UPPER WEST SIDE — Standing next to politicians, commissioners and other high-ranking officials, Ken Coughlin was the only layman behind the microphones at a recent press conference for the launch of a car-free Central Park.
An advocate for banning vehicles from the park for decades, his outrage over Central Park previously not going car-free forced him to act. He joined the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, where he is currently a board member, and then Community Board 7, where he has served for years.
Over that time, he's pushed the concept of "complete streets," which include a combination of traffic-calming measures and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.
When Coughlin first arrived in New York City, there weren't many other cyclists on the road and he had to forge his own path.
But with the changing times, he's aiming to make bikes ubiquitous on the Upper West Side and to change car-centric policies in the neighborhood.
DNAinfo sat down with Coughlin to hear about his journey and the ideas he has for local streets:
Emily: Ken, tell us about your history in the neighborhood.
Ken: I moved here in 1990 from Park Slope. I had my first sublet at 90th and Broadway, and then lucked in on a rent-stabilized apartment here on 87th Street, and have been here ever since.
Emily: That's great. Do you see overlaps between Park Slope and the Upper West Side? People say there are similarities.
Ken: Yeah. I think Park Slope is well on its way to becoming what the, unfortunately and fortunately, what the Upper West Side, both unfortunately and fortunately, has become. The unfortunate part about the Upper West Side is there's been this influx of drug stores and banks, and the demise of the mom-and-pop stores. I think that hasn't happened to the same extent in Park Slope, and I hope it doesn't. I'm still a member of the Park Slope Food Co-Op.
Emily: You go all the way to Park Slope to do your ... People who don't know what that is, it's a co-op where the customers are also workers.
Emily: It drives the prices down.
Ken: Right, and we own the store, and it's the collective work of 16,000 members that makes it run.
Emily: I had no idea it was that big. Wow. Have you ever thought about trying to bring something like that to the Upper West Side?
Ken: I've wondered why something like that doesn't exist elsewhere in Manhattan. I know the co-op actually has a committee that's considering expanding to somewhere in Manhattan, and maybe perhaps the Upper West Side.
Emily: Because if you're willing to go all the way to Park Slope to be part of it, then certainly… have you talked to people? Is there demand here?
Emily: Do you bike to the co-op?
Ken: Sometimes. Yeah.
Emily: Tell us about your history with cycling in the City.
Ken: When I came to the city in 1981, I was a cyclist already, and the first place I lived, one of the first places I lived was East Village, and I would commute. I worked at McGraw Hill on 49th and Sixth Avenue, and I would commute by bike up First Avenue. It was scary, but I didn't know about any advocacy groups, I didn't know about this group called Transportation Alternatives. I was just doing it on my own and there weren't a whole lot of other cyclists, and I very quickly had a bike stolen. Then I guess I had jobs where it wasn't really that feasible to bike, and I got out of that, although I've never owned a car here in New York. I came to New York owning a car, and had a lot of trouble parking it and Brooklyn was the first place I lived, and just sold it because it was just too much trouble. I haven't missed it. This is one thing I love about New York City is it's one of the only places in the country where you can live a very rich life without a car.
Emily: Then, how did you involved in trying to help others bike around the city?
Ken: When I first moved to the Upper West Side, I had a job down at Columbus Circle, and it made a lot of sense just to ride through the park down there. I was expecting that it would be a car-free ride, and it wasn't. In the morning, I was sharing the road with a whole bunch of cars, and I was pretty outraged about this because my understanding of a park is it's supposed to be a refuge from the city. I did a little research and I found that yes, indeed, Central Park was supposed to be a refuge from the city. By that time, I'd heard about this group called Transportation Alternatives, so I wrote them a very irate letter. Back then, you were just writing letters, you weren't sending e-mails, and I said, "Do you know about this terrible situation and why aren't you doing something about it?" The Executive Director at the time very politely wrote back and said, "Yes, in fact, we are working on it and have been for many years, and if you'd like to join the effort, here's how."
