Ed Koch, 1973: The Bicycle “Must Be Included” in NYC Transpo System

Thanks to reader Peter Frishauf for passing on this 1973 constituent letter he received from Ed Koch, who represented New York’s 18th Congressional District at the time. Forty years ago, Koch was putting out a more progressive message on bike policy than what we heard in 2011 from another U.S. Representative who had his eye on Gracie Mansion.

Koch, who died last night at the age of 88, introduced some innovative changes to prioritize surface transit and bicycling in the first half of his three-term mayoralty, though not all of them lasted. Many of the bus lanes on Midtown Manhattan avenues were created under his watch, beginning in 1981 with the implementation of the Madison Avenue bus lanes. Tens of thousands of bus riders benefit from these exclusive lanes to this day.

The previous year Koch’s administration had put down the city’s first on-street protected bike lanes on 5th Avenue, 6th Avenue, 7th Avenue, and Broadway between Central Park and Washington Square. The protected lanes turned out to be a short-lived experiment: On a Manhattan limo ride with President Carter, Governor Hugh Carey mocked Koch for building the lanes, and the mayor had them torn out just a month after they were installed. Twenty-seven years passed before the city got around to building another protected lane.

In Koch’s third term, his administration did a complete 180 on support for bicycling, attempting to implement a bike ban on Midtown avenues in 1987. The ensuing revolt against the bike ban, which was delayed by a court ruling and never fully implemented thanks to a rising tide of opposition, was actually the least of the woes plaguing the end of his tenure. Koch’s DOT was rocked by scandal when it was revealed, among other things, that the agency had become a nest of corruption under commissioner Anthony Ameruso, a patronage appointment doled out at the behest of Democratic Party bosses.

In terms of a long-term transportation legacy, the most significant act of Koch’s mayoralty was to team up with Carey and Albany to fund the MTA’s first five-year capital program in the early 1980s, at the insistence of then-MTA chair Richard Ravitch. The investment in transit reversed the decline of what had become a decrepit, unreliable system, turning it into the engine of the city’s recovery. Koch and Carey’s successors have let transit funding deteriorate since then: Direct city and state support for the MTA’s capital program has shrunk to almost nothing.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A very good account of the Koch legacy in transportation.  He started the recovery of the city’s infrastructure, but in the end had a windshield perspective above ground after the failure of his bike experiments.

    It seems that every Mayor does a deal or two with the devil, and Koch’s was to allow give the Democratic machine bosses one agency as their plaything in exchange for their support.  Transportation.

    In the end, his “friends” left one of the relatively few black marks on Koch’s record as Mayor.  But who is to say that one or more of the current candidates wouldn’t make a similar promise to various powers that be in exchange for support?  The city is going broke, it wouldn’t take much money to put in bike lanes OR rip them out, and parking placards are likely to remain coin of the realm for the political class.

  • Bolwerk

    I tend to be harsh with Koch, though more because he has become increasingly batty and authoritarian (supporting Bush!) over the years than because of his mixed record in city hall. I can forgive the windshield perspective he had as a product of his times – it’s far from extinct now, though it needs to be, but back then we were lucky to hold to what we had.

    Indeed, though, letting transit work again really might be a (the?) key yet unsung factor in the city’s recovery. Crime probably would have gone down anyway, but without reversing the subway decline NYC could never have started growing again, we could have suffered a death by attrition quietly afflicting much of the rust belt. I don’t know how much foresight Koch actually had, but he certainly deserves credit where credit is due.

  • Anonymous

    First:We’ll miss you Mayor Koch!  Love him or hate him, he was definitely a true New Yorker.

    Second: Unfortunately, Koch sacrificing NYC DOT to politics was a tradition carried on throughout Giuliani’s tenture, and the beginning of Bloomberg’s.  One of the main reasons that the current accomplishments of Ms. Sadik-Khan seem so radical to some is because she’s the first NYC DOT commissioner in ages to be chosen for her expertise in transportation.

  • Joe R.

    I agree that getting the subway back on track will probably be Koch’s biggest legacy. It’s a pity we’re on the verge of repeating the mistakes of the 70s which nearly destroyed the system.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The mistakes weren’t made in the 1970s Joe.  That’s just when the consequences showed up. 

    And on the financial side, we’ve already repeated many of the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s, though without (yet) deferred maintenance and an unfunded retroactive 20/50 pension plan.

  • Daniel Bowman Simon

    See also: Congress spins its wheels: a brief and selective history of bicycles and the US Congress 
    …Also in the 92nd Congress, New York Democrat Edward Koch introduced in the House of Representatives the “Bicycle Transportation Act” (H.R. 9369, 1972), which would have permitted “States and localities to use highway trust fund moneys for the development of bicycle lanes and paths, the construction of bicycle shelters, and the installation of bicycle traffic control equipment” (Koch, March 20, 1972)…

  • Anonymous

    Ben, thanks for this illuminating slice of history. Beautifully reported, as usual. Though I think you should substitute 6th Avenue for 7th in your third graf. And I wouldn’t give Koch more than modest/token credit for the political lifts that funded the MTA’s first capital plan.

