History of the Fight for Car-Free Parks

June 18, 2015

In this article, Ken Coughlin, a member of Transportation Alternatives’ Board of Directors and a longtime activist leading the fight for a car-free Central Park, recounts the history of the campaign.

 

This is a historic moment. After 116 years of serving double duty as unnecessary traffic arteries, the loop drives of Central and Prospect parks will see a major reduction in vehicle traffic, with 70% of roadway space completely car-free at all times.  The section of Central Park below 72nd Street and the eastern side of Prospect Park will remain open to traffic.    

Automobiles were first allowed in both parks at the close of the 19th century, and New Yorkers realized the mistake almost immediately.  A 1906 letter writer to the New York Times complained of the “ugly, noisy and evil-smelling” presence in Central Park and asked “Where can one look for a remedy?”

Finding that remedy has proved to be an exceedingly difficult and painstaking process, demonstrating that taking a privilege away from motorists is one of the most daunting challenges, even when that privilege involves driving through two of the nation’s most renowned urban refuges.   

Central and Prospect parks’ designers envisioned the pastoral carriage roads to be as vital to the overall feel of both parks as their lakes, woods and verdant expanses.  But soon after the newfangled automobile was allowed access, these paths became little more than shortcuts for fast-moving vehicles, marring the designers’ vision as well as the experience of the parks for future millions.  

New Yorkers who wanted the parks restored to their previous tranquility suffered in relative silence until the decade of the 1960s introduced a newfound spirit of activism and questioning of authority.  In May 1966, some 60 demonstrators (including a rising political leader named Edward I. Koch) blocked traffic on the Central Park loop in an effort to persuade the city to ban cars on summer Sundays.  They had the ear of the city’s new environmentally minded mayor, John Lindsay, who quickly made the loop drives of both parks car-free on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  In 1967, weekend and holiday car-free hours were extended year-round.

Over the next quarter-century, as the loop roads were transformed into the parks’ most popular recreational spaces, the ability of taxis and other cars to treat the loops as bypasses of surrounding streets steadily shrank.  Car-free hours and days expanded, entrances were sealed to traffic and recreational lanes created, all aided by a new organization that formed in 1973, Transportation Alternatives.

But car-free hours were still the exception when T.A.’s Car-Free Central Park campaign began gaining traction in the early 1990s.  Demonstrations disrupted traffic on the loop starting with a massive Central Park rally on April 19, 1991.  

"Cars and parks don't mix," then-Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger told marchers in 1994. The on-the-ground protests were combined with petition and post-card drives in both parks that quickly amassed thousands of signatures. T.A. pointed out that not only would banishing cars be good for the parks; it would benefit the city overall by helping to reduce traffic.  Making the loop roads available to cars was serving only to encourage car usage, meaning that the parks were actually contributing to the very urban problems they were designed to allow people to escape.      

In 1997, a 57-year-old biochemist named Rachel Fruchter was killed by a van driver while she rode her bike on the Prospect Park loop drive. Her death galvanized the movement to make Prospect Park car-free, reigniting local activists’ efforts.

In 2000, with a mayoral election looming, then-T.A. executive director John Kaehny proposed a drive for 100,000 petition signatures calling for a car-free Central Park, an effort that I spearheaded, after assuming leadership of the Central Park campaign in 1996.  The petition push raised the profile of the car-free parks movement as never before, and T.A. began calling for a trial closing of both parks to traffic. Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs concurred.

Endorsing the Central Park campaign in 2002, she wrote, “A trial, with traffic counts on the Central Park perimeter streets, will be more persuasive than any amount of talk, letter-writing, resolutions, and other endless wheel-spinning.”

In one of his first acts after taking the reins of T.A. in 2004, executive director Paul Steely White convened what may be the Upper West Side’s largest public meeting ever, as 1,000 passionate car-free parks supporters packed a local church.  A month later, the Bloomberg administration scaled back car hours in both parks and introduced HOV lanes.  

The administration again significantly cut car access in 2006 in a successful effort to derail then-Council Member Gale Brewer’s proposed legislation to close both parks to cars on a trial basis. Nevertheless, large sections of the loops remained open to car traffic when recreational use was at its weekday peak – before and after regular working hours.

Manhattan’s community boards got into the act in 2011, unanimously signing onto a resolution spearheaded by then-Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore calling for a trial closing of Central Park’s loop to cars.  In 2012, the city reduced the space for cars to a single lane in Prospect Park, and followed suit in Central Park the next year.  The Bloomberg administration also instituted a summer ban on car traffic in Central Park north of 72nd Street.

As was the case in 2006, the threat of City Council action prompted this year’s change. In October 2014, Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who succeeded Gale Brewer in representing Manhattan’s Upper West Side, introduced a bill calling for a summer closing of Central Park to cars.  Co-sponsoring the initiative was the chair of the Council’s Parks committee, Mark Levine.  

With the legislation looming, the de Blasio administration made the announcement that large portions of both parks will be car-free – not just on weekends and holidays, but every day, year-round.

The changes are historic because no one alive today has experienced for a sustained period what the parks' creators wished us to experience -- the illusion of nature in the midst of a great city.  Now, in most of Central Park and in a significant portion of Prospect Park, New Yorkers and visitors alike will get that chance. This significant step will also allow officials to finally redesign the car-free sections of the loop roads for safe recreational use without having to make safety compromises necessary to accommodate cars.

But the fact that the southern and most congested part of the Central Park loop remains open to motorized traffic, and the fact that the neighborhoods along the eastern side of Prospect Park will not get to enjoy the same car-free experience as residents of Park Slope, are sad reminders of the extraordinary lengths our city will still go to indulge the perceived needs of drivers. Continuing to allow cars in the mix places exercising loop users in dangerous proximity to polluting cars, invites tragedy and compromises the experience of the park for all. 

So, while we celebrate this great milestone, our work continues as we seek a complete remedy for that 1906 letter writer, and for thousands of other lovers of Central Park and Prospect Park since.