Eco Hero: Luke Ohlson – Working for better bicycling, walking and public transit


By Charlotte E Binns

Luke Ohlson is a man fighting the status quo. As a Senior Organizer for Transportation Alternatives, he is fighting to save lives against people who prioritize parking. And the painful fact is, according to Luke, “It takes so much more effort to fight the status quo than it does to maintain it. It is difficult to stay patient in the face of this massive public health crises”

Luke moved into the hood four years ago and, a longtime biker, immediately volunteered with Trans Alt,. As Luke describes it: “ Trans Alt is a scrappy and persistent organization that has been punching above its weight since 1973.” Luke stuck to it and was rewarded with a staff position, working with the community to hold forums on street safety and to win a separate bike path over the Pulaski Bridge and safety improvements on Meeker Avenue. The community organizing experience led to Luke’s board position at Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, or NAG, a tremendous organization advocating for our community on numerous environmental fronts.

“We lost 230 people to traffic deaths last year. 35,340 people have been seriously injured so far this year. Someone is killed or seriously injured in New York City traffic every 2 hours.”

Trans Alt refuses to call these accidents. “You would never say a plane accident” notes Luke. “These are predictable and preventable incidents! If some food poison caused as many deaths, we would be up in arms.” So why the opposition? Simply put: the status quo of our car culture.

When streets are safer, a wonderful cycle occurs where people walk and bike more often and have less diabetes and asthma. The community interacts more and we all become less dependent on fossil fuels. But when Bikeshare came to the city, thanks to Citibike, instead of celebrating the giant win, Trans Alt and Bikeshare had to defend the cause to Community Boards across Brooklyn who only seemed interested in protecting their parking spaces. The changemakers enlisted experts, did surveys, worked with elected officials and found financing only to meet one local resident who doesn’t want to give it proper consideration and shuts the whole thing down.

At one community board meeting, after Trans Alt had given testimony about a dangerous intersection and the number of deaths that had occurred, a cranky resident declared “Well I have done my own study and we are fine.” And thus, the status quo was maintained.

In North Brooklyn, there are obvious areas that the community has called out as unsafe (to name a few: Meeker, Grand, Graham, Morgan, McGuinness). The BQE is an enormous scar through the neighborhood, bringing noise, pollution, and danger.  There are terrifying intersections and an absurd number of garbage trucks, owned and operated by independent companies without oversight or regulation and, as City Council Member Antonio Reynoso has said: “It is the wild west out there.”

We are all paying taxes on public space and roads are 80% of that space! Less than half of the community owns a car, so why is 80% of our public space devoted to cars? But there is a solid legacy of environmental stewards. And there are real design solutions, so it is just a matter of changing behavior.

An example solution is Daylighting, the practice of preventing cars from parking too close to the corner, so that it is easier to see cars coming around the corner. MoveNYC is working to add tolls to all of the free bridges on the East River eliminating a great many accidents caused by the toll-avoiding cars that race to the free bridges.

Our community is in great transition and facing irresponsible development. So residents are defensive. Luke says: “Community board volunteers are holding on to whatever they can control, like alcohol permits and parking spots. We appreciate that they are volunteers but they are also accountable to the community, as public servants.” We need more new blood in Community Boards. “Local politics can be very rewarding, but you have to show up. Complacency is also the status quo.” Luke believes that we can dramatically improve our shared space, making our streets safe and accessible for all. But that only happens if the community makes it happen.

The next large scale event is the Grand St PeopleWay launch in response to the coming L train shutdown. Join them on November 1st at 6:30pm. Details here.

Trans Alt Brooklyn hosts a meeting the last Thursday of every month at the YWCA and you can check out their Facebook group here. If you’re interested in finding out more about NAG check out their website here.

Where to find Luke: Some of his favorite haunts include: McGorlick Park, Transmitter Park, the Palace bar and the Bounty, where he used to work, and Word, where he meets with his writers group.  

By Charlotte Binns