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.