Scenes From NYC’s First “Car Free Day”

Broadway between 17th and 23rd Streets was closed to traffic for four hours today. Photo: David Meyer
Broadway between 17th and 23rd Streets was car-free for four hours today. Photo: David Meyer

New York City’s first “Car Free Day,” the brainchild of City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, is underway.

On the streets, there are three car-free zones in Manhattan in effect from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: blocks abutting Washington Square Park, Wadsworth Avenue between 173rd and 177th Streets, and Broadway from Union Square to Madison Square.

While the initiative is much more modest than events like Bogota’s, where the annual car-free day removes an estimated 600,000 private vehicles from the streets, or Paris’s, where last year the mayor made a third of the city off-limits to cars for a day, Rodriguez has said he hopes the event can build momentum for his efforts on the council to increase the share of car-free households in NYC.

City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez speaks about Car Free Earth Day at a press conference this morning. Photo: David Meyer
City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez. Photo: David Meyer

Speaking near Madison Square this morning alongside DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Rodriguez emphasized that cutting traffic is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. “For me this is not about a politician trying to do something that people will like to hear, this is for my daughters,” Rodriguez said. “By reducing cars, by reducing emissions… we can make a major contribution.”

Rodriguez has pulled together a coalition of more than 35 organizations and companies to participate in the initiative, encouraging employees and members to go car-free for the day.

In introducing Rodriguez, Trottenberg promoted the de Blasio’s administration’s policies to reduce New York City’s carbon footprint, and tied those efforts to her work at DOT to increase biking and reclaim street space for pedestrians. “As we’re focused on making the city greener — we’re focused on alternative modes of transportation — we’re also making the city safer,” Trottenberg said, referring to DOT’s Vision Zero program.

Trottenberg lauded Rodriguez for his efforts on the council. “I’m really proud, Mr. Chairman, of our partnership,” she said. “You really have been a force of nature on [Car Free Day].”

Mayor de Blasio himself was absent, however, and there was no new policy announcement to accompany the day’s events — no new budgetary commitment to bus lanes or bike lanes, no expansion of on-street parking reform to cut traffic, no concrete steps that will reduce driving beyond the city’s existing efforts.

  • c2check

    I was disappointed by what I saw (or didn’t see) around Washington Sq. I expected it would be closed between 8th and Houston, 6th and Broadway. Foolish of me, I know.
    I didn’t walk around to the eastern half of the park, but I would have liked to see MacDougal—ever crowded with pedestrians and misbehaving drivers parking illegally—shut down to cars too. The street has such potential to be a vibrant, lovely place.

  • Car Free

    Trottenberg’s commitment to wide parking lanes is truly exemplary.

  • Trilobite Maddness

    A small start, but important. Especially since this initiative came from outside the normal advocacy channels. It’ll be interesting to see how far next year’s event goes. Would be lovely to see the scale of a Summer Streets on a weekday!

  • Joe R.

    Honestly, this is a pathetic joke and nothing more than a feel good photo op. Sort of like how people think they’re saving the Earth by screwing in an LED bulb. A few blocks here and there closed for four lousy hours? The entirety of Manhattan should have been off limits to at least private automobiles for 24 hours. That might get us to see what it could be like doing that on a permanent basis.

    Please scale this up dramatically next year. Or better yet let’s have a car-free week or so in NYC every single year. When people see the world won’t come crashing down if they can’t drive, there might be some momentum to end the tyranny of motor vehicles on urban streets.

  • new yorker

    This was just an opportunity for out-of-touch politicians to pat themselves on the back. They think they are heroes making an ultimate sacrifice for taking a subway system that millions of people use everything single day.

  • AMH

    While I can appreciate this as a start, it pales in comparison to Summer Streets (which also needs major expansion). Let’s promise to do better next year.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Hey, don’t knock LED bulbs. Apparently, an average US household has 40 light bulbs. A 60W equivalent LED bulb uses only 10W of power. Average light on-time is 4 hours per day. That’s a savings of 2.92MWh per household per year. Nothing to sneeze at, not to mention that LEDs don’t have the Mercury issues that CFLs have.

  • AnoNYC

    We should showcase things that we could have on Earth Day, like BRT and pedestrian plazas for example. For one day let’s let people see how it could be.

  • Joe R.

