Rodriguez on Car Free NYC: Climate Change Is a Call to Action on Transit

This Friday is Earth Day, and to mark the occasion, City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez is spearheading the “Car Free NYC” initiative. The idea is to raise awareness of the connections between climate change, vehicle emissions, and access to transit. More than three dozen large employers have signed on to encourage their workers to walk, bike, or ride transit to work instead of driving — and that coalition continues to grow.

Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, left, and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, center, discuss transit concerns on a tour of transit-strapped central Queens. Photo: David Meyer
Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, left, and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, center, on a tour of the old Montauk Line tracks in central Queens. Photo: David Meyer

In addition, there will be three car-free zones in Manhattan: Wadsworth Avenue between 173rd Street and 177th Street, in Rodriguez’s Washington Heights district; Broadway between Union Square and 23rd Street; and the streets surrounding Washington Square Park.

Streetsblog joined Rodriguez last week on a walking tour of the old rail line in Maspeth and Middle Village that local Council Member Elizabeth Crowley wants to resurrect as light rail (the LIRR discontinued service in the late 1990s due to low ridership). We spoke about his goals for Car Free Day, how he’s been spreading the word about it, and that bill to give members of the press exemptions from parking rules.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What do you hope to be the overall impact of this year’s Car Free Day?

This is about having a conversations about the need to reduce cars. My goal is to see a reduction of cars by 2030 from the 1.4 million car owners that we have to one million. The way our city can accomplish that goal? Through the educational part. We need to encourage as many New Yorkers as possible to understand that we have a good system of mass transportation, with the buses, train, and ferries, but at the same time we have to identify transportation deserts throughout the five boroughs, especially in the outer-borough areas, where we can still do better connecting those communities through mass transportation. I believe we’ll see some car owners decide to park their car and use mass transportation that day.

The second thing is that New York City has always been on the frontline; what happens in New York City is usually followed by other cities in our nation and throughout the world. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than saying we will reduce emissions [and] we will discuss how we can release New Yorkers in the future from depending on their car?

No one wants to get behind the wheel for an hour and a half coming from Far Rockaway to Manhattan. If people had the choice to make it in a half hour or forty minutes by train, by bus, or by ferry, then people will make that choice. We also want to highlight that we are creating a great bike system in our city. We have seen an expansion of the Citi Bike network to areas in Brooklyn and Queens, and also going even up to Harlem and El Barrio, and I hope to see this network expanding through the five boroughs.

Why is addressing the parts of the city where people are more car-dependent an important part of this initiative?

Our generation has been lucky to live in a period of time where we’ve enjoyed a level of infrastructure that the city created close to 100 years ago. Our challenge and responsibility now is how to bring a new vision of taking the city to another level, and I believe that when it comes to transportation deserts, this is [an issue] that is real. So for me, Car Free Day is a day that we celebrate Earth Day not only by encouraging New Yorkers not to drive their cars — those who can afford to do so — but also a day to talk about things that we can do to protect our environment, and also how can we have more conversations about transportation deserts.

That’s the centerpiece for me of Car Free Day: not only talking about the steps necessary to reduce emissions in our city, where close to 25 percent of the emissions we produce are produced by vehicles, but also addressing areas in our boroughs where the working class and middle class don’t have access to mass transportation. The idea of the light rail that has been proposed by Council Member Crowley and other elected officials and community leaders in her district, I believe it deserves to have our attention, and we should take it to another level of conversation with the stakeholders at the state and the city level.

So Car Free Day is a day of reducing emissions, but it’s also a day of conversation about a vision of expanding transportation throughout the five boroughs.

I hope that in the near future we will continue seeing a growing expansion of Citi Bike, but also protected bike lanes. That network of [bike lanes], as a father of two daughters, I don’t want to only take my daughters to Central Park to bike, I want to see my daughters biking in the streets, and know that they’re safe. This needs to be addressed not only with city funding, but I hope that with the great partners we have with Senator Schumer, Congressman Nadler and others, that they will continue advocating for us so that we can get dollars from the federal government that complement whatever money we already have, so that we can see a more aggressive plan of expanding protected bike lanes in our city.

How have you been getting the word out?

