CB7 member’s ‘deserve to get run over’ comment reflects car-first culture in community boards, advocates say

Transportation Alternatives’ Clark Vaccaro advocates for the city to complete bike lanes on Queens Boulevard in April.  Eagle  file photo by David Brand.

Transportation Alternatives’ Clark Vaccaro advocates for the city to complete bike lanes on Queens Boulevard in April. Eagle file photo by David Brand.

By David Brand

A Queens community board member’s callous comments about pedestrians who “deserve to get run over” reflect a reactionary resistance to pedestrian and cycling safety measures among community board members throughout the borough, street safety advocates.

"I've got to be honest with you — Vision Zero's a joke," said Queens Community Board 7 member Kim Ohanian at a Queensboro Hill Flushing Civic Association meeting on May 20. "I've watched people cross the street while they're still talking on their damn phones."

"You know what, they deserve to get run over," she added.

The statement, captured in a video of the meeting and shared on Twitter last week, was first reported by Queens Patch.

Fifteen cyclists have been struck and killed by cars and trucks in 2019 so far— more than all of 2018. The Daily News reported Sunday that the number of people injured in car crashes has increased by 21 percent since 2014. 

Ohanian’s comments are notable for their flippant treatment of vehicle collision injuries and deaths, but a car-first culture pervades Queens community boards, street safety advocates say. 

“I think this quote is exactly in train with what’s been happening for a long time,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesperson Juan Restrepo. “There’s just a disconnect between how people [on community boards] understand the issues.”

Restrepo said community board members are not elected officials who truly represent their communities, nor are they trained professionals who have a clear grasp of issues like transportation safety. 

“They rely on their own experiences,” he said. “I don’t think [community board members] understand Vision Zero. I don’t know if they understand why the DOT is introducing these plans.”

But a car-centric perspective dominates in many Queens communities.

In a recent interview with the Eagle, Civil Court Judge Tracy Catapano-Fox said she has presided at two jury trials where cyclists hit by cars sued the drivers. During jury selection, several potential panelists were disqualified because they said they could not be impartial in a case involving a cyclist.

“They were asked questions like, ‘Can you be fair? Do you understand why there are bike lanes?’ and many said, ‘We cannot be fair,’ Catapano-Fox said. 

“Some of the [prospective] jurors feel that [cyclists] aren’t following the rules of the road or that you should only ride in Juniper Park or Flushing Meadows Park and you should not be using your bicycle to get you places,” she said.

TransAlt Queens organizer and Biking Public Project member Macartney Morris compared Ohanian’s comments to statements made by a Community Board 2 chairperson during debate over installing parking-protected bike lanes in Sunnyside last year. The movement to install the lanes gained momentum after a car struck and killed Gelacio Reyes as he rode along 43rd Avenue in Sunnyside. CB2 voted against the plan to install bike lanes on 43rd Avenue and Skillman Avenue.

CB2 Chair Denise Keehan-Smith said that protected bike lanes would not have saved Reyes because he was hit by a drunk driver. Streetsblog reported at the time that Keehan-Smith said she heard Reyes cycled through a redlight and that, because he was in an intersection, bike lanes would not have protected him as reasons to reject the plan.

Morris said people with influence over decision-making, including community board members, should reorient themselves to consider the needs of cyclists and pedestrians — not just drivers.

“Too many people with power in this city, from community boards to city council to even the DOT, think shared, public space is for the storage and movement of cars and trucks, instead of for people,” Morris said in a message. 

Morris called on councilmembers and Borough President Melinda Katz, who appoints the community board members, to take their perspective on street safety into account.

“Let us not forget that every CB member’s term lasts only two years,” MacCartney said. “Every person sitting on a Community Board is there because BP Katz has chosen to put them there, no matter who first appointed that person.”

Katz did not respond to request for comment.

Queens Community Board 4 also opposed extending bike lanes along Queens Boulevard — long regarded as the borough’s “Boulevard Death” before safety measures decreased the death toll on the busy strip. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio overruled their advisory vote, the bike lanes have not been fully completed.

Ridgewood Councilmember Antonio Reynoso said politics get in the way of common-sense safety measures that would save cyclists’ lives.

“We’re saying, ‘We have the money, we have the infrastructure, we can do it all,’” Reynoso told the Brooklyn Eagle in April. “That’s not the problem we have, the politics is the problem we have.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Berardi.