis was commute on I-95. I was convinced that that was how I was going to die. And when my last car finally broke down and I decided to start coming in by train, I felt like I was saving my life.


How did you get into bike advocacy?

The moment that I turned from just an interested party to getting into serious activist issues was at a Community Board 10 meeting (Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights).  They had a meager bike lane on the agenda, a standard lane for about four blocks of 86th Street. Nothing that’s really going to help cyclists do anything except get uphill from the shore promenade to the commercial strip on 3rd Avenue. We saw it on the agenda the day before the meeting. The community board had canvassed residences along those four blocks so you had a bunch of people most interested in protecting their ability to double park. It’s a four lane street. DOT was looking to cut it down to two lanes, center turnbay, bike lanes on each side. They wanted to protect their double parking, and there was a very strong emotional reaction toward cycling to the point where people were screaming things about bike lanes that didn’t make any rational sense. There were close to 20 people in the room to shout down the bike lane.


I didn’t like getting completely steamrolled on something I thought was important. I wanted to make sure that next time the sort of people who were interested in cycling issues would know about it and could show up and voice their concerns. Over the course of 15-16 months, we went from having two people in the room to having over 50 when DOT called a bike workshop.


Tell us a bit about Bike South Brooklyn as an organization and how it fits into the community?

Bike South Brooklyn is six people right now that make up the core planning group.

We’ve got an email list of 120. Just shy of 100 of them are in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights — very CB10 focused right now. We would like to expand that east so that we’re hitting Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay. That will be important for getting east-west connectors. It took us a year to build in Dyker Heights, so we’re starting that now in Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay. Hopefully we can build that up in about a year as well. We had 25 come out to a community board committee meeting in December. It’s a fairly very diverse group, with a good mix of men and women. It’s not on the community board age curve, but it’s not like there are no older members. We have some folks in their twenties and a high school student came to a recent social ride.


Does bike advocacy in South Brooklyn differ from bike advocacy in the rest of the city?

The main difference is that it’s a few years behind. Bike advocacy in other parts of the city has a head start. There hasn’t been a focus on organizing in South Brooklyn up to this point. It’s not that cyclists in South Brooklyn are different. We’re talking about the community board meeting where we had two people vs. 50 people. It’s not that 48 cyclists moved into the neighborhood in the span of six months. Now we’re reaching out to cyclists in the community and letting them know when important events are happening.


25 cycling advocates attended a CB10 Transportation committee meeting on December 4, 2018. Board members are seated at the table, cycling advocates are in the outer ring around them. Photo courtesy Radio Free Bay Ridge.


Do you face any specific local challenges in South Brooklyn? What strategies do you use to deal with them?

We know we’re going to face the same challenges everyone else has, number one being that a lot of people have a negative emotional reaction to bikes. They’ll start off with that and look for excuses that back up their feelings. You can spend a lot of time deconstructing arguments to explain why this isn’t really a bad thing, but it’s going to have to start from a place of acknowledging that the emotion is not rational in the first place.


We know there will be resistance from business owners, even though there’s a lot of good data behind the fact that increased numbers of cycling improves the local economy. People at board meetings or workshops talk about how they’ll go to businesses if they can walk to them or bike to them, but the minute they have to get into a car, they’re going to get on the highway and drive to a big box store with a big parking lot. What I would like to avoid is the knock-down, drag-out fights that leave everyone upset with each other long after an issue is decided. I live in Bay Ridge and even I know I’m never setting foot in Sunnyside’s Aubergine Cafe [ed. the owner is vocal bike lane foe].


It used to be that if I was shopping when I was out biking, I would take all my stuff and my helmet and shove it in my bag and try to look like a regular person. But the past few months, I’ve made a point of leaving my helmet on so the owner knows I got there by bike.


How’s biking like in South Brooklyn now? Do you see kids with bikes?

It can be bike-friendly in its own way, but it can be hostile towards kids and teenagers. I see teenagers riding bikes and they stick to the sidewalk. I do not blame them one bit. When I see families out with bikes, the kids are on the sidewalk or on the shore promenade. We had a small social ride a few weeks ago, going from Bay Ridge to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and we had a father with his daughter who was about 13. She was fine riding out on the street. But any time that we got to a spot where there were trucks and cars in the bike lane, the rest of us steered around on the street and she went on the sidewalk. We had another social ride about a year ago. We had a family interested in joining us to Prospect Park. They saw some of the roads that we were going to go on and changed their minds. A lot of the way to Prospect Park is relatively easy, but there are spots that just scare people.


The Bike South Brooklyn! organizers ride through their neighborhoods. Photo courtesy Dan Hetteix/Bike South Brooklyn!


How do you think good cycling infrastructure will benefit South Brooklyn residents?

