Car-Free Day Doesn’t Mean Much Without New Policies to Reduce Traffic

To be meaningful, Car-Free Day needs to be tied to permanent traffic reduction policies. Photo: David Meyer

New York City is America’s car-free capital, home to eight and half million people, most of whom get around without owning a car. When so many of us already live car-free, what more can come out of an event like last Friday’s Car-Free Day?

There are basically two ways an awareness-raising event like Car-Free Day can go. It can be a big galvanizing moment, like the original Earth Day in 1970, that shows the political strength of a social movement and leads to real public policy changes. Or it can be an exercise in conscience soothing and public relations, like the modern incarnation of Earth Day, where governments, corporations, and private citizens “go green” for a day, then carry on with business as usual the next morning.

Car-Free Day 2016 wasn’t what you would call a big galvanizing moment.

Don’t get me wrong. City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez mobilized an impressive coalition for the day, working on a short schedule with, I’m guessing, a tiny budget. And it’s great that some of NYC’s large employers asked people to get to work without a car. Most of us do that already, sure, but more than a million of us do not. Maybe some habitual car commuters switched things up on Car-Free Day and found that the train, bus, or bike works better than they thought.

The trouble is, Car-Free Day was not tied to any concrete public policy proposals that would get the city closer to Rodriguez’s goal of reducing private car ownership. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg ran down the list of what NYC DOT is doing to make streets safer for walking and biking, but those projects were already in the works.

Like San Francisco’s version of Bike to Work Day, where every elected official from the mayor on down gets seen biking to City Hall without making any real policy commitments, New York’s Car-Free Day didn’t take on much more significance than a photo op.

Making the car-free zones bigger would be nice, but to give this event some real weight it needs to be anchored to a concrete, achievable policy agenda. If Car-Free Day is going to be an annual thing in New York, the ideas, the sense of urgency, and the willingness to change public policy need to be much more prominent.

It can be done. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo made a big splash with a Car-Free Day last year, dramatically reducing the number of private cars in one-third of the city. The event mattered not so much because it was big (though the bigness helped) but because it was tied to a broader agenda of transit expansions and major pedestrianization projects.

When Summer Streets launched in New York in 2008, the idea was similar — a big car-free event that introduced many New Yorkers to the idea that streets can change and cars don’t need to monopolize so much space all the time. The city got to try Summer Streets on for size before embarking on permanent changes like plazas, bike lanes, and bus lanes.

New York could use another jolt like that. The city is making progress, rolling out a few miles of protected bike lanes and a couple of enhanced bus routes each year, but not pushing the envelope. The sense of innovation and ambition has dissipated. It’s been a long time since Mayor de Blasio spoke up in public or spent significant political capital to advance his Vision Zero goal of ending traffic deaths.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Hidalgo is thinking bigger, proposing to boot cars off a large chunk of the city’s waterfront expressway. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson is going out with a bang, leapfrogging New York’s bike infrastructure by providing miles of continuous, low-stress riding conditions with upgrades to the city’s “cycle superhighways.”

De Blasio wasn’t the instigator of New York’s Car-Free Day, and maybe the mayor doesn’t need to be. Maybe it can work as a City Council-led event — a day where council members prod City Hall to action.

This hypothetical version of Car-Free Day would look a lot different than what happened last Friday. It would be a day where council members map out how they want to change the streets of the neighborhoods they represent: where transit urgently needs priority over cars, where safer bike routes would help their constituents the most, where traffic lanes should be turned into public space for people. They could declare their support for reforming on-street parking prices to reduce traffic, or call on the city to eliminate parking minimums in their district to make housing more affordable.

These are all aspects of public policy that council members could get City Hall to act on. They don’t require complex and unlikely acts of coordination with state agencies or the federal government. More than a few members of the current City Council would probably have great, specific ideas along these lines.

A Car-Free Day dedicated to achieving permanent traffic reduction policies is worth another shot.

But an annual event where politicians put in an appearance, say a few empty phrases, and pose for the press? New York can do without that.

  • Eric McClure

    Spot on, Ben.

  • BBnet3000

    The biggest change that could be made to local neighborhood streets is getting through traffic off of them. If local streets actually served the function of local access only, it could change the comfort and safety level of a lot of neighborhood streets overnight. This is what the neighborhood slow zone program could or should have been.

    The guy driving 5 feet behind me revving the engine with dark tinted front windows and Pennsylvania plates on the sharrowed uphill on Hoyt Street yesterday (some of you will know the spot or similar ones) wouldn’t have been there, because he would have had to turn off after a block or two and take (for example) Court or 4th Avenue to go through to 3rd St.