I did join the effort. Eventually, within about five years, I took over the leadership of the campaign to get the cars out of Central Park, and that was my introduction to the whole issue of cars in cities. It was a gradual process of education, consciousness raising as I realized that it wasn't just an issue of cars in a park, but it was an issue of cars dominating the streets all over, and that the issue of cars in Central Park was just a symptom of a larger disease, which is relinquishing our streets to the automobile.
Emily: Did it surprise you that it took so many years to get even a partial car-free park? Cars are now banned above 72nd Street in the park, but that was a many-year campaign.
Ken: Yeah. It started in 1966, that was the first protest against cars in the park, and they were calling for a car-free Sunday. Mayor Lindsay was mayor and they blocked traffic and one of the people who blocked traffic was a very little-known district leader in the Democratic Party named Edward I. Koch. It's been almost 50 years. When I got involved in 1992, I thought, well, maybe a few years, maybe five years, maybe ten years, but at the most ten years. I'm not sure if anybody told me that it would take this long, I would have persisted.
Emily: You made it.
Ken: We still have a ways to go. We still have the hardest nut to crack, which is the section below 72nd Street, which has, actually, ironically enough, the most recreational traffic and the most congestion in terms of cyclists and runners and pedestrians and it's really the most urgent place to get the cars out, because it's the most used part.
Emily: Yeah. You described Central Park as a refuge, and that's one reason to not have cars, some people think, but why do you think this is a turning point? Why now?
Ken: I think in large part it's because the stars are really aligned in terms of city officials, and also the City Council. We have a mayor who, when he represented Brooklyn, parts of Park Slope in the City Council, was an advocate for a car-free Prospect Park. When he ran for mayor, he was on record as supporting car-free parks. We have a City Council Speaker who's on record supporting car-free Central Park, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem. Gale Brewer who represented the Upper West Side was always a staunch supporter, and probably the pioneer on the City Council. Now we have Helen Rosenthal, who's also a great supporter. We have Mark Levine, who's the Chair of the Parks Committee. He's a very strong supporter.
Those stars are aligned. In the past, it was always we had a mayor who was opposed or we had a City Council Speaker who was opposed or wasn't really into it, and also, I think our culture is changing. We are gradually moving to the realization that of "how much of our life are we going to sacrifice just for the convenience of motorists?"
Emily: There were some high-profile deaths in Central Park that people say are related to the congestion. There were two individuals last summer and into the fall who were killed by cyclists, but anti-car in the park advocates say that that's just adding more congestion and traffic, and making it harder for cyclists and pedestrians to share. Do you think that that is part of the decision?
Ken: Actually, I'm not sure whether that's part of the decision, but both of the deaths, unfortunately, although they were caused by cyclists, at least in the second case, it was the cyclist that I think should have been exercising better care, both deaths were directly traceable to our need to accommodate cars in the park. In the first case, it was the cyclist, as you know, the bike lane is right next to the running lane. There's no separation. It was a cyclist who was riding and had to swerve to avoid a pedicab, and ended up in the running lane. If there'd been more separation between the running lane and the bike lane, which there should be, arguably that death wouldn't have occurred.
The reason there isn't separation is that we had to have a car lane, and before two years ago, we had to have two car lanes. I'm hoping, when we get, and now that we have the cars out north of 72nd, they will reconfigure the lane so there's a buffer between the two uses. Then the second death, Jill Tarlov, she had to cross four lanes of traffic to get across the Loop Drive. The only reason that there are four lanes of traffic there is that Robert Moses changed the loop to make it more driver-friendly, more car-friendly, and he added more lanes. It's crazy to have something that wide just for recreational traffic, and I'm hoping when we finally get the cars out in the southern part of the park, that the lanes will be narrowed and pedestrians won't have to cross four lanes of traffic and cyclists won't be veering across four lanes.
Emily: You mentioned stars aligning. Are there other issues that you think the moment is right to push on either through your own advocacy work or with transportation alternatives, or the Community Board, which you're a member of, that you're going to try to push through in this moment?
