SPOTLIGHT: Meet Juan Estrepo from Transportation Alternatives
What happens when the leading bicycle advocacy group in the country discovers that their climate activist roots have finally become more mainstream? They keep pushing for more radical reform, of course! FEND had the opportunity to sit down with Transportation Alternatives' Senior Organizer Juan Restrepo to discuss what policies they've helped implement and what major initiatives are in TA's future.
Transportation Alternatives: A (Brief) History
When you find pictures of 1970s Transportation Alternatives activists, you can see the wide-eyed optimism of people who are looking to change the world, one bicycle at a time. The mission? Exclusive bike lanes for cyclist safety and to reduce New York City's ever-growing automobile pollution problem.
With the slow but steady paradigm shift away from cars as the primary source of transport comes a more bicycle-friendly city—One Less Car at a time.
Juan Restrepo: An Introduction
A bachelor's degree in business management doesn't automatically translate to a career in changing public opinion and lobbying for changes in the law, does it? Perhaps not, but Juan's passion for cycling started when he went to college in Long Island.
Juan started volunteering at Transportation Alternatives in his forever home of Queens. The shift to community-based work came after finding the media advertising world a pretty solitary and unfulfilling place.
While putting in the work as a volunteer, he started getting noticed for being great at petitioning. Next up came a year and a half as a field canvasser, which turned into managing that field team. The work TA does is hyper-focused on local initiatives led by borough-based committees.
On how his work as Borough Organizer for Queens benefits him and his community personally, Juan comments, "It was amazing that the changes that I was making to the Queens Street grid are changes that, selfishly, I genuinely benefit from. I've ridden on bike lanes that take me to my mom's house in Astoria."
He worked in that capacity for four years before being promoted to Senior Organizer. He now manages and organizes the borough-based teams and still feels, "There's no feeling quite like it when you have changed the built-in environment of your community through your advocacy work, and you know that you can do that again."
Juan's Achievements at Transportation Alternatives
Term Limits for Community Board Members
In 2018, Juan began working with community boards to get people with stronger alternative transportation opinions to join these boards. As dull as it may sound, in NYC, these community boards are the first rung of municipal government, and they can stand in the way of policy changes. For example, bike lanes have to be presented to community boards, and they can 'kill' a bike lane and all of its positive impact in a heartbeat.
When you have people serving on these boards for 40 plus years, they're often out of touch with the needs of the actual community. Imposing term limits is a huge deal and helps democratize the process. Juan played a big part in educating people on the importance of community boards. He helped pass a law to prohibit community board members from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms.
Brooklyn Bridge Bike Path
Recently, Juan helped coordinate a new bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge has been notoriously difficult to ride across due to people wandering into your path. While the bike path has had some critique for only being eight-ft-wide, it is wholly separated from car traffic and pedestrians.
We applaud Transportation Alternatives and Juan for focusing on quick solutions like turning one car lane into a bicycle lane. This quick-fix cycling lane can be swapped out for more expensive future solutions. In a city like New York, this is how you get things done in a New York minute.
Next: Juan and TA have their eyes on making similar changes on the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridge. The goal is to take space away from cars and make it possible for the new evolution of urban transport to take up space.
Working at the intersection of volunteer management and city bureaucracy is no small feat. Many of the campaigns Juan works on are multi-year affairs. We can't even imagine how difficult it is to keep your energy and enthusiasm up. However, Juan's and TA’s continued enthusiasm and engagement have empowered others to get involved for change.
Empowering the People
How come this process of educating people of their powers for change is so important? Juan describes this process, "Here's how we're going to get you the thing that means the world to you. And it probably means the world to a lot of other people we don't know yet, and we're going to meet them, and we're going to talk with them, and they're going to agree with us, and we're going to win."
The New Big Initiative: 25 x 25
Can you imagine what NYC would feel like if 25% of the space currently dedicated to cars was dedicated towards people-centered use by 2025? This is precisely the challenge 25x25 is giving to the next leaders of the city.
Every notable mayoral candidate agreed to take on the challenge and commit themselves to make this a reality. The conversations that were started around this idea can create positive social change for the future. NYC's new mayor Eric Adams also agreed to fight for this future. Will NYC give the streets back to the people thanks to the tireless work of people like Juan Restrepo? We await 2025 with bated breath.
FEND and Transportation Alternatives
At FEND, we are big supporters of the advocacy work Transportation Alternatives is involved in and around NYC. We pride ourselves on leading the cycling revolution from a safety point of view, thanks to our convenient foldable helmet.
One day New York City will become worthy of being America's best biking city again, and we know we'll have the folks at Transportation Alternatives to thank for the policy changes that paved the way.
We'll leave you with a final quote from Juan on cycling as the embodiment of freedom. He says, "Anytime I'm biking at night is like my happy place. It's generally cooler. You get to play your music, and it just feels like a New York vibe, you know?"
Click here to get in touch with Transportation Alternatives and take action for New York City's streets.