It is not uncommon to find Carlos Menchaca on his bicycle. The 37-year-old City Council member gets around his district on a bike, and most days travels to City Hall via an advanced multi-modal combination move: bicycle to ferry to bicycle.
The South Brooklyn district where Menchaca bikes and legislates is an
area of New York not historically known for electing officials who like bike riding and safe streets. But biking is not the only trail that Carlos Menchaca is blazing — he’s also the first Mexican-American elected to public office in New York City, and the first openly gay City Council member in Brooklyn. This spring, shortly after the start of his second term, Transportation Alternatives sat down with Council Member Menchaca to talk about gentrification, political optimism, and of course, bikes.
Congratulations on your re-election, Council Member. You took some risks in your first term, opposing some big development projects and pushing hard for more bike lanes. That didn’t used to be a good way to get re-elected in South Brooklyn.
Ain’t that the truth.
What makes you feel comfortable being politically brave?
Knowing that the community has my back whenever I walk into a room, be it with the mayor or a city agency or whoever. One of the pillars of that courage is being constantly connected to the community and what they want. A lot of the work we do around participatory budgeting allows us to get immediate and instant feedback from thousands of members of the district, from our young 6th-grade students to our seniors and our grandparents that live in the neighborhood. All of that gives me a sense of the pulse of the community and lets me know when I can walk in and say that we are not going to do something.
That may be at odds with the advice of some politically savvy people that say, “You don’t hit the mayor so early in your career, right?” Or, “The DOT is already running forward with this plan that was started with the previous Borough President, Marty Markowitz. You can’t undo that.” But whenever I go in with such a strong voice, I am not saying no. I am saying, let’s think about alternative options, let’s talk about what we want as a community, and how we get there. And that’s when we join our thoughts as agencies, as private actors, as community members, and get somewhere we want to be together.
The DOT plan you mentioned is a redesign of 4th Avenue, a dangerous six-lane street that stretches from Downtown Brooklyn, through your district, to Bay Ridge. The original plan included no bike lanes. Now, thanks to you, the entire six miles of the street will include protected bike lanes. How did you do it?
Redesigning 4th Avenue was a very unorthodox process, because we created the space for advocacy. When you think about bike lanes, you think of traditional planning processes that come from the Department of Transportation. They have experts that are looking constantly across the city for how Vision Zero can get actualized with design measures, and protected bike lanes are one of those measures. With 4th Avenue, members of the community wanted to sit down, some individuals and some that were organized, and all said to me: we have got to do something about 4th Avenue. The plan that had been approved was not jiving, connecting, responding, and reflecting the community’s needs and wants. The community wanted something new and different, and to expand on the safety measures that they had already seen soft-launched, like safer turns and reduced travel lanes.
Somewhere along the way, somebody on my staff actually went out and measured the street. They came back and said, “We can build this. This is possible.”
From what I knew about the capital budget process, I knew that we would lose time, we would stop a process that was in motion, but it wasn’t impossible, and I knew that. As an elected official, I am a lot more able to ask questions at a public hearing, or pick up a phone and talk to a commissioner directly. If we had just enough reason and force of community voice, we could at least get everybody at the table. When we got everyone at the table, options were born.
I cannot say I have ever heard of a City Council member’s staff measuring the street before.
I know. That was brilliant. Advocacy and access like that really pushed the envelope, and in a lot of ways, just created the table for discussion. And out of that, anything can happen.
During your reelection campaign last summer, you said, “The folks that are actually crossing Third Avenue should actually be designing Third Avenue.” Prioritizing people crossing the street over people driving would be a huge shift in a city that builds streets for moving traffic. What will it take to bring the city around to that attitude?
I think it’s already happening. The one hurdle that holds everything back from the start is money. City agencies don’t want to start any design concepts that they can’t fund. They can’t bring more actual improvements because they don’t have any capital funding. What has started to change that is participation from community members.
We are building a school on the other side of Third Avenue near 59th Street in Sunset Park that’s generating new energy around safety across Third Avenue, for example. We’re demonstrating our commitment as a community through voice, and through funding. I am putting in capital dollars, and the borough president is putting in capital dollars, to make that street design happen. And I think once you start seeing that, we will get more people involved, and then we’ll start demanding more from the city in terms of capital improvement. That is going to take time, but we’re on our way.
Participatory budgeting is voluntary right now, but we could start codifying that into our $80 billion-plus budget, and that will allow communities to have a voice at the table to bring infrastructure improvements that matter to them as communities. When communities can start prioritizing, not instead of, but alongside, our planners and designers, you’ll see some beautiful things happen.
Why do you think that street designs are subject to veto or treated differently than other vital public works projects like waterways and bridges?
