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Car-Free Day, 2017

April 28, 2016

Car-Free Day came and went on Friday, April 21st with lots of press attention, self-congratulatory selfies, and other well-meaning gestures meant to push New York to think about its future. If our city’s streets are telling us anything, it’s that they can do more for the people of New York. Car-Free Day can, too.

While I applaud City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez for his efforts this year, here are three ways I think Car-Free Day can be even better in 2017 and beyond:

1. Don’t have it on Earth Day.

Linking car use to environmentalism is fraught with complications. Perhaps the biggest is that it can automatically put off people for whom a driving isn’t really a choice. A person may opt for a car because it saves time over a fifteen minute walk to a bus that might be late or a subway trip that involves two or more transfers. Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas smartly observed that people’s reasons for taking the subway are “inherently personal” and all “perfectly valid.” It might shock some readers to read this, but I think the same applies to driving.

While some politicians used Car-Free Day to highlight transit deserts in their districts, that idea might not find a receptive audience if it’s packaged in the same wrapping paper as environmentalism. The minute someone thinks that they’re being lectured to about saving the environment is the minute they’ll get defensive. If that happens, it won’t matter if the goal of Car-Free Day is to spark discussions about society’s over-reliance on cars and its lack of investment in alternatives. The message is muddled and the people who need to hear it will tune it out.

Then there’s the idea that the environmental case against cars may be running out of steam, if it ever had much to begin with. Many Americans believe that promise of electric cars, solar power, and innovations like the Tesla Powerwall could wean the country off its addiction to fossil fuels. Combine that with green materials made from soybeans or corn and the day when our roads are lined with clean-running, low- or no-impact cars might seem like it’s just around the corner. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about such a day, but they all involve highly nuanced discussions that are unfortunately anathema to the body politic, or at least regular readers of New York City tabloids.

Besides, focusing on the carbon footprint of cars isn’t the be all and end all of why they shouldn’t be in cities to begin with.


Here’s a better way to frame Car-Free Day, no connection to Earth Day required:

New York is a city that’s always on the move. Fewer cars will help New Yorkers move better.

That’s a message that will resonate with everyone, even drivers. By decoupling Car-Free Day from Earth Day, it allows people to bring their own interpretation to benefits of going car-free — or at least having other people do it — rather than have such meanings forced upon them.

2. Have it on more than one day.

Summer Streets happens on three consecutive Saturdays. Inside baseball folks like me and anyone reading this blog already know that, but not everyone does. Despite a big marketing and social media push by DOT that begins months before the annual event – I’ve already seen some Summer Streets 2016 ads on city bus shelters in Manhattan – some people simply don’t find out about it until the first one is well underway or even over. Thankfully, anyone who is late to the party will immediately find out that she still has two more chances to attend.

Car-Free Day should follow this model. Ydanis Rodriguez and his team did an admirable job getting the word out in advance of April 22nd, but there’s no better advertisement for the event than the event itself. “If you like what you see, wait until next week” is going to build more momentum for the continued success of Car-Free day than “Wait until next year.”

Plus, if the temptation to link Car-Free Day to Earth Day remains, having the event on multiple days will at least allow for other messages — the economy, safety, efficiency, equity, etc. — to break through.

3. Make going car-free easy.

Much of Car-Free Day involved politicians and the city’s elite commuting around town via subways, buses, ferries, or bicycle. The photo ops seemed to say, “ABC: Anything But a Car.” As Ben Fried writes at Streetsblog:

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.

Ben goes on to note that one of the problems with this year’s Car-Free Day was that it “was not tied to any concrete public policy proposals that would get the city closer to Rodriguez’s goal of reducing private car ownership.” He’s right. But there’s another problem. Car-Free Day wasn’t tied to any concrete.

True, some spots were closed to cars and open to people. But the streets around Washington Square Park felt mostly like an extension of the park. Broadway between the Flatiron Building and Union Square isn’t exactly a major commuter route. While there’s no question that New York should follow the lead of Paris and other world cities and reclaim more space for pedestrians, what was missing from Car-Free Day were the kinds of spaces — routes, to be precise — that would have allowed people who needed to get from point A to point B to do so comfortably and efficiently without a car.

On Friday, April 21st, rush-hour traffic was just as bad as it always is, and buses were no faster than they are on other days. Anyone who thought they might try biking to work that morning might have been enticed with a free 24-hour Citi Bike pass but still would have had to ride in the same kind of door-zone bike lanes that are blocked by idling cars and trucks the other 364 days of the year. Thanks, but no thanks. Free ferry rides with a city ID were also a nice gesture, but the ferry landings didn’t get closer to people’s homes or jobs just because it was a special day.

A city can’t be what its citizens can’t see. Car-Free Day should involve actually changing streets, at least temporarily. Next year, organizers should identify key bike routes and make them off limits to cars for the day. If that’s too much for some to stomach, what if parking was banned on the bike-lane side of some streets to create temporary curbside bike lanes protected by traffic cones? (Imagine a bike lane on Bergen street wide enough for two people to ride abreast and others to pass.) What if DOT and the MTA took a page from the city’s response to Sandy in 2012 and operated temporary “bus bridges” from major transportation hubs, turning lanes on major avenues and East River crossings into BRT-like transportation corridors? There’s a lot the city could do to show what things would look like if we stopped devoting so much asphalt to moving and storing private automobiles.

On a smaller scale, restaurants and stores could install pop-up bike corrals to encourage people to bike instead of drive. Companies could provide valet bike parking to their employees by taking over a few car parking spaces. What a sight it would be to see hundreds of bikes parked in front of a Midtown office building.

I tip my hat to everyone involved with this day for thinking big. But the good news about next year’s Car-Free Day is that it’s about fifty-one weeks away. There’s plenty of time to think bigger.



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