Driving change: Motorists host ad-hoc meetings across Brooklyn to undermine bike lanes

Bedford-Stuyvesant safe streets advocate Joe Paski (left) butted heads with former district leader Renee Collymore (right) at the “War on Cars” town hall in Fort Greene on Sept. 17.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

You’ve heard of the so-called “War on Cars” — now meet the resistance!

Car-owning Brooklyn residents are gathering in churches throughout the borough to plot the destruction of bike and bus lanes in their communities, which one former pol blamed for the downfall of the middle class!

“If you’re trying to get rid of my car, it’s almost like you’re trying to take away the middle class family, because biking is not for everybody,” Renee Collymore, a former Fort Greene district leader.

One recent gathering at Fort Greene’s Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on Sept. 17, dubbed a “Townhall on the NYC War on Cars,” invited motorists to discuss policies that redistribute the city’s transit wealth away from drivers — axing parking spaces in favor of bike lanes and eliminating driving lanes to make way for dedicated bus lanes — as car owners seek to retake the roads, according to one Clinton Hill resident.

“We want to be on the game board, we want to be noisy enough that we’ll get their attention. We’re trying to use our voice,” said Shellie Hagan, who organized the meeting along with Fort Greene resident Lucy Koteen and Community Board 2 member Ernest Augustus.

The bike lane rebels aren’t shy about drawing some heavy comparisons, and fliers advertising the Fort Greene town hall emulated German Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famed 1946-poem “First they came,” which condemned complacent dissenters amid the rise of National Socialism.

“First they took away traffic lanes. Then gas stations. Now they’re coming for the parking,” the flyers read.

The advertising campaign was not too effective — only about a half dozen car lovers showed up for the meeting — but the Fort Greene town hall follows a gathering in Park Slope earlier this year, where locals packed Seventh Avenue’s All Saints Episcopal Church to condemn a bike lane on Ninth Street.

Both meetings eschewed the official pipeline for extending gripes to city government — community boards — as motorists embrace a growing resentment of the boards’ volunteer civic gurus, whom Hagan called out of touch and ineffective.

“The community boards don’t really represent the neighborhoods, it’s just a giant bureaucracy and even when you do get something through the board, they’re just advisory and politicians will ignore them when it’s convenient for them — it’s kind of a waste of time,” Hagan said.

Instead, the drivers are organizing their own gatherings and inviting local politicians to hear from them directly. Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo spent about 40 minutes at the Fort Greene meeting and a representative for Borough President Eric Adams was present at the Park Slope meeting in January.

Adams was not swayed by the drivers’ outrage, according to a spokesman, who said the Borough President remains committed to enhancing traffic safety and building bike lanes

“The borough president has been an active supporter of the Ninth Street bike lane, he was there at its ribbon cutting, and he conducted a bike ride down Ninth Street to highlight safe streets needs,” said Stefan Ringel in January.

But if the drivers are organizing meetings in an effort to be heard, they’re creating opportunities for the opposition to express themselves as well, and insurgent bike and safe-street advocates invaded both gatherings, with cyclists outnumbering drivers at the Fort Greene town hall four to one!

“The people who are going through the trouble of organizing these forums are a pretty small minority that is averse to change,” said Eric McClure, who co-chairs Community Board 6’s Transportation Committee and is the director of the safe-streets advocacy group StreetsPAC. “For advocates, the reason they show up is that if electeds are there, they see that the car owners view is not monolithic.”

Now Park Slope drivers are inviting Councilman Brad Lander (D-Park Slope) to meet at Eighth Avenue’s Church of Gethsemane on Wednesday, Sept. 25, but they’re going to really have to pack the pews if they want to outnumber the cyclists, according Hagan, who suspects the bikers will show up in force.

“If you’ve got a cause you better show up for it — the bikers, they do that,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Lander said the councilman will not be attending the upcoming meeting, and will be sending a rep.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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