Sometimes bike lanes go in, and later we see communities talk of removing them. For advocates that are fighting for safe streets, we fear that. We think that’s a veto moment, and we can have feelings about it, but community discussion is productive. Even that situation is productive. We need to have these conversations. It can feel like a war between car drivers and bicyclists and pedestrians. But everyone is talking about the same thing, and that same value is safe streets. We all know that sometimes one person can hold all three of those thoughts at the same time. Behind the wheel they may be like, “Oh, those damn bikes!” And they get on their bike and think, “Oh, those damn cars!” And walking down the street, something happens and then they have feelings about another mode of transportation that may infringe upon their feeling of safety. Whether you’re a car driver or a bicyclist or a pedestrian, there’s common values there, and that’s what brings us to the table.
It can feel like a war between car drivers and bicyclists and pedestrians. But everyone is talking about the same thing, and that same value is safe streets.
Everyone has different ideas, but once we start understanding and educating ourselves and each other, those things shift and we have discussion. So I don’t want to shy away from that part of the process. I think it’s good and healthy. And the setbacks, if we feel them as setbacks, are really just an opportunity for us to have more discussion and more education.
My fear is that if we stop talking about street design and safe design and never come back to community for dynamic engagement, it gets stale and codified. It doesn’t get to evolve. Safe streets have evolved over time, and over time, we get new ideas about how to do things differently.
When I think about the future of a city like New York, I think about carless boroughs. Boroughs, I’ll say it! Imagine if Manhattan was completely car-less. And how do you get there? It’s by inching towards that, it’s
through conversation and experimentation.
During a heated community board meeting in Queens this winter, the widow of a man who was killed bicycling on Skillman Avenue spoke in favor of adding a bike lane to the street. Another woman stood up to say that she paid $3,000 a month for rent and deserved to get a parking space for that. Those do not feel like earnest sides of the same debate. In the passion for public conversation, are we being too optimistic?
This is the hard part. I am a fierce advocate, and I will go to the end to
ensure that we do the right thing. But on that path towards ensuring that we do the right thing, I do give honor to that person that says, “I pay $3,000 rent and I deserve a parking space.” Not to say that I think that’s correct, but there’s something there. What I hear from that is they want their voice heard, that their mode of transportation is important, and right now, it is a car, and they want to figure out where that car is going to go and how to make their life easy.
Their front-end request, for me, is just a lack of imagination and a lack of problem-solving. That’s where the conversation starts, not where it ends. That can’t be where the veto happens, or where we end the discussion. We need to start the discussion where people are, and meet people where they are, or else we’re never going to be able to move as a community. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much optimism. I think that’s what we need.
The charge is often leveled that bike lanes lead to gentrification, or that gentrification paves the way for bike lanes. What is your approach to the conversation?
We can’t say that gentrification is not real, or dismiss that. There is a connection between bike lanes, Citi Bike, and gentrification. And this is another opportunity for us as a community to talk about safety infrastructure, and that it is not just about a bike lane. It’s up to us as elected officials to tell the full story and not allow for legitimate fears, like the fear of gentrification, to keep the community from getting safe streets.
When people talk about gentrification, what they are really saying is that new people are going to come into our neighborhood. And what I’m saying
is that people in our neighborhood, people that live here right now, want safe streets. People in our neighborhood, right now, want other modes of transportation besides cars. It is more constructive for us to understand what we need right now, place the needs of a community at the
forefront, and address those needs. That’s all we can do.
We have a huge immigrant community in Sunset Park and that’s what makes Sunset Park beautiful. Those voices need to be heard, and those voices are telling us that they want safe streets, they want bike lanes, they want Citi Bike, they want more and more modes of transportation that are public. They want to be able to use them, and they want it in their language.
That’s what I’m focused on, how that growth is happening from one immigrant community to another. Some of it is waning and some of it is growing, but what can’t stop is the opportunity for discussion and participation in the needs of the community.
By my count, you mention biking more than any member in the City
Council. What drives that focus?
I bike all the time. It’s who I am. I’ve biked my whole life. I remember the first time I got on a bike. I’ll never forget. It was a Huffy. I ramped off of everything that I could in my neighborhood.
Riding a bike is a feeling of freedom for me. It’s connected to my psyche. And it has a special place in my heart just to be on a bike. It’s evolved into my preferred mode of transportation, right above the ferry.
There’s nothing better than to be in a city that is talking about bike lanes. That gives me the opportunity to advocate with my community for bike lanes. I know what protected bike lanes can do when they come into a neighborhood. When we finally lay out the new 4th Avenue, it will include one of the longest stretches of protected bike lane in the history of the city.
For me, it is such a blessing to be a New Yorker, and not have a driver’s license, and just dedicate myself so easily to the lifestyle of a commuter that uses public transportation. I know that I can do my part as a human, as a New Yorker, as an elected official, to show that it’s possible to ride a bike everywhere, and then the rest is just me trying to figure out how to make
sure my hair is okay after using a helmet. I am still trying to figure that out.
Biking can have a lot of issues and hurdles sometimes. But none of those things lessen my own commitment to what I can do as a human to just get out of cars that guzzle fossil fuels.
You should talk to the mayor about that.
Believe me, I try. And then he gets in a car from Gracie Mansion to work out at the Park Slope Y. It just doesn’t make sense.