Everyone is doing their part. We have a strong idea, and a lot of institutions have picked up on that idea. They’ve been using their social media, inviting New Yorkers to participate. There’s many people who say, ‘That’s fine for me because I don’t drive.’ What we want is for them to also understand that they know friends and family members that do drive, so this is about creating and expanding a network of information. I hope that the close to nine million New Yorkers that we have right now will listen to the message. For me, this is only a beginning of an [annual] event that I hope will continue to grow.

This coalition that we have created and expanded — it’s been amazing how we’ve been growing. Academic institutions from CUNY to New School to NYU to Columbia, members of the business sector from the Building Congress to the Partnership for New York City, and institutions such as Clear Channel, Madison Square Garden, are all coming on board, doing their part in their advertising.

We also have support from labor — 32BJ, PSE, UNITE HERE, District Council 37 — and from religious institutions such as Cardinal Dolan, who blogged about and tweeted his support for this plan. We also have the support of Yeshiva University and Columbia Presbyterian. And many of them are coming with a real pledge: like Citi Bike, they’re offering free rides that day. The bike rental at Central Park is going to be two-for-one. Water transportation will be free for people with municipal I.D. We have Uber, Lyft, the yellow taxi industry, the livery taxi industry, Zipcar, Via — all of them are on board.

I’ve been happy about the expansion of this coalition. I have seen the sign-on of so many business, academic, and community-based institutions — much more than what I expected. Not only have we been able to get 35 council members to sign-on in support, but we’ve also been able to get Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, [Brooklyn Borough President] Eric Adams, and [Public Advocate] Tish James. So, people are doing it. More than 35 institutions are sending email blasts to their members and to their contacts encouraging them to participate.

How do you plan to measure the initiative’s impact?

Two of the members of the coalition have been very helpful. Cubic [the company that makes MetroCards] is going to be working on putting together an assessment of the impact of this initiative. Also, the School of Health at Columbia University also are working on their own plan of doing an assessment. I am sure that the city will be able also, through DOT, which is the agency leading this initiative with us, to also study the impact of this initiative.

Where do you want this event to be next Earth Day?

This year we’ve been able to get the city to close Wadsworth Avenue in my district from 177th to 173rd. On Broadway, we’re closing from Union Square to 23rd Street. That’s a good beginning. What I hope is that on April 23rd, after we do the big celebration of what I hope we can accomplish on the 22nd, that the same coalition that has been able to come together, they should be able to start planning and do something even bigger next year.

You’ve come under fire for sponsoring legislation, supported by 34 of your colleagues, reintroducing parking privileges for members of the press. Advocates are concerned that, given ongoing placard abuse by public employees, expanding those privileges will only compound placard abuse that already seems impossible to stop. Are you reconsidering the bill? 

First of all, the bike coalition, they are my friends. We’ve been working on many issues and we will continue working with them. I think the testimony given by Paul Steely White from Transportation Alternatives was a good one. He did not come out against it; what he talked about was how to address the abuse of placards by some individuals. [Editor’s note: White told the City Council that “the city has proven to be incapable of enforcing” parking placards and that TA “cannot support” the bill “as it is written, because there is no special language prohibiting press vehicles parking in bike lanes, in crosswalks, on sidewalks, at bus stops or in front of fire hydrants.”]

What we heard from members of the press is that for many of them, their vehicles become their offices. This is not about privilege, this is about restoring the right that they already had, that unfortunately was taken away from them. I believe that we can talk and address and be sure that the system will not provide the opportunity for anyone to abuse the use of placards, but I believe that it’s necessary.

It’s like myself, being a council member, I know where I cannot park. I know that I cannot park where it says ‘no standing,’ I know that I cannot park in front of a hydrant. So, anyone who would park in those locations where we are not allowed should be penalized.

What the members of the press are saying, they’re not talking about abusing placards, what they’re saying is, ‘When we are called for a story’ — let’s say in one of these transportation deserts in Queens, where people have to walk 20 blocks from the train to that location — ‘we need a car.’ I think that this is critical for New Yorkers because New Yorkers rely on that sector be informed.

So, you know, I don’t seen major opposition from [anyone] when it comes to understanding the value of members of the press to have that pass as a tool that they need to do their job and inform all of us. I believe that the concern about placard abuse is universal to anyone that has a placard. It’s universal for elected officials, for police officers, for firefighters, for members of the press, and I know that we have spoken in support of Council Member Dan Garodnick’s bill to address this problem, which would create a digital system. But we also need enforcement. We need to be sure that no one is protected when it comes to placard abuse.

