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.

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