Biking and public transit slow us down to a pace where we can just do what we need to do, with the resources that we have, and the abilities
of our city.
If I was in a position where I had to have a security detail with me, I would have a bike brigade and just bike the whole city. Maybe I could not swing to five places in a day, but maybe that is better than indicating that the way that we move around the city is at the expense of the values that we’re trying to emulate. Biking and public transit slow us down to a pace where we can just do what we need to do, with the resources that we have, and the abilities of our city. I remember Bloomberg would use his helicopter to get from
Staten Island to the Bronx. Why? If you can’t get there in time on a bike, or on
the 2/3 train, send a representative, and that’s OK. If people ask why you weren’t there, say it is because our values come first. That’s important. And if we cannot live our values as elected officials, how can we expect other people to do that?
Speaking of Mayor de Blasio, at a town hall in your district in December, the mayor doubled down on his e-bike ticketing and confiscation policy.
Yes. The mayor mentioned e-bikes. He said at that town hall that he was going to shift enforcement away from individuals and on to the businesses. Now, I’m getting reports back from folks that it’s not happening, and that is not only concerning, but places me in a hard spot as a Council member who is providing oversight over a mayor that’s making decisions like that in spaces
where you should be able to commit to people and have the NYPD follow suit.
Other members and I are really concerned about it. The Chinese community has been vocal about this. They’re demanding legislative fixes and we are exploring all that as options within the City Council. But there’s an immediate need for us to hold the mayor accountable about that one statement that he made to a group of constituents that I represent, who are now coming back to me and saying, “What’s up?” Either the mayor makes good on this promise now, or we find a legislative recourse to ensure that we can do that, and that’s going to take some time.
[Editor’s Note: A few days after this interview, Mayor de Blasio changed his
stance and announced plans to permit pedal-assist e-bikes in New York City. Most e-bikes in New York City are “combination” bikes, utilizing pedal-assist and a throttle, and the mayor’s revised stance does not make them legal.]
Beyond that promise, looking at e-bikes in general, how do you feel
about the resources for the crackdown relative to the threat?
I question if this is where we need spending and resources to go. It impacts immigrants more than not, impacts workers more than not, and the data isn’t there to show danger at the end of the day.
One thing that needs to be done is to create more education. More needs to be done in general with our delivery community about what they can do to
make people feel safer. We are talking about safe streets, and it is not just the
design and the concrete on the ground. It’s about how we interact with each other. That can change if we dedicate resources, people resources, to talk about what’s happening. The basic conversations that I’m having with people are on the level of asking, “Are you aware that you make someone feel unsafe on the street?” That’s beginning to break down barriers and help people understand that they have impact, that someone cares, and that matters. That’s as powerful as a law.
And that’s where a community needs to get involved. We need to work with our business improvement districts, and our community immigration-related service providers. We need to create a coalition of community change agents to be able to change culture within this community. I know in my district the delivery cyclists are not completely organized, so I’m trying to figure that out a little bit more. How do you organize employees, especially when they’re in immigrant communities that are not necessarily wanting to come to community meetings? There’s a lot more to do that doesn’t require us to over-enforce through police action, confiscation, and tickets to workers and businesses. The blunt tools of enforcement are not always the only way to do that. There is another way to solve this.
You were recently re-elected in a landslide, but this is your last term
as a City Council member in Sunset Park. May I be the first to ask what’s next for you?
I don’t have an answer. But let me see if I can come up with one. I love public service. I love doing this work. I love having the ability to grow participation
in our democracy. For that, there’s nothing like being a City Council member.
Council members are on the front lines of everything that’s happening in the neighborhood.
I would be so lucky to be able to represent again, and I’ll be thinking about what that could be, whether that could be a citywide post. But what needs to happen, no matter what I do, is for me to continue to change the city through increased participation of our New Yorkers. And so you’ll see me doing that in my next chapter.
Last question: Some 10,000 TransAlt members subscribe to Reclaim Magazine. Do you have any words for them?
How about something I tell everybody, whether you’re a sixth grader at a local middle school, or someone at a senior center, or someone that’s on a bike right now traversing through our incredible streets: your voice matters.
The only work that I’d ask you to do, as someone who is reading this magazine, is to charge yourself with a responsibility to bring more voices to the table. All of you interact with neighbors. Some of them may already be connected to our ever-growing bike community. But the only way that we
get to win things that we need to win is by growing our constituency, and that happens with individuals telling other individuals about the work that we’re
doing as a community together. I want to see more immigrants in this conversation. I want to see more people of color. I want to see more working families in this discussion. And it can’t be just me, and it can’t be just you, it has to be us. How do we spread the message? How do we invite people to the table? How do we hold each other accountable for bringing more diversity toward a discussion about safe streets?
Our vision of the future, where we could start designing car-less sections of our city and pedestrian plazas in every neighborhood, is going to take a lot of work. But the way we get there is by having diverse voices at the table. And that’s your charge. That’s the charge I want to give to everybody who’s reading this.