  • LOL @ the idea that the press will use their parking privileges only in NYC transportation deserts. If Ydanis believes that, I have a lovely bridge I’d like to discuss with him that may be for sale.

  • Jules1

    Is the old LIRR line mentioned still carrying freight?

  • “It’s like myself, being a council member, I know where I cannot park. I know that I cannot park where it says ‘no standing,’ I know that I cannot park in front of a hydrant…”

    Rodriguez is far more honest than many other people. This will be abused. Period.

    “…a tool they need to do their job…”

    So who else gets a parking pass? There are lots of vital jobs that require a car.

    “But we also need enforcement.”

    The NYPD are among the worst offenders when it comes to placard abuse. We honestly expect them to enforce against this?

    Sorry, Councilmember. But this is a giveaway to the press. And it undermines your otherwise noble efforts to reduce car use in NYC. Withdraw the bill, please.

  • David Meyer

    Yes, but only a few times a day.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    the press can certainly drive to the story if they wish, but they just need to pay for parking like everyone else. it’s sinple

  • I’d also note that you can replace “press” with literally any other profession that claims to require a car. Plumber? Electrician? Cable guy? Check, check, check — and each has more of a claim to being more important to the neighborhood than a reporter chasing the latest robbery or fire. Where do you draw the line?

  • JamesR

    Major props to him for his efforts. Councilman Rodriguez says things that almost no one else in city government is saying – it is amazing that both he and Bratton serve the same city. What’s even more amazing is that IIRC he is a former livery cab driver… you know, some of the most terrifying drivers out there.

  • None of those professions have influential associations with the power to give positive press to politicians who sponsor this legislation. I like Ydanis, but his reasoning here fails the logic test. This is the worst kind of political cronyism. If you want evidence that the system is rigged, look no further.

  • Kevin Love

    I comment on this blog. I believe that this makes me a member of the press. Time to apply for a placard. And if I don’t get one, no probs. I’ll just make my own very official-looking one.

    Now all I have to do is buy a car.

  • rao

    If they’re determined to do this favor to the media (which frankly is reminiscent of allowing people in favored professions the right to skip out of jury duty) then they should combine it wjth Garodnick’s bill. If these people want to abuse the public realm with their vehicles, they need to be tracked and held accountable. No more bullshit fake placards.

  • Joe R.

    At least some (but not all) of those exemptions made sense because either the person was highly likely to be biased or their services are highly essential. It’s also worth noting there might not have been so much desire to get out of jury duty (and hence so many exemptions) if the process was less unpleasant, less disruptive, and far less frequent. Jury pay should be something along the lines of the $15/hour proposed minimum wage, jury screening should be largely done via phone to prevent coming to court sitting for hours doing nothing, and jury duty should be a once in a lifetime thing. Once you serve on a jury, that’s it. You’ll never, ever be called again. I’ve heard horror stories of people being called in every year for jury duty. That’s too disruptive, and it undermines the entire system. When people think jury duty is BS because of the way the system abuses the principal, I’m not sure they’ll make good decisions if they do have to serve.

    In the case of granting the media parking privileges, it’s pure cronyism. As others have mentioned, there are lots of other professions where vehicles are arguably more essential, and yet we don’t grant these people special parking privileges.

  • Komanoff

    Others have nailed CM Rodriguez on press placards. I’ll take up a different point: his hope that businesses and general exhortation will lead to a noticeable drop in driving on Earth Day is chimerical.

    Why should appeals to conscience or environment or whatever lead to changes in commuting behavior, even for a day, in the face of strong countervailing forces? In fact, you could make an argument that it makes more sense to drive than train on Earth Day or any day people are being exhorted to switch from driving to transit, since the roads will be less crowded but the trains more packed.

    I really like and admire Ydanis on many levels but I feel he’s shooting blanks on the Earth Day appeal, and, of course, shooting himself in the foot on the press placards.

  • ahwr

    jury duty should be a once in a lifetime thing

    Will there be enough jurors if you do that?