Ken: I think the biggest thing is what's called a complete street on Amsterdam Avenue, which is sorely needed. Amsterdam Avenue is the most dangerous northbound route on the Upper West Side. Broadway is a dangerous street, but it goes both northbound and southbound. When you compare just the northbound portions, there's no comparison. Amsterdam is highly dangerous for both pedestrians and cyclists. The vaccine for this disease, which we know works, is a complete street. That would involve taking away a lane of traffic. Right now, Amsterdam Avenue is four lanes. Most hours of the day, it's totally overbuilt, and does not require four lanes. When you give drivers that much space, they're going to start taking chances, and what we need to do is narrow it at least down to three lanes, have a bike lane so it's a safe place for people to bike, and also have pedestrian refuges where pedestrians can cross the street, they have a shorter crossing distance, it's much safer for them, they have a place to stand, that's protected. It also provides dedicated turning lanes, which regularizes turning traffic, and decreases abrupt turning movements by drivers.
It makes the whole street much safer. I think the stars are aligned for this. We have a City Councilmember, Helen Rosenthal, who has come out very much in favor of this, so I'm very hopeful.
Emily: The Community Board has already voted for DOT to study Amsterdam Avenue to see if a protected bike lane is feasible.
Emily: Why do you think it's taken so long for that answer to come back? Do you take that as a bad sign? The board, for people who don't know, asked for this more than year ...
Ken: December of 2013.
Emily: Yeah, more than a year ago. They asked for the study.
Ken: In fact, we asked for it the first time in 2009. I think the problem is it's very hard in this society and in the city to take a privilege away from motorists. Often, that involves taking away a lane of traffic or a road like in Central Park. There's a lot of fear surrounding that, that it's going to result in congestion. The commonsense understanding of it is that traffic is unvarying and is going to just spill over on to surrounding streets. Actually, experience tells us that that doesn't happen. Driving is very elastic, it's the result of thousands of decisions by thousands of drivers about whether to drive, when to drive, where to drive. When you take a road away, as has happened repeatedly all over the world, and they've done studies with this, traffic adjusts.
You actually, on surrounding streets, do not get appreciable increases. Traffic finds its own level. People make other decisions, and particularly in a city like New York, where we have the alternatives are plentiful, we have many bus lines, many subway lines, we're soon to get Citi Bike on the Upper West Side, traffic is very discretionary. The decision whether to drive is very discretionary. I think there's an ignorance of this on the part of some people at DOT or just a fear like it's a big political hurdle to stand up to and say, "We're going to do this."
Emily: The Columbus Avenue bike lane, Columbus is a southbound avenue with a protected bike line, so there's a line of parked cars between the bike lane and traffic. That was a big political hurdle.
Ken: It was.
Emily: What did you learn from that experience that you're going to bring to fighting for an Amsterdam Avenue bike lane?
Ken: You need to get the merchants onboard. That work is actually already been done by Transportation Alternatives. They've done an amazing job of outreach. I think they got something like more than 200 merchants on or near Amsterdam Avenue in support. I think, also, there's, on the part of some merchants, there's a belief that a certain high percentage of their customer base is arriving by car, which just is not the case. Actually, the DOT did studies of traffic flow with both before and after, and they found that paradoxically, while traffic is moving more, drivers are obeying the speed limit, there are fewer speeders, and there's also, it's taking less time to go from point A to point B along Columbus Avenue — in part because there's less double parking, and that's because they are now, for the first time, dedicated loading zones where trucks can pull over and for a brief period of time, load and unload. They're not in the flow of traffic. That's another huge reason why a complete street is so essential.
Emily: I've heard some opposition, people think that the bike lane actually makes things more dangerous for pedestrians, but I know you have a different view of that. Why do you think there is that perception of danger?
Ken: I don't know. Are you hearing from people who are afraid of the bikes?
Emily: Afraid of the bikes.
Ken: Yeah. That's a learning curve in part, and unfortunately, now, we only have one protected safe way to travel, and it goes south on the Upper West Side. A lot of cyclists go north on that bike lane, and a lot of delivery cyclists, and I'm afraid I can't blame them since it is the only safe way to go, and it does look feasible to go both directions. There is enough room. When people cross the street, they have to remember to look both ways. I think once we get a protected bike lane on Amsterdam, that's going to help a lot. It's going to really cut down on the amount of northbound against flow of traffic on Columbus.
Emily: The bike lane shortens the distance for crossing for pedestrians.
