An interview with Ken Coughlin of Transportation Alternatives
Here's a sentence you don't expect to read on the CNN website: "As gas prices climb to record highs, more Americans seem to be abandoning their cars and biking to work to save money at the pump." Thus, in the same way Mad Cow fears spurred new interest in vegetarianism, the current gas crisis may inadvertently deliver something else the planet really needs: less cars, more bikes. But bikers beware: this is an uphill battle.
Ken Coughlin, a board member of Transportation Alternatives (TA), a 5500-member NYC-area non-profit citizens group working for "better bicycling, walking and public transit, and fewer cars," says: "New York's streets and most streets elsewhere in the country are ruled by the automobile, and bikes are at best an afterthought. Everyone knows this-drivers, cyclists, pedestrians."
Indeed, the automobile and the lifestyle it inspires have risen to prominence through the power of relentless suggestion. There's nothing delicate about car commercials and car toys and the hundreds of songs and movies that venerate the irrefutable gratification of owning an internal combustion engine of your very own. It doesn't even register when a movie character hops into a car and screeches away from the curb. We no longer consciously acknowledge the presence of cars on the street, the highway, and in driveways from coast-to-coast...not to mention the de-funded public transportation and the carchitecture: the myriad structures that exist exclusively to nourish the car culture, e.g. the highway, on-ramp, off-ramp, gas station, strip mall, car wash, auto repair shop, car rental establishment, bridges, tunnels, and, of course, the suburbs.
Coughlin and TA are part of a growing movement that is challenging the auto-dependant lifestyle. One example is their high profile effort to create a "car-free Central Park," which has mobilized a broad coalition in the Big Apple. Coughlin calls that campaign, "the most perfect symbol of our society's totally skewed transportation policies."
Recently, I asked Ken a few questions via e-mail. (His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Transportation Alternatives.)
Mickey Z.: In light of rising gas costs, one might imagine motorists reconsidering their driving habits. Do you see any indication that the price of oil could result in more people riding bikes?
Ken Coughlin: The New York Times had a front-page article the other day about lower-income people in Florida suddenly unable to afford to drive. Some had switched to mass transit, such as it is down there, and at least one is now riding a bike. It'll be the young and the poor switching first, but glimmerings of a shift toward biking in the overall zeitgeist can be detected all over. This week's New Yorker includes a "Goings on About Town" item on Bike Month NYC that declares that "[w]ith gas prices hitting eye-popping highs, [the numbers of cyclists]might rise even more . . . " But here in NYC, you won't be able to say that bicycling has been officially embraced as an alternative until the city stops arresting or ticketing people for the "crime" of riding a bike, which is happening now.
MZ: It's illegal to ride a bike in NYC? Says who?
KC: The NYPD. They will arrest or ticket you if you happen to be caught riding in a group on one particular Friday evening each month, and on any other day they often hand out nuisance tickets to cyclists for small things like not having a bell or a headlight. Or they will wait for a cyclist to run a series of lights and then write separate tickets for each light, with the total adding up to $500 or more. The cops will claim they are doing this for the cyclist's own good, but this happened recently to a cyclist who went through reds on Riverside Drive, which has no crossing traffic. It has the result of discouraging cycling as an alternative form of transportation. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a cop pulling a cyclist over for doing something truly dangerous like speeding down a sidewalk or riding against traffic on a one-way street? My impression is that commuting cyclists are bearing the brunt of the public's anger against delivery people.
MZ: What steps have activists and groups like TA taken to fight such unfair treatment?
KC: TA repeatedly calls on the NYPD and the administration to stop nuisance ticketing and to focus on real threats to safety like motorists speeding, running red-lights, and other dangerous, law-breaking behavior. At the same time, we can't defend the actions of cyclists who flagrantly violate laws and intimidate pedestrians; they harm the cycling movement as much as anyone.
MZ: Such important efforts may sound Quixotic to some, but I understand there's a victory brewing on the "Car-Free Central Park" front. Can you tell us more?
KC: City Council members Gale Brewer and John Liu have introduced a bill, Intro. 276, mandating a car-free summer in Central Park from June 24 to September 24, 2006, as well as car-free afternoons in Prospect Park during the same period. On May 8, the day before the Council Transportation Committee's scheduled hearing on the bill, Mayor Bloomberg announced a six-month pilot plan to ban traffic from portions of Central
Park's loop road that are already little used by cars. As of Monday June 5, 2006, vehicles will no longer be allowed on Central Park's East Drive north of 72nd Street in the morning or anywhere (apparently) on the West Drive in the afternoon. (In addition, Prospect Park's West Drive will be closed to traffic in the mornings.)
MZ: Why do you think would Bloomberg propose this now?
