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Wayback Machine: A Deeper Look at Ed Koch’s Livable Streets Legacy

6:38 PM EST on February 8, 2013

Our post last Friday about Ed Koch's transportation legacy inspired a flood of Koch-related reader email. From his days as an upstart Democratic district leader in the 1960s through his career in Congress and his early years as NYC mayor, Koch was, in many ways, ahead of his time on transit, bicycling, and reclaiming street space from cars. Many of Koch's transportation causes had staying power, and some of the ideas he championed in Congress were either enacted or came to pass after he left Washington.

As a Democratic district leader based in Greenwich Village, Koch was a big booster of getting cars out of Central Park. He helped lead this demonstration (one of the organizers was Barry Benepe, who would go on to found the NYC Greenmarket) described in the May 2, 1966 edition of the Times:

A broken-down but amiable carriage horse named Sunshine led 60 cyclists, politicians and other assorted humans in an anti-automobile demonstration in Central Park yesterday. The heterogeneous throng, trailing colored balloons from their bicycle fenders and preceded by two horse-drawn carriages, blocked most traffic for nearly an hour on the park's circular drive...

Mr. Koch, who rode in the lead carriage urging cyclists to join the throng, called the group "one of the very, very best ad hoc committees I've ever been a part of." He said wistfully that, while the committee was small, "60 good people could take a city by storm."

The demonstrators must have had an impact: At the end of the month the city began banning cars from the park drives on Sundays during the summer, the first success in the long fight for a car-free park.

Representing Manhattan's East Side in Congress in the early 1970s, just before the first oil price shocks hit America, Koch advocated for allocating federal gas tax revenues to cities, transit, and bike infrastructure. At the time, the "Highway Trust Fund" really was just for highways, so Koch sponsored legislation to let it be spent on other modes. In a 1973 speech on the House floor [PDF], he said:

The day has come in which all modes of transportation are so closely related that it is no longer feasible to treat each separately. I would submit that the inadequacies of our mass transit systems are adversely affecting auto drivers -- as well as transit riders. Too often today, the highway is used for daily commuting purposes when mass transportation, if available, could carry persons going to and from work far more economically and efficiently.

It looks like one bill Koch sponsored during this time -- the Bicycle Transportation Act -- was incorporated into the 1973 transportation bill (known then as the Federal Aid Highway Act). Koch referred to the 1973 law in a paper published by the Transportation Research Board three years later [PDF], noting that it made "available $40 million from the Highway Trust Fund (for fiscal years 1973 through 1975) for the development and construction of bicycle lanes and paths, traffic control devices, and parking shelters."

Koch made full use of this legislation after he was elected mayor in 1977. One of his earliest acts in City Hall (in fact, he set it in motion before his first inauguration), was to convene a Bicycle Advisory Council. Steve Faust, a member of the council, wrote in with this recollection:

After Koch's 1977 election, a task force of bicycle advocates drawn from American Youth Hostel Bike Committee and Transportation Alternatives wrote up a series of bicycle policy papers for the new administration. Offhand, members included Charlie McCorkell, Roger Herz, Elliot Winnick and myself - plus others. The paper's issues covered bikes on streets, bike to-at-on transit, bike bridge access, bike parking, education and enforcement, and probably more. Koch's new DOT embraced our suggestions, implemented quite a bit, choked on quite a bit, and left us with a better transportation system than he started with.

In an email, Herz recalled that Koch appointed two top deputies to work with the Bicycle Advisory Council. Among their first victories, he says, were getting the city's Corporation Counsel to abandon its proposal to ban on-street bike parking in the administrative code, and convincing NYPD to give up its objections to the Five Borough Bike Tour.

It was also during these first years of Koch's mayoralty that DOT hired Sam Schwartz (a personnel decision arranged by David Gurin, one of the founders of Transportation Alternatives), who reallocated space on the streets with new bus lanes and bike lanes.

Koch famously never gave his protected bike lanes a chance to succeed, after Governor Hugh Carey ridiculed them in front of President Jimmy Carter. The mayor had the physical barriers removed a mere 28 days after they were installed in October, 1980, while leading bike advocates were out of town for the first Pro-Bike summit in Asheville, North Carolina. But Faust says the common narrative -- that Koch abandoned the bike network entirely when he gave up on the protected lanes -- is mistaken: "DOT replaced them with the city standard (too narrow) painted lanes in the roadway, and kept on painting bike lanes throughout the rest of his administration."

Thanks to Steve Faust, Roger Herz, Peter Frishauf, and Daniel Bowman Simon for sending the Koch documents our way.

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