    You’re preaching to the choir here. LED lighting design has been part of my business for about a decade. I believe in energy efficient lighting. I’ve had mostly linear fluorescent tubes in my house since the early 1980s. Over the last few years I’ve gradually transitioned any remaining CFLs and incandescents to LED. Besides the energy savings, LEDs are available in a wide variety of color temperatures. I prefer the whiter 5000K over yellowish 2700K-3000K incandescent. I love the new NYC LED streetlights. Besides saving at least 35% on energy, they’re brighter, much whiter, and (at least the ones here) don’t seem to have as many light trespass issues as the old HPS.

    I’m not discounting the value of saving energy in lighting, but we need to do a heck of a lot more than that. Transportation is the largest energy user. Saving with more efficient modes, or better yet by eliminating some trips entirely, could make a major difference.

  • During the last couple of major winter storms, there were periods during which driving was actually illegal, and the police stopped anyone caught using their cars. That’s what a “Car Free Day” would look like.

    Not only would all the streets be open to bike riding on such a day, it would be a day during which we could explore all the highways. Riding 15 miles on the L.I.E. without stopping from the City line through the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan would be pretty great. I’d also like to take a non-stop 26-mile ride from City line (Nassau border) to City line (Westchester border) by means of the Grand Central Parkway, the Triboro Bridge, and the Major Deegan. And we could ride on all the bridges that are usually off limits: the Verazzano, the Whitestone, and the Throgs Neck.

    To realise that this simple and sensible move is completely undoable is to risk falling into despair at the hopelessly backward state of our society.

  • Joe R.

    When people see how fast and easy it is to cover those kinds of distances by bike if you don’t need to stop they’ll push to reduce cars, get more nonstop bike infrastructure, and use bikes more themselves. There are rare times I see how it can be without cars, like when I’m out on NY25 past city limits at 2 or 3 AM. The lights are all on sensors that time of night but since there is little traffic all I have is a string of greens for over 6 miles. That plus the lack of cars makes riding a true pleasure. Add some people walking around, and the picture would be complete. That’s how NYC could be if we truly went car free, or at least car light.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    broadway from 14th to 60th should be completely opened to Humans aka Pedestrian Zone

  • Joe R.

    Not being an early riser myself, the hours for Summer Streets have always been a sore point with me. Other than a desire not to inconvenience drivers when traffic picks up in the afternoon, there is no good reason Summer Streets shouldn’t run from 7 until well into the evening. Make a festival out of it, sort of like a summer fair. Let all run all night until the next day, or better yet from Friday night though Sunday night. The world won’t come crashing down if some streets in Manhattan are off limits to cars for maybe 48 hours three times a year. While we’re at it, have similar festivals in the outer boroughs on major arterials like Queens Boulevard (perfect setting for a summer fair actually).

  • c2check

    It’s likely because of the silly amount of extra cash they need to pay cops to stand at every single intersection (needlessly) to tell drivers not to barrel through the barriers closing off the streets to traffic

  • Exactly. Summer Streets won’t ever be expanded. The police have sabotaged it by demanding a police presence that requires a huge amount of overtime.

    What an absurdity. No one thinks that blanket police presence is necessary on ordinary days when streets are infested with thousands of cars. But, for some unknowable reason, the population lets the police get away with the claim that they have to be out there in force when one street is opened up to bikes and pedestrians.

  • AnoNYC

    How was the congestion on adjacent streets? Perhaps these roads should always be closed to automotive traffic. Especially the lower section along Broadway.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Great! I’m a fan of the 5000K ones mysef!

    “Transportation is the largest energy user.”
    http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/flow/primary_energy.pdf
    No, Electric Power generation is the largest energy user.(40% vs 28%)

  • JudenChino

    Rights, all these bikes and walkers . . . jeez, someone could get hurt. We better be extra vigilant and have a strong police presence. Unlike those days when the streets are full of cars and trucks.

  • Joe R.

    Transportation is the largest user of “dirty” (either petroleum or coal) energy though. Electric generation is obviously responsible for most coal use but note that coal is used for only 18% of energy needs (versus 36% for petroleum). Also, a lot of electric generation is in the process of switching to natural gas or renewables. Getting transportation energy use down and/or switched to cleaner sources could make a bigger difference in air quality than anything else we could do.