There’s a lot of untapped demand for cycling. What I hear a lot is that people want to bike, but they just don’t feel safe on the streets. Or I’ll talk to someone who used to actively bike and they stopped because they don’t feel comfortable on South Brooklyn roads. I think having improved infrastructure will definitely open it up to people curious about biking, but not ready to make the leap given the current hostility on the road.


Are you thinking of recreation, getting around, solving the subway “last mile” or all of the above?

All of those. Weekend travel, recreation, and transportation mixes together. People who might crawl into minivans to get to the park or their favorite Saturday destination might find that practical in the future to do by bicycle. It would certainly help for transportation. I don’t bike to work that much because going through Sunset Park on 5th Avenue does not excite me, it does not spark joy. I’m looking forward to seeing the 4th Avenue path extended at least through Park Slope and Sunset Park because that would be a game changer. I would start commuting to work on a pretty regular basis when that’s done.


What upgrades to South Brooklyn are you most excited about?

A big one would be having protected bike corridors across our half of the borough. Starting with Bay Ridge, we’d like to get one north-south corridor and one east-west corridor that are physically separated from traffic. But I think anyone who fights for this sort of thing knows once there’s a concrete proposal, that’s when bikelash gathers, and it’s when people really come out and make powerful emotional arguments.


What is happening in South Brooklyn in the near future?

DOT just put out a traffic calming proposal that includes a protected bike path on 7th Avenue. It’s better than anything that exists in Bay Ridge or Dyker Heights right now.

The proposed bike lane is along a service road for the Gowanus Expressway. It’s close enough to residences to be useable as a north-south cycling corridor, but since there isn’t any housing on an entire side of the street, there are fewer residents to antagonize and almost zero businesses. I feel good cycling infrastructure is a positive for businesses. But it might not be the worst thing in the world to have the protected lane that’s coming up first be something that isn’t going to ruffle business community feathers.


How would you characterize support you’ve received from elected officials?

It’s enthusiastic. Council Member Justin Brannan doesn’t have to be prompted on street safety issues. New State Senator Andrew Gounardes has been exceptionally good and he’s always been on the side of street safety. For him, it’s not a new thing. Back in 2013, there was a critical safety improvement proposed for 4th Avenue, in Park Slope and Sunset Park but Bay Ridge as well. It was shot down by the community board in Bay Ridge, but Andrew was on the board and one of four people who voted in favor of it. The fact that he ran on street safety as a campaign issue is important. Not a lot of people do that. And he’s had success already in two and a half months. He was central to the big expansion of speed cameras that’s coming to the city.


Bike South Brooklyn! proposes opening a lane of the Verrazzano Bridge to cyclists and pedestrians over the summer. Photo courtesy Bike South Brooklyn!


Tell us about your initiative to get a bike and pedestrian path on the Verrazzano Bridge

People have been working on that intermittently, going back as far as when the bridge opened in the first place. We want to pick that up again. We’re working with the Harbor Ring Committee. One possibility would be putting the bike/pedestrian path on the existing deck as opposed to adding something new on the bridge structure. I don’t really care that much about the cost. The bridge now has 13 lanes. There’s more than enough space to accomodate all of the vehicles and also accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians, and joggers. We’re also interested in the idea of opening that up for a seasonal basis as a means of showing that it can be done, showing that there’s demand for it.


What are you planning to do now that the MTA has dismissed your proposal for Verrazzano Summer Streets?

I expect the MTA thinks we’re just going to roll over and give up, but they gave the dismissive response we expected. We have a lot of bridge operators in the New York City region and all of the others have found a way to incorporate bike and pedestrian access. The MTA is an extreme outlier and is getting lapped by everyone else: city DOT, state DOT, Port Authority, even the Thruway Authority.


Do you have support from elected officials on either side of the bridge right now?

We don’t have anything concrete right now, but it’s an area we want to focus on. Elected officials should have a greater role deciding who can  make use of the Verrazzano Bridge than MTA project engineers or spokespeople. We have preliminary enthusiasm from Andrew Gounardes. We haven’t talked about a lot of the details with him yet.  And we’re working out meetings with Brooklyn and Staten Island officials.


Why bike over the Verrazzano?

I want to get to Staten Island. I appreciate that one way to frame this is a continuous loop around the harbor. But I just want to go to Staten Island without it being a big, dramatic affair. Staten Island has its south beaches — miles where you can just bike and relax. Also Great Kills Park. There are restaurants, businesses, bar and grill type places just north of the bridge. I think that just because we’re up against the water doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to get to places on the other side of the water. People driving can do it and it’s fun. People who live by bridges run by agencies besides the MTA have that option. You can take the Williamsburg Bridge or the Queensboro Bridge. Even the Broad Channel Bridge, with its death-defying bike lane next to 45 mile an hour traffic! That’s more than the MTA has ever come up with. And people still ride over Broad Channel. I also want Staten Islanders to be able to come over to Bay Ridge. Anyone who wants to cross and come up the path towards Park Slope, towards Manhattan, should be able to do that.