Ed Koch, the three-term Mayor of New York City passed away this week, leaving a mixed legacy on cycling. But that he built, and quickly removed, the first on-street protected bike paths in the United States makes cycling and green lanes forever a part of his legacy.
Koch had long been an advocate of cycling and bike lanes. In 1971 Congressman Koch said “”The only way to insure safety for the many thousands of New Yorkers who want to bicycle is to designate official and exclusive bike lanes, and the city has failed to do this.” In 1973 he wrote that “If the City is to establish a balance, efficient and clean transportation system, the bicycle must be included as an integral part.” So he had supported cycling and supported bike lanes as a way to make it safer, for some time.
Then, as Mayor Koch was dealing with both the gas crisis of the late 70’s and a pending transit strike, he went to Beijing, China and saw a city teeming with cyclists. He applauded their widespread use, and on his return pushed to have experimental bike lanes installed on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Avenues and Broadway. In addition, the transit strike emergency plan put bike lanes on all the bridges and Koch urged New Yorkers to ride their bikes to work and they did. During the 1980 New York City transit strike, bike commuters were estimate to have increased by 200,000 riders and though most of those bike commuters went back to transit when the strike ended, some did not and biking remained at higher levels after the strike was over.
The bike lanes he had installed were 6 to 8 feet wide and separated from motor vehicle traffic by asphalt islands. The total cost of the program was $300,000. Though they were built without consulting the bicycling community, cyclists had been asking for bike lanes for a decade. In 1970, 1000 people joined with then-Mayor John V. Lindsay on a bike ride down Fifth Avenue to ask for bike lanes.
Still, the lanes were controversial. Some cyclists refused to use them, which the media gleefully reported. They were filled with pedestrians, food vendors and trash. Taxis, delivery trucks and local businesses protested them. At the same time there were three fatal crashes between cyclists and pedestrians (though not in the green lanes) that brought unfavorable attention to the bike lanes. Despite the popular perception at the time, they were nonetheless a success. The DOT reported that there were both fewer crashes and more cyclists on Sixth – with about 3000 of them using the bike lane every day – after the bike lanes went in than before.
Ironically, it was a ride in a car that did the green lanes in. In a limousine ride up Sixth Avenue with President Jimmy Carter and New York Gov. Hugh Carey, Carey accused Koch of having a “fetish” for bikes, pointed to the bike lanes and said ?See how Ed’s pissing away your money?? Koch couldn’t take it. He called his assistant transportation coordinator into his office and told him to remove the paths.
?I was swept away by the thought of what could be when I saw a million bikes in Beijing. And I see two in New York City — on a Sunday.? Koch said in November 1980 as the lanes were removed. Protestors went out to the streets covered in fake blood, but the didn’t get there until after the bike lanes had been paved over at a cost of $100,000. Still, a remnant of the lanes remains on Sixth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets.
Later Koch seemed to change his tune and try to ban bikes in Midtown. Cyclists protested and the courts intervened before it could be fully implemented. Still, Koch remained a fan of cycling and continued to travel around the city on his bicycle well into his ’80’s. He’s not exactly the Father of American green lanes, but he’s somewhere on the family tree.