Home View from Underground When every day is #CarFreeDay

When every day is #CarFreeDay

by Benjamin Kabak

12973376_1555614588072678_2999885040461363313_o The next time I drive to my office in Manhattan from my apartment in Brooklyn will be the first time. For years, I’ve made the same trip, twice a day, on the subway, and it’s not a particularly notable trip. I take the B or the Q, switch to a 6 and get off in Midtown. On a good day, it takes around a half an hour, just enough time for me to read through the paper. Some days are more crowded than others, and despite the weary faces, it’s the way millions of New Yorkers get around. A car-free day isn’t a notable occurrence primed for self-congratulatory press conferences; it’s just a fact of New York City life.

With Earth Day upon us, City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez declared today Car Free Day. His heart is in the right place, but with so many similar initiatives stemming from our elected officials, it seems to miss the point. As part of the celebration, a whopping total of 11 city blocks — Broadway between 17th and 23rd Streets., Wadsworth Avenue between 173rd and 177th Streets and a block near Washington Square Park — will be closed for a few hours. Broadway, for instance, won’t see cars but only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It’s a token gesture if ever there was one.

In response, politicians have been awfully proud of themselves. Rodriguez, who to his credit has been a very receptive Transportation Committee head and whose heart is in the right place, has held numerous press conferences, and the mayor said he would take public transit “whenever feasible.” I doubt that includes taking the 6 to the F train instead of his usual 12-mile drive from Gracie Mansion to his gym in Park Slope (because there are no Upper East Side gyms near his mayoral home apparently). Much like the Mayor’s toothless Vision Zero initiative, Car Free Day in practice is just a marketing campaign, and until city officials are willing to change policies and practice, the streets will remain clogged with cars who face no consequences for blocking pedestrians or otherwise running rampant over them.

But there’s another problem with this approach to Car-Free sloganeering: The idea that a car-free day is something exceptional creates a divide with an implicit message that people who feel they have to drive everywhere are somehow more important than the rest of us who take the subway everyday. They’re not; they simply think they are and the city, through lax enforcement and an unwillingness to make a few tough decisions, has created an incentive structure that doesn’t resolve this apparent inequity. Why we all take the subway is inherently personal. For most people, it’s economic; even with recent fare hikes, it’s far cheaper to buy a MetroCard than it is to maintain a car in New York City and drive it into Manhattan every day. For others, it’s one of convenience as the subway is simply faster and easier. Whatever the reason, they’re all perfectly valid.

Ultimately, Car-Free Day is directed at a minority of New Yorkers with an outsized voice. Based on the latest hub-bound travel report, only around 24 percent of people entering Manhattan’s central business district due so in a car (and that includes taxis, vans and trucks in addition to personal automobiles). For everyone else, Car-Free Day is a fact of life and not just a photo opp.

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SEAN April 22, 2016 - 9:38 am

Check out Arlington Counties http://www.commuterpage.com & it’s family of web sites such as walk Arlington & bike Arlington. You will discover what going car light or even car free really means.

Larry Littlefield April 22, 2016 - 9:54 am

“I take the B or the Q, switch to a 6 and get off in Midtown.”

I have perhaps the most negative view of the past 20 years, based on its effect on the next 20 years, but let’s be grateful.

For decades it was not possible to access the Broadway line from the Brighton line or elsewhere in south Brooklyn, because half the Manhattan Bridge was closed. And it was not possible to change to the 6 from the 6th Avenue line, either.

So for decades, your commute was not possible, and the alternatives would have been worse and taken longer.

Appreciate it while you can, because it probably gets worse from here.

JJJJ April 22, 2016 - 10:20 am

Frankly it’s insulting. And I think could be used as the basis of a populist campaign against the current crop of limousine liberals who live so deep in their bubble it takes extended effort to come out for just 4 hours on a single Friday.