Ken: Yeah, because after you cross the bike lane, there's a pedestrian refuge, a piece of concrete, with parked cars right there in line with it, and so instead of crossing a very long distance, you're crossing a much shorter distance.
Emily: The push for an Amsterdam Avenue northbound bike lane is also tied to Citi Bike coming to the Upper West Side at the end of the summer.
Emily: How do you think Citi Bike is going to change the feel of the Upper West Side or the biking culture here?
Ken: I think it's going to greatly increase biking on the streets, it's going to provide another transportation option, which fills in the gaps for people. There was a study done early in the history of Citi Bike, where they found that about one fifth of Citi Bikers would have taken a car, like a cab usually, but instead, they hopped on a Citi Bike. I think it is going to decrease, arguably, is going to decrease use on the Upper West Side. I think it's going to create a constituency for even more to make the Upper West Side even more bike-friendly. There's a lot of latent demand for biking, there are a lot of people who are interested, but concerned. I think given, let's say, a safe place to ride on Amsterdam, given a real network of protected bike lanes that doesn't have very scary gaps in the middle of it, I think they would start biking, and I think the potential for cyclists on our streets is a lot greater than we're seeing right now.
The ultimate goal is to normalize cycling so it becomes as easy and as convenient, and as safe as walking down the streets or as taking the subway, and I think we're still a ways off from that. Once we can say that biking has become normalized the way people in a lot of other European cities and some U.S. cities like Portland, Ore., think about it, I think that's definitely achievable in New York City, and that's what we should be working towards. The perception is that biking is a very dangerous thing to do, still.
Emily: Are there ways that you're going to help new cyclists get on the streets or advice that you have for people who have that perception that it's dangerous but they want to enjoy Citi Bike?
Ken: I would say give it a try, take it slow, use the safe infrastructure that we have so far. Then the other thing I would say is become an advocate for safer streets.
Emily: We touched on some pedestrian tragedies that happened in Central Park, but there were also some that happened along West End Avenue and at 96th Street, and the DOT responded by restructuring those streets. What do you think of how that process went and the results?
Ken: I'm very sorry that it took so long to, it's just an outrage that it takes multiple deaths to change a street. Those streets could have been changed many years ago. For instance, at 97th and West End Avenue, where Cooper Stock was killed, where there is now a little pedestrian island that probably would have spared his life, would have slowed down traffic, would have slowed down that cab driver. There's no reason why that couldn't have been there many years ago. That's not rocket science. I'm very saddened that it too so long. I think what the DOT has done is great. I'm sorry that we don't have a bike lane included in the mix. I'm hoping that will come.
Emily: Along West End Avenue.
Ken: Along West End Avenue, yeah. The other thing is that, I even talked about this, but we really need to change our parking priorities, which is a big part of the equation. I've ridden on West End Avenue, and the last time I was on it riding a bike, I rode about ten blocks and I counted, there were eight delivery vehicles blocking my path in the large parking.
Emily: They were double-parked.
Ken: They were double-parked. They were doubled-parked because we insist on prioritizing this long-term storage of private vehicles, often for free, on our streets, and on West End Avenue, it is for free. That makes no sense. Studies show that it's more socially and commercially productive to have commercial short-term parking as the priority, and what we need are plentiful loading zones of, let's say, up to an hour, on all of our streets, particularly on West End Avenue where you get a lot of deliveries.
Emily: Do you think that's an uphill battle fighting to take away parking spots?
Ken: Yes, unfortunately it is. I think the people who have this perk know they have a great deal, and they're going to fight for it. Yeah.
Emily: What do you think about the restructuring of 96th Street?
Ken: I believe it's helped. Allowing pedestrians to cross from the pedestrian island in the middle of the street was very good. People were doing that already. Actually, officializing it and putting a crosswalk there was terrific. Time will tell. There's probably more that could be done. We need to be able to even more than we have to inconvenience drivers, or more like temporarily inconvenience drivers for the sake of the safety of all of us.
Emily: As you're walking around or biking around, are there intersections that you think this is a place where we should be proactive instead of reactive?
