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Ed Koch, Staunch Supporter of Transit, Inadvertent Boon for Biking, Dies at 88

Friday, February 01, 2013 - 03:20 PM

Ed Koch reclines in the office of his campaign manager in September 1977-as seen in "Koch". (Courtesy of the film.)

Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch died on the 100th birthday of Grand Central Terminal. That's a poetic coincidence, but not a random one. Koch played a crucial role in ensuring America's cathedral to public transportation lived to see its centennial celebration, fiercely advocating for its preservation first as a Congressman and then as mayor. (Here's the Grand Central Terminal preservation story told with charming archival audio).

That's just one of many of Koch's  staunch stances during his three terms from 1978 - 1989 that has transit advocates heaping praise in memory of the bellicose mayor who helped pull New York  out of dark times.

In fact, many of his most controversial moments have to do with transportation, including famously walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of the 1980 transit workers' strike. 

Though, his biggest impact on transportation may have been through a project that never was. Early in Koch's tenure, NY Governor Hugh Carey pushed for a highway megaproject known as "Westway" to put the West Side Highway underground, a plan the federal government would only fund if the mayor also signed off on it.

Koch refused until Carey promised the state would subsidize the NYC subway enough to avoid any fare increase for four years. The governor kept his word for two years, then reneged. But Koch -- with his subway loyalties -- had the last laugh.

In 1985, a legal challenge and Congressional opposition doomed the Westway project. Koch and then-governor Mario Cuomo chose not to fight to resurrect Westway and instead scrambled to "trade-in" the federal funds to be reallocated to transit, yielding more than $1 billion for subways and buses according to Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. (See video of Koch discussing Westway below.)

The NYC Straphanger's Campaign also said in a statement of condolence to Koch's family that the former mayor inherited a subway system with ridership at the lowest level since 1917. Yet when he left office, the system was on the rise. 

"Mayors have limited powers to affect subway and bus service, which is run by a State public authority. Mayor Koch used his to the fullest, employing his bully pulpit to drag public promises out of transit executives before the glare of cameras, such as improved announcements and a crackdown on subway graffiti. Under pressure from Mayor Koch, the MTA completely eliminated graffiti on subway cars in 1989, during Mayor Koch's last term in office. In the mid-1980's, Mayor Koch doubled the City's commitment to the MTA's vital five-year rebuilding program."

Inadvertently, Koch gave a boost the the NY cycling community as well: by trying to ban bikes from Midtown in 1987. What was meant as a crackdown on weaving bicycle messengers transformed hordes of casual riders into activists, or at least supporters of advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives, which saw membership sign-ups increase ten fold. The bike ban was eventually voided over a legal technicality, but the organized bike lobby remains strong to this day. 

Koch's memory has been firmly fastened to transportation with the most sturdy and standard of civic tributes: the Queensboro Bridge has been renamed the Edward Koch Queensboro Bridge. "There are other bridges that are much more beautiful like the George Washington or the Verrazano but this more suits my personality," he told WNYC, "because it's a workhorse bridge. I mean, it's always busy, it ain't beautiful, but it is durable."

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