If they dont understand us, how can they represent us?

kevdflb April 22, 2016 - 10:56 am

The also have signs up in the Broadway bike lane telling cyclists to dismount.
Because if cars can’t drive there is just isn’t fair that people could ride bikes! (I assume)

Or perhaps it is a misguided public safety measure, since pedestrians in this town are incapable of being within 6 feet of a bike going 8mph without flipping out.
Or maybe just because the NYPD has a visceral hatred of cyclists?

22rrr April 22, 2016 - 12:27 pm

the bike lane on broadway through the times square area is a hilarious comedy of errors (i.e. it randomly disappears from 42nd through 48th, and there’s a new raised-curb lane but the curb is chamfered such that if you get too close to the edge you’ll topple down into car traffic). But hey at least it’s better than it was before and it’s improving.

smotri April 22, 2016 - 11:00 am

I hate to say it, but either you, Benjamin Kabak, or someone like you, should run for office. You are articulate, have vision, see things clearly, and would be a sign, if elected, that change in a good way is still possible in this country.

Larry Littlefield April 22, 2016 - 11:28 am

Just one? Take it from me, he would be ignored.


Now if 50 people were to get on the ballot for state legislature, with a common platform, that might attract attention. But guess what? Better get moving, be prepared to collect a lot of signatures, and have them disallowed by shark election lawyers.

If no one does it, we continue to get what we’ve been getting. The sell out of our common future by those cashing in and moving out.


June 7
First day for signing designating petitions for state/local offices. §6-134(4)

July 11- July 14
Dates for filing designating petitions for state/local offices. §6-158(1)

July 18
Last day to authorize designations for state/local offices. §6-120(3)

July 18
Last day to accept or decline designations for state/local offices. §6-158(2)

July 22
Last day to fill a vacancy after a declination for state/local office.§6-158(3)

July 26
Last day to file authorization of substitution after declination of a state/local designation. §6-120(3)

Independent candidates get less time, and require a huge number of signatures. Only registered voters can sigh, but you can register them and have them sign.


July 12 First day for signing nominating petitions for state/local offices. §6-138(4)

Aug 16 – Aug. 23 Dates for filing independent nominating petitions for state/local office. §6-158(9)

Aug. 26 Last day to accept or decline nomination for state/local office. §6-158(11)

5% of the enrolled voters of the political party in the political unit (excluding voters in inactive status) or the following, whichever is less:
For any office to be filled by all the voters of:
the entire state . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15,000
(with at least 100 or 5% of enrolled voters from each of one-half of the congressional districts)
New York City . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7,500
any county or borough of New York City . . . . . 4,000
a municipal court district within NY City . . . . . 1,500
any city council district within New York City. . . 900
cities or counties having more than 250,000
inhabitants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,000
cities or counties having more than 25,000 but not
more than 250,000 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . 1,000
any city, county, councilmanic or county legislative
districts in any city other than NY City . . . . . . . .500
any congressional district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,250
any state senatorial district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000
any assembly district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 500
any political subdivision contained within another political subdivision, except as herein provided, requirement is not to exceed the number required for the larger subdivision; a political subdivision containing more than one assembly district, county or other political subdivision, requirement is not to exceed the aggregate of the signatures required for the subdivision or parts of subdivision so contained.
*NOTE: Section 1057-b of the New York City Charter
Supersedes New York Election Law signature requirements
for Designating and OTB petitions and Independent
nominating petitions with respect to certain NY City offices.
5% of the total number of votes, excluding blank and void, cast for the office of governor at the last gubernatorial election in the political unit, except that not more than 3,500 signatures shall be required on a petition for any office to be filled in any political subdivision outside the City of New York, and not more than the following for any office to be voted for by all the voters of:
the entire state . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15,000
(with at least 100 or 5% of enrolled voters from each of one-half of the congressional districts)
any county or portion thereof outside the
city of NY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1,500
the City of New York. . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7,500
any county or borough or any two counties or boroughs within the city of NY City . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4,000
a municipal court district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,000
any city council district within NY City. . .. . . . . . . 2,700
any congressional district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,500
any state senatorial district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,000
any assembly district . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1,500
any political subdivision contained within another political subdivision, except as herein provided, requirement is not to exceed the number required for the larger subdivision.

smotri April 22, 2016 - 11:29 am

I agree that this seems designed to impede, rather than to facilitate.