    @3a9cb377ae68ba7b489d30e5eb859747:disqus I see street-crime reduction and transit revival as the twin pillars of NYC’s economic revival over the past several decades. Hard to ascertain which, if either, had primacy. They were/are synergistic, too. A sense of greater personal safety made it less “necessary”/acceptable to shun public transit, for example.

  • @Komanoff:disqus I thought it was 6th Avenue too, but it says 7th in the Sam Schwartz piece I linked to.

  • Ok, according to the Bike Blueprint, they put the lanes on 5th, 6th, 7th, and Broadway — one northbound and three southbound. Weird.


  • Anonymous

    @BenFried:disqus  Sam’s piece is gorgeous (as well as written six months before JSK’s appointment to run DOT; one imagines that the piece contributed to the zeitgeist that led to her appointment). But it was wrong to omit 6th Avenue. Sixth was the uptown route, and 7th-B’way-Fifth the downtown. (Yes, 7th was in there, contrary to my earlier comment.) See “Bicycle Blueprint”: http://www.transalt.org/files/resources/blueprint/chapter4/sidebar.html.

  • Joe R.

    @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus Yes, I remember the deferred maintenance all too many. Basically, it was  policy at time that if it moved, it went into service. For those who either weren’t born yet, or were too young to remember, here’s a list in no particular order of what I experienced in those days:

    1) Often less than half the doors on a train worked. You had to hope the set of doors which stopped in front of you worked, or run to a set which opened if they didn’t. Doors where one half opened were pretty common.

    2) There were many train cars where some or even none of the lights worked. This meant you were in the dark in tunnels. The dark cars were generally safe enough if they were crowded, but you knew not to enter one if it was relatively empty. They were perfect havens for either muggers or perverts.

    3) The system was full of derelicts. Besides the usual assortment of muggers and perverts, there were large numbers of mentally ill homeless people. You generally avoided them because it was not uncommon for them to have lice. They also regularly urinated/defecated in trains and on stations. For that reason, you always checked the seat before sitting down.

    4) Graffiti was virtually everywhere. Some train cars were nearly completely covered in it, including the windows. You had to either count stops or look when the doors opened so as not to miss your stop. Needless to say, the PA systems rarely worked. When they did, the announcements were usually garbled.

    5) It was very common for trains to be taken out of service due to mechanical issues. In fact, on the #4 line when going to high school this happened to me on average two days out of five. You hoped the next train wouldn’t also be taken out of service.

    6) I remember once seeing a #5 train come in which evidently had the brakes rubbing on one car. The wheels were glowing red hot. I could feel the heat radiating off them from the other side of the platform.

    7) ALL of the lines had numerous spots with slow orders due to the condition of the tracks. This wasn’t a case of having to slow down to avoid a rough ride. Rather, the tracks were so bad in spots that the train would derail if it didn’t slow down. And lots of trains derailed anyway, regularly snarling service.

    8) The stations were no better than the trains. Many were dimly lit with orange incandescent bulbs, half of which were broken, often on purpose by muggers. Garbage, rats, and human excrement were all too common.

    9) Most of the fleet didn’t have working AC. Heating worked on most cars. Unfortunately it was sometimes on even in the summer.

    I’m sure there’s a lot more. That’s what stands out most in my mind.

    Pictures are worth a thousand words:


  • Bolwerk

    @Komanoff:disqus: I wasn’t downplaying crime dropping, I was just saying we likely wouldn’t have seen an economic recovery without the subway recovery, even with crime dropping. (Perhaps we wouldn’t even have seen the crime drop we did without the subway recovery.)

  • Anonymous

    When thinking of Koch’s legacy on transportation, we have to include the rebuilding of the capital disinvested, pillaged, and burned-out neighborhoods in Harlem, the South Bronx, and much of Brooklyn.  

    Think of how other cities responded to similar urban crises: they flattened the buildings and paved enormous parking lots or left acres of empty lots.  And then later, when money came available, these lots developed along suburban, car-centric patterns.Koch, by devoting billions in Capital dollars to rebuild existing pre-WWII buildings, saved much of the city as urban, transit-friendly places.

  • Larry Littlefield

    All of that was my experience too, Joe R.

    Plus crush loading on most days despite a larger fleet than today and ridership that was 40% lower, because so many trains were out of service or went out of service en route.  Sometimes I had to let a train or two pass at Prospect Park 15th Street on the F.  And another train or two pass at Jay Street, where I transferred.

    While you were pressed against other people at rush hours, there were far fewer people on the trains at other hours.

  • Stephen Bauman

    The downtown bike lane started at 59th and 7th Ave. It ran down 7th Ave to Broadway in Times Sq. It continued along Broadway to 5th Ave in Madison Sq. It continued along 5th Ave to 8th Street. Thus, the lane was on 7th, Broadway and 5th Ave.

  • @8dcba744586095f80ee5206dcc8bca33:disqus Thanks. It all makes sense now.