    Those 5000K LED lights are nice, aren’t they? I have high-CRI 5000K flourescent tube replacements in my work room. It’s practically like artificial sunlight. Way better than even the so-called full-spectrum fluorescent tubes I used before them.

  • evo34

    So we should make NYC only convenient for very healthy people? Anyone who is too old/young or even mildly disabled should just move out. Gotcha.
    P.S. If you increase bike traffic by 100x, guess what happens? Cyclists need to stop at intersections.

  • Joe R.

    How are you going to increase bike traffic by 100 times? People don’t even make enough trips for that to happen. If we have bike highways there are no intersections to stop at. If streets just have bikes, occasional buses, and pedestrians you won’t need to stop often, either, nor will you need traffic signals.

    And I’m not saying get rid of the subways and let everyone bike. I’m saying to get rid of private automobiles.

    So we should make NYC only convenient for very healthy people?

    Most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. It’s often easier for frail, elderly people to bike than to walk. More cycling is more mobility for everyone, not less.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The same is true of cars. There are a lot of people in america that are too old, too young, disabled or too poor to drive. They are simply ignored by car oriented development.

    As society ages, this issue is getting more and more acute, with millions stranded in suburbia.

    And about increasing trffic 100x, the analogy to car traffic isn’t good. Usually bikes just slow down if the streets are correctly designed.

  • Vooch

    my 82 year old mom rides her bike for errands everywhere.

  • BootsandMary Whitlock

    E-bikes anyone?? It would be nice to see e-bikes legalized for these events so us lazy riders could get some biking in!! Probably the most democratic part of the Nation full of folks that espouse the benefits of being environmentally aware and E-bikes are illegal here. You have to wonder about the people in charge of making laws here. Can’t take the hoverboard on the subway either!! (they say its because they blow up, but I gotta say every cell phone out there has the same potential and they don’t outlaw those)

  • AMH

    The best experience I’ve had was when the pope was in town. Police barricades corked traffic on Park and Madison Avenues, giving me miles of car-free street and making it easy to ride fast enough to take advantage of the green wave.

  • Michel S

    You should have seen Philadelphia! They closed off the entire Center City for almost 3 days when the Pope was here. It was unreal!

  • Wilfried84

    This may be grim, and possibly inappropriate, to say, but the best car free day I’ve experienced was 9/11. I didn’t have a bike at the time, but I got on my Rollerblades to check in on places and people. It was a glorious autumn day, and I remember thinking how awesome it would be, if it weren’t so awful. That was a day on which the best, and possibly only, way to get around was on bicycle or blades.

  • Wilfried84

    They didn’t mention times for “car free” day. I made a point of taking Broadway when heading downtown at 4pm on Friday, which was allegedly car free below 23rd St. I was disappointed to see the usual mess that is Broadway (though traffic was fairly light at the time).

  • reasonableexplanation

    I really don’t understand why e-bikes are illegal here other than NYC pols being scared of anything new. They’re a great choice for anyone that wants to bike but not be sweaty when they arrive.

  • I can understand that.

    The days after the hurricane were pretty good for riding as well, when the gas stations were closed and few people were driving.

    How terrible that it is only in the wake of disasters that we can experience wide-ranging good conditions for riding.

  • Joe R.

    I recall riding that day and the days immediately after. It was great seeing the LIE closed. It was even better not having to listen to planes constantly flying overhead. I was hoping beyond hope that the events of that day would have prompted them to shut the metro area airports permanently. And then not long after I heard the idiot President exhorting people to start flying again. At the time I felt I was the only person in the world who seemed to make a connection between oil use-strong Middle Eastern US presence-resentment of that presence by those in the region-terrorism on US soil. 9/11 was actually the event which got me on board ending oil use.

  • evo34

    Right. Because you’ve seen a lot of cases where bike traffic has increased by 100x.

  • evo34

    Go fuck yourself. Clearly, you’ve never known anyone who is disabled. Hint: most disabled people are not fully paralyzed, nor are are they “out of shape.” But they sure as hell are never riding a bike.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve known enough disabled people to know that if you’re too disabled to ride a bike you’re a hazard to yourself and others if you drive a car. Shame on you for pulling out the disabled card as an excuse to continue to allow huge numbers of private automobiles in this city. About all that will ensure is the ranks of the disabled will grow as these automobiles continue their carnage on the populace.

  • ahwr

    I’ve known enough disabled people to know that if you’re too disabled to ride a bike you’re a hazard to yourself and others if you drive a car.