  • ahwr

    It carries freight, and though the passenger stops along the line closed in 1998 the LIRR continued to run a limited number (2?) of passenger trains along the line between Jamaica and Hunters Point until ~October 2012 when those trains were rerouted to the LIRR main line and the Lower Montauk was turned over to NY&AR.

  • Joe R.

    Why not? I remember talking to old-timers (i.e. my grandparents generation) and many of them never got called for jury duty. The system still functioned just fine. Lawyers have been allowed to abuse the heck out of the system.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    you win the Internet today

  • AnoNYC

    There should be more street closures around the city.

    In fact, let’s demo pedestrian plazas, protected bicycle lanes (via cones) and BRT along some routes for a day.

    As the population of NYC and the surrounding metropolitan areas grow, the drivers are going to eliminate the convenience of the mode where it does currently exist. Congestion is only going to get worse, and can can be substantially so.

    You ain’t seen nothing yet. With all the suburban development going up plus the increase in truck traffic, I really wouldn’t be surprised if automotive commute times face serious increases before the decade is out. If you think the Cross Bronx, Major Deegan, Bruckner, FDR, BQE, Van Wick, West Side Highway etc cannot get worse, think again.

  • Jonathan R

    Ydanis has a stated goal of a reduction of cars to 1 million from 1.4 million in 14 years. I don’t recall Jimmy Vacca having the same goal. Ydanis wants to see his daughters biking in the streets. I don’t recall ever hearing that from the mayor. His record is just as solid as Ferreras or Van Bramer or Lander, and he’s the head of the transportation committee. So what is it about Ydanis that makes Streetsblog readers tsk disapprovingly every single time his name comes up?

  • ahwr

    reduction of cars to 1 million from 1.4 million

    Going by either DMV registration records or census ACS survey NYC households have ~1.9 million cars, not 1.4 million. ACS survey gives ~1.38 million households that have at least one car.

  • Ydanis is the best transportation chair we’ve had by a longshot. Even without comparing him to Jimmy Vacca or others. I do think his giveaway to the press is Vacca-esque, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t 100% right on his other positions. Support for a politician doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

  • AMH

    How can someone be called every year? Once you’ve served, you’re ineligible for six years. If you serve on a case for more than ten days, you’re ineligible for eight years.

  • I’m paraphrasing, but someone smarter than me once said, “If you believe people bike because they love the environment, think of it the other way around: do you believe people drive because they hate the environment?”

  • AMH

    Yes, and let’s stop calling them street closures. For the vast majority of us, the street is wide open when motor vehicles are prohibited, and closed to us when they are occupying it.

  • BrandonWC

    I was on jury duty on Friday (Kings Supreme Civil Term). Sat around in the morning. Lunch from 1 to 2, and then we were released at 2:30. Don’t have to do it again for eight years. The jury clerks all but assured us that we would get a summons by mistake within the next eight years but said we’d just have to mail in our certificate to get out of it.

  • Joe R.

    If they don’t pick you for a jury you could be called again the next year. This has happened to several people I know. They waste up to a week every single year sitting in court doing nothing.

  • BrandonWC

    That should not be the case and that is not the law in New York. The state is not good at record keeping, but if you’ve served recently and get summoned, you can just mail in your certificate of service and not have to report in person.

    From nyjuror.gov

    A person who serves in a State or Federal court in New York—either by reporting in person or by being available to serve via a telephone call-in system—normally is not eligible to serve again in the New York State courts for at least six years. A juror who serves for more than ten days normally is not eligible to serve again in the New York State courts for at least eight years. Jurors who physically report to serve in Town and Village courts are eligible to serve again in two years. Just because a person is eligible to serve does not mean they will be called.

  • Joe R.

    They may have changed the law then. I recall it used to be that you were ineligible to serve for four years if you actually were picked for a jury. If not, you could be called again the following year.

  • Joe R.

    Rather than having these temporary “feel-good” one day street closures which are mostly photo ops we should be proposing to gradually close off more and more of the street grid to private autos and other nonessential vehicles permanently. A good goal would be to have Manhattan more or less car-free in a decade, with large swaths of the outer boroughs to follow suit a few years later. The only way we’ll be able to prevent the street congestion which will come with increasing population will be to just ban the least space efficient modes. The hard fact is no matter how great public transit is, without such bans you’ll always get enough people choosing to drive to make life miserable for everyone else.

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