Larry Littlefield April 22, 2016 - 12:29 pm

So whose fault is it, those who put up obstacles or those who don’t try?

I lots of reasonably intelligent, thoughtful people. Not one of them ever felt that it was their duty, in a democracy, to offer themselves as a candidate for office at least once.

In fact, it seems that the more reasonable, thoughtful you are, the more you want nothing to do with that cesspool, a feeling I share. And yet we are left ranting when those inside it spew out sewage we do not like.

Ethan Rauch April 22, 2016 - 11:06 am

What politicians say or don’t say matters not. The politics is infuriating, but New York remains the only real transit city in the U.S. Except for pockets in other dense cities, it’s almost the only place you can live carless and feel advantaged instead of underprivileged. New York would have a huge competitive advantage over every other American city, if it found a way to maintain and expand its transit system in a reasonably timely manner. Oops, politics (and political corruption)again.

22rrr April 22, 2016 - 11:10 am

What ridiculousness. I saw the same number of cars in NYC on “car free day” that I always do.

NYC is the one city in America where people can reasonably live without cars because we have walkable neighborhoods and decent public transit. Yet somehow 80%+ of the road surface even in the busiest parts of Manhattan is given over to private vehicles? It’s such a squandered opportunity to make a city that actually has a high quality of life. Instead, we have avenues that are designed as if they are suburban highways.

There’s a lot of things about NYC I’d wish would be improved, such as the subway, the design and condition of the sidewalks, and the trash bags piled up on the street issue. But if I ever move away from NYC, the #1 reason would be that there are way too many cars, trucks, and busses everywhere just making life and existing in the city super unpleasant.

Yes, I know cars, trucks, and busses are ‘neccessary’ to the functioning of the city. But other cities (especially globally) manage to handle them without it being as much as a problem as they are here. We need congestion pricing and better public transit to reduce unnecessary trips in private cars (including reducing the need for taxis/uber). We need more rail lines so that the busses become unnecessary. And for delivery trucks, we could institute size limits (Texas-size 18-wheelers do not belong on the streets of Manhattan) and we could limit deliveries to off-hours. Ideally we’d have some underground streets (like they have in Chicago except better) that are exclusively for truck deliveries, but I recognize that one is a pie in the sky.


smotri April 22, 2016 - 11:28 am

Of course!

Jonathan R April 22, 2016 - 12:01 pm

So you would move away from New York because of the cars, trucks and buses everywhere, to somewhere where… there are more cars, trucks and buses and more arterial roads?

22rrr April 22, 2016 - 12:10 pm

Haha, depends on where you’re moving to. I could sarcastically say that if I were to move to LA, the cars and trucks wouldn’t bother me as much because I would be driving a car and not fighting with them as a pedestrian. But if we look abroad, to the best cities of Europe and Asia, the pedestrian environment is generally much better designed and you’re not constantly annoyed/threatened by cars and trucks like we are in America. There’s many urban planning / urban design / political reasons for this that are too detailed to get into here.

Jonathan R April 22, 2016 - 2:12 pm

I realize that your answer doesn’t commit you to pulling up stakes and moving to Hong Kong. But based on my experience of several world cities, I would argue that any improvements in pedestrian experience over a New York City baseline are the result of residents advocating for those improvements, not from some kind of difference in the water. We can work together as New Yorkers to make the improvements you seek.