    Does that include paraplegics?

  • Miles Bader

    my 82 year old mom rides her bike for errands everywhere.

    As does mine (about the same age) … not just in the local neighbourhood but across the city (Chicago) when the occasion warrants it.

    I also live in a place (Japan) which has a huge elderly bike-riding population, including many who have trouble walking long distances at any speed faster than “extremely slow”, so a bike gives them a very real increase in freedom.

    Bike-riding as transportation is also obviously extremely popular amongst young children; they start out in child seats on their parrent’s bike, then graduate to a little bike they ride alongside their parents, then eventually they start biking on their own. For many, this never stops: they ride as kids, they ride as teens, they ride as college students, they ride as young employed adults, they ride as middle-aged adults, and they ride as seniors.

    The concept that bicycles are some how “restricted to the very healthy” is demonstrably wrong, and only somebody with very little knowledge of the subject matter could entertain it…

  • Joe R.

    Not sure what you’re getting at here. A paraplegic can neither ride a bike nor drive a car.

  • qrt145

    Google “paraplegic driving” or something equivalent. The results may surprise you.

  • Joe R.

    Whether it’s’ possible or not doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. How does a paraplegic quickly exit a car if a wreck occurs? Can the controls let you accelerate or brake while steering? How much does it cost to retrofit a vehicle? Did whatever made them paraplegic also affect other abilities like coordination or reflexes? It’s better if someone confined to a wheelchair gets driven or takes public transit. It’s not politically correct to say it, but there are just some things the disabled can’t do on their own. Can blind people safely cross streets unassisted? I haven’t yet seen anything short of an overpass or underpass which makes that possible.

    The hard fact is some large proportion of healthy, young, able-bodied people lack the basic abilities needed to safely drive, regardless of the level of training. I’m not keen on letting people drive who have health or disability issues. I personally would refuse to drive on account of my pretty severe CTS. I feel I would be a hazard to myself and others simply because I might not be able to steer when I might need to.

  • Joe R.

    I can personally vouch for the fact a person who can barely walk can still bike. One time I had a B12 deficiency which resulting in inflammation to the point I could hardly walk. At best I could manage about 1 mph. On the bike I was nearly OK. I couldn’t do my usual 18 to 23 mph, but I could manage about 15 mph just fine. I think the key was I didn’t need to support my weight. Just putting a fraction of my weight on the pedals was enough to propel me along at a decent pace.

  • Frank Kotter

    Not totally sure if you lost this argument before or after ‘Go fuck yourself’. Alas, it is irrelevant.

    In my hood I have guys who are missing limbs, never advanced beyond a first grade cognitive level, are schizophrenic, drug addicted, perpetually drunk – all have no business driving a car who get to where they need to be using a bike. To say the only way to advance the rights of the handicapped is through the private car is laughable.

    I know, I know…. ‘Go fuck myself’ and all that jazz.

  • ahwr

    Is this your instinct that they would be bad drivers? Or do you have data to back it up?

    How does a paraplegic quickly exit a car if a wreck occurs?

    Why would it matter?

    Can the controls let you accelerate or brake while steering?

    Yes they can.

    How much does it cost to retrofit a vehicle?

    Why would it matter? How much does it cost to drive them around wherever and whenever they want to go somewhere?

    I’ve been in a couple vehicles with paraplegic drivers. They seemed to be able to handle themselves just fine.

  • Joe R.

    Here is why this concerns me. Usually one becomes a paraplegic due to spinal cord damage. It’s reasonable to assume that movement of an already damaged spinal cord can result in further damage. That’s actually the reason accident victims are immobilized. Now what happens if a jolt causes sudden loss of use of the hands while driving? Here in the USA we’re so obsessed with getting people behind the wheel regardless of the potential dangers they pose to others. That doesn’t just include disabled drivers. It includes those with horrible driving records. Is there any good reason why a disabled person needs to travel by car on a regular basis such that they can’t be driven by people, or take a car service? Friends or relatives can often shop for them or bring them to doctor’s appointments. Many jobs are amenable to being done from home these days.

    Why would it matter?

    Often vehicles come to rest in dangerous places after a collision. If you can’t quickly exit the vehicle you can be killed if it’s hit by another vehicle. Or perhaps if it’s leaking fuel and explodes. Why put a person in such a position in the name of political correctness? Quite a few people in wheelchairs died on 9/11 precisely because we didn’t consider what happens to them if they need to escape quickly. I don’t believe in placing people in harm’s way.

