Volunteer Profile: Ken Coughlin

Ken, a T.A. member since 1992, is a regular on the Hudson River Greenway.
Image courtesy of Eliana Hecht

How long have you been a T.A. member? About 21 years.

What made you join? In 1992, I got a job near Columbus Circle, and I started riding my bike there from my home on the Upper West Side through Central Park. I couldn’t believe I had to share a park with motor vehicles. I wrote this group I’d heard about called Transportation Alternatives and demanded to know if they were aware of the problem and were doing anything about it. That, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Has cycling in the city changed over the years? In 1982, I often commuted by bike up First Avenue from the East Village to Midtown. That was an adventure, often in a bad way. Now, amazingly, almost all of that trip would be on physically-protected bike lanes. And the exploding popularity of cycling has meant that drivers are more used to encountering someone on a bike and are somewhat more respectful—the “safety in numbers” effect. Among cyclists, I see a more civil culture emerging as the more risk-averse take to the streets.

Has your relationship to activism changed? Getting appointed to my community board (Manhattan’s Community Board 7) in 2009 was a big change. I’m now more focused on working with fellow board members than on trying to change an impersonal city government. Of course, much of what I and others on community boards can accomplish is made possible by a progressive DOT.

What’s your favorite memory from your many years with T.A.? The huge rally for a car-free Central Park at a church on Central Park West in 2004. It was an unforgettable evening and one of the first events Paul White conceived and organized after he took over at T.A. Quite a debut.

  What is it about T.A.’s mission that has sustained you? It’s a wonderful thing to find a cause that you not only believe in but that is actually saving lives and you can witness often literally concrete gains. I was an activist as a teenager in the late ’60s, and T.A. helped me reconnect with my activist roots. At first I just wanted to get cars out of a park. That led to a growing awareness of the larger problem—the senseless allocation of a precious public resource, street space.

What’s been the most rewarding work you’ve done with the organization? Hands down, I’d say spearheading the campaign to gather the 100,000 signatures for a car-free Central Park. That was a sustained five-year effort that has been the engine behind the significant gains we’ve achieved over the past seven years. Also, the petition campaign and my involvement with T.A. generally have brought the incalculable benefit of many enduring friendships. Whatever I have done for T.A., T.A. has done much more for me.

What change to the city’s streetscape would you like to see next? Aside from my longtime dream of a completely car-free Central Park, I’m working hard on my community board to extend the street redesign, including a physically protected bike lane, on Columbus Avenue and pair it with a northbound route, preferably on Amsterdam Avenue. Nothing that I’ve seen civilizes our arterial roads more than these “complete streets.”

What different hats (or helmets) have you worn at T.A. over the years? I started heading up T.A.’s car-free Central Park campaign in 1996 and was invited to join T.A.’s board in ’98. For several years I wrote or edited the magazine’s “Auto-Free World” column. I’ve captained the NYC Century Bike Tour’s Astoria Rest Stop since 1998 (this past year was my 15th). I sometimes help mark the NYC Century Bike Tour’s route. Finally, I proofread this magazine, which is a good way to ensure that I read it cover to cover, as everyone should.