Michael549 April 22, 2016 - 1:48 pm

From a previous message:

NYC is the one city in America where people can reasonably live without cars because we have walkable neighborhoods and decent public transit. Yet somehow 80%+ of the road surface even in the busiest parts of Manhattan is given over to private vehicles? It’s such a squandered opportunity to make a city that actually has a high quality of life. Instead, we have avenues that are designed as if they are suburban highways.


There are parts of New York City that are simply not well served by public transit, that do not have walkable sidewalks, and where cars are often necessary to reach destinations not served by public transit.

That is a reality, a daily reality that gets obscured when too many folks think of New York City as only the accessible parts of Manhattan. There are parts of NYC where the travel times are long by public transit, whether to central Midtown as well as areas not well served by public transit. Often times for regular daily trips not well served by public transit taking the car is the better approach. Plenty of folks DO NOT drive their cars into Manhattan, but within and between the boroughs for their various trips, often to and from places not well served or served at all by public transit.

On Staten Island there are only 3 – yes – only 3 places on the entire island where one can place money on their Metro-Cards! When those machines are broken or not working properly – a hardship is created. There are major sections of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that are simply not well served by public transit.

Thinking of New York City as if it were just “Manhattan”, and the easily accessible parts of Manhattan at that tends to negate the transit and transportation problems experienced daily by residents of the other boroughs.


VLM April 22, 2016 - 2:56 pm

You missed the point, FYI.

Bronx Resident April 22, 2016 - 7:18 pm


But the vast majority of people who do drive, do not have to drive everywhere.

The vast majority of people living within NYC live near grade-separated rail rapid transit. not places like Staten Island. The others have buses, could walk or bicycle when feasible for many trips.

There’s WAY too many automotive trips in this town, and half of them are less than a couple miles. A stunning percentage are less than 3. People over drive in NYC because the city encourages, rather than discourages this activity.

No April 22, 2016 - 11:25 am

Leitica James taking the bus?? No way!

tacony April 22, 2016 - 2:35 pm

The car-free area is pretty modest. On the first Earth Day in 1970, all of 5th Ave from 59th to 14th Sts was car-free for the lunch break, and 14th St from 3rd to 7th Aves was car-free from noon to midnight. The Times: “Mood is Joyful as City Gives Its Support.” http://www.nytimes.com/times-i.....-millions/

I would wonder how many people who usually drive to work actually choose not to drive to work today, other than pandering politicians. I’d assume practically none.

Tower18 April 23, 2016 - 11:27 pm

I love the notion that Broadway is still an important vehicular route between 60th St and 14th St. Broadway, which is a mostly one lane, discontinuous route that serves no useful purpose except for those needing to get from Herald Square to Union Square (which only saves 2 avenues by the diagonal route, so not even really a big deal).

Roger April 22, 2016 - 3:33 pm

Cars are not evil. The necessity of cars in most parts of USA is evil.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2016 - 3:46 pm


Duke April 22, 2016 - 9:51 pm

To some degree there is social inertia at work here as well. It’s been pointed out how many relatively short car trips there are – many of these trips could easily happen by bicycle and probably not take much longer, if the people making the trips had the means and the willingness.

But, in our society driving is normal and bicycling is “alternative”. Plenty of people have a lot more experience driving in the city than bicycling in it and, being creatures of habit, will stick to what they are used to so long as it works for them. Especially since the benefits of bicycling instead of driving places are largely societal/environmental. There is little selfish motivation to change one’s preferred mode of transportation for these trips and plenty of selfish motivation not to.

Breaking this cycle requires more than just infrastructure adjustments, it requires motivating people to exit their transportation comfort zone and try new things.
What if, for example, there were a tax credit available for purchasing a new bicycle. Or zoning rules requiring that any new building feature dedicated bicycle parking (we already have zoning rules mandating car parking…). Or laws that treated bicycle theft as an equally serious crime as car theft.

Eric April 24, 2016 - 8:31 am

Bicycling makes you sweaty or rain-drenched a good portion of the year. Driving doesn’t.

There’s a reason why people in China no longer massively ride bicycles like they did a few decades ago.