Ken: We have one street, one cross street that I just love, and I don't know how it got that way, but it's 94th Street between Central Park West and Amsterdam. Of all of the cross streets that we have, it's the only one that's really traffic calmed. It has curb extensions at the corners, it has what are called midblock bulbouts in the centers, it has different paving materials, which are shown to slow down drivers — and I don't see any reason why we can't replicate that on every cross town street. I think Central Park West could be made safer for cyclists. They're going to start working on the bow tie very soon.
Emily: The bow tie.
Ken: The bow tie is where Broadway and Columbus Avenue cross at Lincoln Center. Wherever Broadway crosses another street at an odd angle, it's very unsafe because you get a lot of crossing and turning traffic and it's very unsafe for pedestrians and for cyclists. I think a long-term solution is just to pedestrianize Broadway, make it a bus route. You could have a dedicated bus lane either northbound or southbound or both. Otherwise, I don't think it's really necessary. In fact, I think it's contributing to our traffic congestion and that's been shown by the work that was done at Times Square, Herald Square, where they actually shut down parts of Broadway.
Getting back to the bow tie, they're going to be extending the protected bike lane down to I think 68th Street or 67th, I can't really remember, and then it's going to result at about 64th Street and connect with the Ninth Avenue protected bike line. Still, going through the actual place where Broadway and Columbus Avenue cross, it's still going to be a little dicey. We'll see how it develops but I think that could be made safer. Again, pedestrianizing Broadway, I think would be a big win for everybody.
Emily: Adding a big pedestrian plaza in the middle of that bow tie?
Ken: Yeah. I think it would be a bonus. I think it would actually draw people even more to Lincoln Center, and to the shops. Just look what's happened at Times Square. The real estate values have skyrocket since they put in that pedestrian plaza. The merchants love it.
Emily: Some people on the Upper West Side or in the city don't even know what the Community Board system is, but it's a volunteer body, some members are appointed, all members are appointed by either the Borough President or the City Councilmembers in the area. Do you think that you have real say and that the departments and different commissions are listening?
Ken: Yeah. We're officially an advisory group, but it really depends on the agency as to what extent they want to heed our advice. In the case of the Department of Transportation, they have been extremely sensitive to the views of whatever local Community Board is where they're considering something.
Emily: We talked about city level advocacy. Is there any advocacy that you're doing or thinking about change that needs to happen on a state or a federal level?
Ken: Definitely on a state level. Unfortunately people don't know this, but a lot of the rules on our streets are determined by Albany. For instance, whether we're going to have red light cameras and how many we're going to have, whether we're going to have speed cameras and how many we're going to have, whether we're going to be able to change our speed limit in the city of New York. All of those things have to be voted on by the State Legislature and approved by the State Legislature. It's not up to the city of New York, and also, the State Legislature can override things that the city has done. For instance, we recently passed what's called the "right of way law," which makes it a misdemeanor to kill or critically injure a pedestrian or a cyclist who has the right of way, if it can be proven that the cyclist or the pedestrian had the right of way.
It's only a misdemeanor. The Transit Workers Union has gotten very upset about that because they want their bus drivers to be exempted. They went to Albany recently to try to get it overturned, and advocates, there's a group called Families for Safe Streets, which consists of relatives, the families of victims of traffic violence, or people who themselves have been victimized by traffic violence, they formed an organization called Families for Safe Streets, and they have had to go back and forth to Albany in the last couple of weeks to block this effort to water down the law so that certain people would be exempted.
Actually, cab drivers would have been exempted under the proposed legislation. It's really sad that all these decisions that really should be our choice, New York City's decisions, we have to get their approval, the approval of a councilmember in Rochester or Buffalo. They get to vote on who's going to live or die on our streets. It makes no sense.
Emily: Is there any way to change that? To get more home rule? Is that something that is afoot?
Ken: I know there are lots of people who want it. I don't think it's something that the current administration is trying to bite off at this point, it's a little bit too much. I think eventually, it is going to happen, it should happen, and there are many, many people who probably including some upstate lawmakers who are wondering why they're having a say on the design of our streets.
Emily: Thank you for talking with me. It was really interesting.
Ken: Thanks for asking great questions.
Emily: Thank you so much.