This Earth Day, April 22, 2016, New York City residents and commuters are encouraged to leave their car at home and use another means of travel as part of the city’s first year of Car Free Day. This effort was spearheaded by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents district 10 and is chair of the committee on transportation. #CarFreeNYC is about rethinking the way we use our streets in New York City. Columbia University is participating by encouraging its staff, students and visitors to go car-free this Earth Day.
Car-free days are popular in cities around the world. In Bogotá, Columbia, a car-free day was institutionalized through a public referendum in 2000, allowing the city to close all of its streets on one day of the year. Paris, France held its first car-free day in 2015, making about a third of the city off-limits to vehicles, which led to dramatic drops in air and noise pollution. Cities around the world—from Chengdu, China, to Mexico City, Mexico—are experimenting with car-free days. These experiments allow cities to highlight possible ways to enhance public transportation infrastructure and urban mobility.
While New York City’s effort this year won’t be as extensive as the institutionalized car-free day in Bogotá, there will be a few street closures in Manhattan to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Street closures will happen at Wadsworth from 173rd to 177th Streets in Washington Heights, Broadway between 17th Street and 23rd Street in Flatiron, and the streets around Washington Square Park. The city will be mostly relying on its citizens to voluntarily pledge to leave their cars at home.
If you normally drive, consider carpooling, taking the subway, walking or biking. Check out the 511 NY Rideshare website for information on carpool matching—good for any New York State commuter. Citi Bike, the city’s official bike sharing system, is offering free rides for Earth Day in support of Car-Free Day. Sign up here to get your free ride code for April 22.
Columbia University is offering a special bus option for its students and staff who commute from Bergen County, N.J., and Rockland County. Columbia will operate free buses this Friday from Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., to its Manhattanville and Morningside campuses. These buses have the capacity for over 200 riders, which would cut over 15 tons of carbon emissions and over 3,200 miles of driving. Riders can also enjoy free bagels and coffee. Visit the Environmental Stewardship website for information about schedules and registration.
If you’re like me and you use public transit on a daily basis, going car-free may not feel very different from the norm, but there are myriad other ways to participate. First—help spread the word! Even if you don’t drive or have a car, I’m sure you know someone who does. Spread the message that the city is supporting going car-free this Earth Day. On April 22, check out events at one of the street closures, take pictures, and tweet at @CarFreeNYC using #CarFreeNYC.
Those of you at Columbia University can try out the new Zagster bike share program with a discounted 50 percent off rides on April 22. The Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) is hosting “Bike to Campus Day” on Friday, and bicyclists can get free bike tune-ups, NYPD bike registration, discounts on bike accessories, and more (650 West 168th St, between 10 a.m.–3 p.m.). You can also bike up to Wadsworth and 175th Street and check out the health fair on the closed street.
The Earth Institute and the Mailman School of Public Health will analyze the air quality impacts of Car-Free Day in New York City. The data collected will provide a baseline for future car-free days.
This Thursday, Car-Free Day’s research committee will be having a free panel event on the impacts and research opportunities that an initiative like this brings. The Earth Institute’s Elliott Sclar will be speaking on this panel (April 21, 9 a.m.). Or, on the Morningside campus on Friday, attend “Street Skills 101,” hosted by the Earth Institute in partnership with Bike New York. A certified league cycling instructor will talk about the rules, rights and responsibilities on the road, and will cover basic bicycling street skills (April 22, 1 p.m.).
The effort to get New Yorkers to voluntarily leave their cars at home may seem small, but Car-Free Day sheds an important light on the city’s transit deserts, most of which are in eastern Queens and Staten Island. Car-Free NYC is the start of a long-term goal to reduce car ownership in the city; roughly 1.4 million households in the city currently own a car, many because they have no other choice. Car-Free Day promotes awareness of these and other urban transportation issues, and I expect this effort will be much larger in years to come.
For more information about Car-Free Day in the city, go to the official website at http://www.carfreeday.nyc or the Facebook page, and follow @CarFreeNYC on twitter. For more information about how Columbia University is participating, visit the Environmental Stewardship website.