Larry Littlefield April 24, 2016 - 11:10 am

“The benefits of bicycling instead of driving places are largely societal/environmental.”

Hardly. The benefits are getting outside and getting some exercise without taking much extra time out of your day. It makes you feel good, and healthier. My alternative to the bicycle is the subway and my motivation is not environmental.

“Bicycling makes you sweaty or rain-drenched a good portion of the year.”

Like may things I believed before I tried it. Up to three miles there is no need for any particular clothing. You are getting about as much exercise as you would briskly walking if you ride at a moderate pace. Since my commute is longer, I carry my business casual wear folded in a side bag, and cool off for ten minutes before changing. No problem.

If is is raining during the morning commute, I choose another for of transportation rather than riding. If it is raining in the evening commute, I’d just be coming home to a shower anyway.

Miles Bader April 25, 2016 - 9:59 am

Bicycling makes you sweaty or rain-drenched a good portion of the year. Driving doesn’t.

Well thanks, I guess, for making it crystal clear you’ve never lived anywhere with a healthy bicycling culture, and have zero experience with the way people actually use bikes…

Anon April 22, 2016 - 7:08 pm Reply
Bronx Resident April 22, 2016 - 7:27 pm

Truck traffic is expected to increase by about 50% by 2040 (24 years). Suburban sprawl continues, and existing suburbs grow more dense without adequate mass transportation; encouraging personal automobile ownership. Within the cities, areas with less robust transit have parking minimums which encourage ownership. No toll reform, no parking reform, no significant mass transportation expansions or modifications

For how much longer will driving here be even feasible? Trips that already take a lot of time here are only going to become substantially worse without anti-driving initatives.

During the day, it’s taken me an hour to drive 4-5 miles across the Bronx (Mott Haven to Castle Hill). Imagine how bad it can get. I mostly bike and take mass transportation (subway), but as automotive volumes increase I foresee congestion becoming substantially worse.

Tower18 April 23, 2016 - 11:32 pm

Just today after being away for the week, traffic into the city on a Saturday evening is only maybe 10-15% better than at the peak of rush hour. 30 min at GWB, BQE jammed straight through from LIE interchange through Cadman Plaza. When does it end? At least somewhere like LA, you do get a few known hours of the day where there’s no traffic. Ever see the Van Wyck at 4am? New York, baby…hell of a town.

Jacob Morgan April 23, 2016 - 7:21 am

Their car free day event along Broadway in the Flatiron turned the surrounding streets into the biggest traffic nightmare I’ve seen in a while. Not just Broadway, but all the cross streets between 17th and 23rd were closed causing a cascading traffic jam that locked up the grid in that part of town.

One thing people don’t realize is that the streets are used mostly by commercial vehicles during the day. We don’t have alternate ways of accommodating that use through public transit, so keeping streets open to vehicles will be necessary until they find one. They’re token gesture created a massive amount of wasted time and effort by all the delivery vehicles needing to access those streets because they were detoured around the closed area and then made to wait in the non moving gridlock that resulted.

Larry Littlefield April 24, 2016 - 7:11 am

All the more reason to have a car free weekend, and a massive festival, the first weekend August. With crossings into Manhattan south of 60th Street closed to inbound traffic at 2 pm Thurdsay, and outbound traffic at 10 pm. And inbound traffic resuming at 10 pm Sunday.

Streater April 24, 2016 - 10:51 pm

Car free is a stupid idea considering you can’t get everywhere by subway… hopefully some day.

I started working overnights recently in the news business… it takes an hour to get home at 5am by subway ridiculous (usually takes 25 minutes during rush hour). I borrowed my parents car a few times and it takes 20 minutes to drive home at 5am… I think I might just buy a car.

Tower18 April 25, 2016 - 10:23 am

Driving in the middle of the night to/from areas not accessible by transit is not the use case being addressed in this, or really any, article about excessive car culture.


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