KC: It was clearly an effort to drain support from the Council bill by giving car-free supporters something while maintaining the loop road as a traffic artery. Whether this strategy will succeed remains to be seen. While any reduction in car usage is welcome, most of the loop road will continue to be flooded with cars during prime recreational hours. Worse, recreational users who may believe they are exercising in a totally car-free park will suddenly encounter traffic, perhaps with disastrous consequences. The administration is now boasting that the loop road is free of traffic "75 percent of the time." We don't know how they arrived at this figure. Between prime recreational hours of 7 am and 7 pm, the loop road is entirely free of traffic exactly 0 percent of the time. Considering that the park is officially closed from 1 am until 6 am, even under the new rules the loop will be entirely free of traffic for only seven hours -- from 7 pm to 1 am and from 6 am to 7 am (assuming the entrances are opened and closed on time).
MZ: How did Bloomberg's strategy impact the Council?
KC: The Council hearing went forward as planned the following day. The Transportation Committee, chaired by Liu, first heard from Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall. Although Weinshall had stood alongside the mayor the day before and said that "people come to New York City's parks to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life," at the hearing she declared that Central Park's loop road was an "essential traffic artery" and that its closing would cause "significant" disruption. Pressed by Council member Daniel Garodnick for a definition of "significant," Weinshall and First Deputy Commissioner Michael Primeggia offered only more vague portents of traffic tie-ups.
MZ: On the surface, it seems safe to assume that closing the park off to cars would increase traffic elsewhere. How was this assumption challenged?
KC: Weinshall and Primeggia were followed by a panel of three independent traffic experts who believe that closing the Central Park loop road to traffic will lead to an overall reduction in traffic on city streets. Under questioning from Garodnick, consultant Bruce Schaller said that "shrinkage"-the percentage of cars now using the park that would effectively disappear from the street grid if Central Park were closed-could reach 100 percent. Schaller said that the Department of Transportation's assumption of 15 percent shrinkage was too pessimistic. Other witnesses speaking in favor of the bill included Columbia University professor Patrick L. Kinney, an expert on the human health effects of air pollution. Noting that fine particles from car exhaust can lodge deep in the lungs and cause lung cancer, heart disease and asthma, Kinney said, "moving traffic off of the park loop roads will significantly reduce health risks for people using the park, especially those exercising along the loop roads."
MZ: I appreciate the health benefits but I still don't understand how the "shrinkage" works.
KC: People make the mistake of viewing traffic as some unvarying physical force that, like water, must find somewhere to go. To the contrary, it is the product of thousands of individual decisions by thousands of drivers and passengers. Studies of road closings around the world have shown that much of the traffic that formerly used the closed road miraculously disappears, and that a higher percentage of traffic vanishes when alternative transportation options are plentiful. How can traffic "disappear"? It's simple: drivers elect to use an alternative mode of transportation, to drive at a different time or on a significantly different route, or to share a vehicle with someone else.
The reality that traffic is elastic gives us hope that something can be done about our currently nightmarish traffic. Otherwise, there is no hope. Given their current mindset that meaningful shrinkage is impossible, all that the traffic engineers at the New York City Department of Transportation can offer us is more of the same. Until they embrace the idea that people can be coaxed from their cars, and that it's good public policy to do this, very little real change will take place on our streets. Cars will dominate, some 150 to 200 pedestrians and cyclists will die each year, thousands of New Yorkers will succumb to premature deaths because of pollution, and our overall quality of life will continue to be degraded in subtle but profound ways.
MZ: So what was the outcome of the hearing?
KC: The committee's stance on the bill was hard to read. We know that Liu and Brewer are 100 percent behind Intro. 276. At a press conference prior to the hearing, both spoke strongly in favor of it, as did Brooklyn Council member Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose latest newsletter to Manhattan residents twice mentions his support of a car-free Central Park. We believe Intro. 276 also has the support of East Side Council members Garodnick, Jessica Lappin and Melissa Mark
Viverito. The big question mark is Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who may hold the key to not only the bill's passage but its passing with enough votes to overcome an almost certain mayoral veto. Quinn has not yet made her position known. It is likely that the Transportation Committee will vote on Intro. 276 in late May, and, assuming it passes, a full Council vote will come shortly thereafter.
MZ: To wrap up, I have to ask this: What's your response to those who say things will never change because the automobile is too entrenched in our society? How do you reach someone who believes we can't live without our cars?
KC: Our car culture is already being revealed as destructive to the planet, and it will soon become completely unsustainable. We lived completely without cars as recently as 110 years ago. Our auto-dependent lifestyle of the past century has been fueled by cheap and reliable sources of oil. When those start to dry up, we are in for some big changes. People are going to have to figure out other ways to live, and the dislocations will be profound and painful. And even if the equivalent of another Saudi oil field is suddenly discovered, we'll have to dramatically cut back on car use simply because of global warming. So history is moving in our direction.
To contact Ken Coughlin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transportation Alternatives' Car-Free Central Park Campaign: http://www.carfreecentralpark.org
Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.