    No, it wouldn’t have a direct effect on overall traffic (though I suspect if a lot of people had to take the real arterials rather than cutting through neighborhoods they might try the subway), but it would cut traffic on many streets and make any interventions on arterials actually apply to the majority of vehicles.

  • c2check

    There are government officials and royalty from some European countries that regularly bike about town.
    If only the Mayor, the DOT Commish, NYPD Commish, and other heads would do that in New York…

  • Joe R.

    I have little doubt if we bollarded off local streets at one end so they could no longer function as through routes for motor vehicles we would cut traffic everywhere. When it becomes a circuitous ordeal to take your car on what used to be a 4 block trip to the local grocery you might actually do the sensible thing and walk there with a shopping cart instead. A lot of the traffic on NYC streets is either people making shitty little short trips or looking for parking. Removing through traffic on local streets would stop a lot of those trips. Also, it would effectively decrease the capacity of the street grid by a factor of 5 or more. Arterials would have to take the entire load, with the result that it would take far less overall traffic to fill them. These arterials often feed into the most congested parts of the city. With less overall traffic, those areas will become less congested.

    Long term we really need a plan to just eliminate private autos from Manhattan entirely within 5 to 10 years. We should do the same in the denser parts of the outer boroughs which are transit friendly. Longer term, as we expand transit access citiwide, we could make NYC entirely off limits to private autos.

  • Vooch

    even prime ministers in civilized countries routinely cycle to work

  • Vooch

    agreed – just bollard off one end of the residential street.

  • mfs

    This is a thoughtful piece. The hopeful version of this is that it is like participatory budgeting, where a few CMs did it, it gained steam, and now is here to stay, and maybe become a permanent fixture of Gov’t somehow. Maybe this is a wedge into something bigger, like Earth Day 1970. Or maybe it is a feel-good event, like Earth Day today. Only time will tell.

  • vnm

    He was “from Pennsylvania” . . . he must not have known his way around the city very well.

  • You don’t even have to go as far as Europe, in my mid sized Ontario town there are a handful of councilors who bike all year round. And the majority will bike on occasion.

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    Interesting ideas…well thought out, Ben. I agree that we need to try this again, focusing on achieving permanent traffic reduction.

    It occurred to me that having a car free day on this particular Earth Day could be self-defeating as an experiment. That is because the first night of Passover occurred on Earth Day this year. Passover, Easter, Christmas, Memorial Day, etc. are days when traffic is even worse than usual. Living on Broome Street, I can tell you that the honking and backups started at about 2:30 pm and ended at about 11 pm. I also wonder if people who would normally try not using their cars on a voluntary car free day found themselves unable to participate this year because of family obligations. So, I think this was a poor choice this year. But…the year is yet young.

    Can we try again (but not on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or holiday night)? And, as in Paris, make the ban mandatory in the areas covered.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Though a nice sentiment, the secret service is pretty strict as to how the US president travels.

  • douglasawillinger

    Yes, we can push the traffic burden away from the wealthier areas, and onto the less affluent. Way to go Streetsblog supporters.

  • Jimmy Carter walked to his inauguration.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Like I said, a nice sentiment, but do you notice the motorcade behind him? Symbolic things like this are pretty pointless, especially considering the two 707s he used to fly everywhere:

  • BBnet3000

    So we should funnel traffic through local neighborhoods in a misguided attempt to punish the wealthy? (and really punishing everyone as a result)

    Poor people are not as concentrated along arterials as you’re suggesting anyway, especially as we put a lot of new development along them.

  • douglasawillinger

    Not punish, rather spread the burden.

    As Mid Town Manhattan is a straight grid, cross town tunnel with filtration wold be a far more sensible and environmentally just solution that the status quo placing an excess burden on the non tunneled, non filtered Cross Bronx Expressway- which better fits the charge of punish.


Vancouver’s Olympic Transit Demonstration

The Vancouver Olympics may be over, but Jarrett Walker at Human Transit writes that the legacy for public transportation in that city could be a lasting one. During the games, the city moved nearly 1.7 million people per day on its transit system. Walker sees it as a sort of Olympic exhibition of what the […]

Three Pieces of the Manhattan Grid Will Go Car-Free on Earth Day

New York will create three car-free zones on Earth Day, April 22, as part of an initiative called “Car Free NYC” announced by City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez this morning. The car-free areas will be Broadway from the Flatiron Building to Union Square, the streets surrounding Washington Square Park, and Wadsworth Avenue between […]