    I’ve been in a couple vehicles with paraplegic drivers. They seemed to be able to handle themselves just fine.

    We’re talking about driving in NYC here. A lot of people who have no health issues can’t drive safely under the conditions which exist here. NYC also has loads of other transit options for disabled people besides driving private automobiles.

  • ahwr

    Quite a few people in wheelchairs died on 9/11 precisely because we didn’t consider what happens to them if they need to escape quickly.

    If you’re in a wheelchair you shouldn’t ever be in a high rise in case a plane flies into it?

    Now what happens if a jolt causes sudden loss of use of the hands while driving?

    Have data showing them to be a danger to others when they drive? I’m guessing no, or you would have given it.

    Often vehicles come to rest in dangerous places after a collision. If you can’t quickly exit the vehicle you can be killed if it’s hit by another vehicle. Or perhaps if it’s leaking fuel and explodes. Why put a person in such a position in the name of political correctness?

    What happens if the person driving them is incapacitated in a crash? Should we really ever let paraplegics leave their home? And really, what happens if there’s a fire in their home? We should have done the moral thing and just killed them in their sleep, right?

    Is there any good reason why a disabled person needs to travel by car on a regular basis such that they can’t be driven by people, or take a car service? Friends or relatives can often shop for them or bring them to doctor’s appointments.

    Who is forcing paraplegics to drive instead of relying on friends, for hire vehicles, and transit? Absent data showing them to be incapable of driving, why not let it be their choice?

    We’re talking about driving in NYC here.

    One of the paraplegic car trips I’ve taken was in NYC. We would have had to take two buses each running less than three times an hour to get where we were going without a car. Figure a one hour+ trip instead of ten minutes.

  • Joe R.

    If you’re in a wheelchair you shouldn’t ever be in a high rise in case a plane flies into it?

    No, just not in a high-profile target like the WTC. Terrorists aren’t going to fly planes into high-rise apartment buildings.

    Have data showing them to be a danger to others when they drive? I’m guessing no, or you would have given it.

    Here’s a laundry list of side effects from spinal column injury:

    http://uiortho.com/index.php/how-do-spinal-cord-injuries-affect-the-body.html

    A lot of those can affect driving ability. I tend to think if your body was battered enough to damage your spinal cord you could have injuries which don’t manifest their effects until months or years later.

    What happens if the person driving them is incapacitated in a crash? Should we really ever let paraplegics leave their home? And really, what happens if there’s a fire in their home? We should have done the moral thing and just killed them in their sleep, right?

    Life already puts you in enough situations where being incapacitated could make a bad situation worse. All I’m saying is don’t put people in yet another situation purely to do something which is largely not necessary.

    Absent data showing them to be incapable of driving, why not let it be their choice?

    Because this country doesn’t even thoroughly evaluate whether able-bodied people can safely drive. I don’t trust them to do the same for someone with a severe medical condition. Note that my concern here isn’t limited to paraplegics. People with heart conditions shouldn’t drive. Those prone to seizures shouldn’t drive. Many medications also impair driving ability.

    Figure a one hour+ trip instead of ten minutes.

    You on a bike and the disabled person in one of those racing wheelchairs probably could have made the trip in the same amount of time.

  • ahwr

    How often do you see someone using a mobility scooter in a bike or general traffic lane in NYC?

  • Oh, yeah? Tell that to the guy I saw yesterday while I was on Merrick Blvd. in St. Albans. This guy had one leg, and was riding a bike while carrying his crutches. He would press the pedal with his left leg, then pull the pedal back with his foot, and press the pedal again. (If only he weren’t riding on the sidewalk. Sigh.)

  • Joe R.

    Given his disability, I’ll give him a free pass for riding on the sidewalk. The way you describe it, he would be pretty vulnerable in the street.

  • evo34

    Yeah, try teaching someone who has ALS to ride a bike. Wheelchairs usually aren’t used bc people are lazy. Sad that I have to write that.

  • evo34

    Fully disabled people don’t drive, you fucking idiot; they have to get rides in specially equipped vehicles. But according to you, they should be locked in their apartments 24/7 to allow all the red-light running cyclists to get to brunch on time.

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