Summer 2002, p.2

The Vision to Free New York City's Great Parks From the Tyranny of the Automobile

It took a grand vision to build central and Prospect Parks. Flooding them with cars required nothing more than persistent myopia and the delusion that the automobile is synonymous with progress.

One hundred years after cars entered the parks, it is obvious to all but the most determinedly obtuse that they degrade the parks, disrupt their tranquility and bring danger and menace to park users. Now, in 2002, the mayor faces a choice between continuing to accommodate too many cars or reclaiming the parks from decades of misuse.

The Birth of the Parks
In 1853, New York City's most influential citizens set aside 700 acres of swamps, bluffs, rocky outcroppings and tiny potato farms north of the city as the future site of a "great public ground." Four years later, the City selected a revolutionary park plan-the "Greensward" design-by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead for the site. Soon, 20,000 Irish and German laborers set to work literally building Central Park. The back-breaking work paid off. Central Park opened in 1859 and was an instant success. New Yorkers from all walks of life fell in love with the park because it was a natural escape from the noise and stench of dense urban living. Aware of Central Park's role as an urban oasis, Olmstead and Vaux went out of their way to preserve the park from everyday road traffic by sinking the four transverse roads so that commercial traffic could cross the park with the least impact.

Inspired by the success of Central Park, the City of Brooklyn commissioned Vaux and Olmstead to create Prospect Park, completed in 1877. Olmstead and Vaux called Prospect Park a work of art. The vistas, which seem so natural, were in fact painstakingly planned to create smooth, undulating spaces.

Moses, urban annihilatorCars Invade the Parks
The profound civic vision of great parks and public spaces was destroyed during the 1930s, '40s and '50s by city-annihilator extraordinaire, Robert Moses. He steamrolled enormous sections of thriving brownstone neighborhoods to girdle the city with horrendous, expensive elevated highways and sprawling parkways, all in the name of making way for the future--or, the car, as he believed. Moses' roster of devastation included the drives in Central and Prospect Park, which he straightened, widened and signed to move cars.

The first backlash against Moses-type auto-mania began under Mayor John Lindsay and Parks Commissioners Thomas Hoving and August Heckscher, who started rolling back car hours in the park. But their spirit has long since faded from officialdom. When it comes to cars in the parks, Mayor Bloomberg and DOT Commissioner Weinshall have chosen to defend Moses' destructive legacy. Their small-minded vision is focused on moving cars to the detriment of humans and land.

In the 1850s and '60s, it was the city's elite who had the vision and determination to build Central and Prospect Parks. Things have changed. Today, this group is adamant about protecting its privilege to take limousines and cabs through Central Park. In Brooklyn, the determined motorists are more middle class, but equally selfish. But both groups cling to myths about what would happen if they were no longer allowed to drive through the parks...

Do cars boat, picnic, read or walk? Then why are they in the park?"Take It Away and They'll Flood Our Streets"
The most persistent myth is that making the parks car-free would create traffic jams and force traffic onto adjoining neighborhood streets. History does not support this notion. For two weeks each year, the Marathon clears Central Park's drives of cars. The traffic impact is minimal. This is not surprising. When Washington Square Park was closed to cars in 1958 (they used to go under the arch!), the NY Times predicted traffic disaster. The paper was wrong--traffic actually declined in the surrounding area. The same dire predictions accompanied the collapse of the West Side Highway in 1973. In fact, traffic on Manhattan's West Side declined by more than 20% and by 14% south of 60th street. By now, most traffic planners believe that "if you build it, they will come." In a 1998 report, the British Government proved that "if you take it away, they will go." Its report, The Traffic Impacts of Highway Capacity Reductions, examined 50 major road closures around the world and found "no instance where a road closing resulted in long-term traffic problems." Motorists are not stupid; within days they adapt and find the swiftest routes, best times and even take transit.

Read the latest news on this subject.

"Cars Make Park Users Safer"
Bollocks. Police records from Central and Prospect Parks show that on weekdays-when it is possible to make direct comparisons between car-free and car hours-violent crime is higher when cars are in the parks. And park users agree that a car-free park is a safer park. A New York City Road Runner survey of runners, cyclists and skaters using Central Park's drive found that 75% of respondents were more likely to use the park when it was car-free.

Get the Cars Out!
Restoring Central and Prospect Park to their car-free original state involves a contest of fundamental values. Clear away the fog of excuses and myths and it is clear that defenders of the status quo put the convenience of motorists before anything else. Using the premise that motorists should come first, status quo defenders ignorantly assume that we have a choice to overrun either the parks or the surrounding neighborhoods with traffic. They assume that residents will complain about traffic more than park users, so they decide that it is the parks that must suffer. Lucky them, they get to claim that they are simply defending the neighborhoods surrounding the parks from traffic.

At its core, creating car-free Central and Prospect Parks is about whether the mayor and his commissioners are willing to start reducing the amount of space and privilege given to motorists. Bloomberg has expressed strong support for keeping the Carpool Rule on Manhattan's river crossings and tolling the free East River bridges, and has expressed little sympathy for carping motorists. He should realize that car-free parks are parts of the same transportation puzzle-tolls and car-free parks fit together to create a picture of a NYC less dependent upon (and overrun with) cars. Instead, he has dismissed the chances of a car-free Central Park saying, "Not in my lifetime."
Mayors are hampered by budget problems, a bewildering array of state laws and many things beyond their control. But, one thing they can do is make Central and Prospect Parks car-free. Letting in cars in the parks and widening and straightening their drives was a huge mistake, a mistake that is compounded with every passing year. It is time to move beyond the legacy of Robert Moses and reclaim the public space he stole out of misguided love for the automobile.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, make the park drives car-free as they were intended.


Car-Free Timeline of New York City's Great Parks

Ever since it let cars into Central and Prospect Parks over 100 years ago, New York City has been slowly pushing them back out. Every victory on these timelines has been the result of persistent public advocacy and political pressure. The next victory, whether it is overnight car-free hours for Central Park or more entrance closings, will improve the quality of life of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who use our great Parks.

Prospect Park Timeline
1867 Completed.
1899 Cars probably first allowed on the Park Loop (shortly after Central Park).
1930s Bartel Prichard Square entrance/exit closed to motor vehicles.
1966 Weekends are made car-free, Memorial Day to Labor Day.
1967 Weekend and Holiday car-free hours extended year round in Central, Prospect and Forest Parks.
1974 Closed to motor vehicles on weekends and holidays.
1975 Designated a scenic landmark.
1978 Innermost traffic lane converted to a recreational path.
Late 1970s Cross drives closed to
vehicles.
1983 Parkside exit closed and landscaped. Made entrance only.
1993 Lincoln Road entrance closed. Made exit only.
1994 Willink exit closed. Made entrance only.
1997 DOT releases Prospect Park Alternative Use Study.
1999 Car-free weekday period extended by three hours per day from April to October.
2002 Summer car-free weekday hours extended to full year.

Central Park Timeline
1859 First opened to public.
1899 Cars first allowed on Park Drives.
1955, 1960 Park is without cars for a few days of national bicycle races.
1965 Becomes a national historic landmark
1966 Weekends are made car-free, Memorial Day to Labor Day.
1967 Weekend and Holiday car-free hours extended year round in Central, Prospect and Forest Parks.
1968 Loop drives are made car-free on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, Memorial Day to Labor Day in addition to weekends and holidays.
1969 Saturdays are made car-free from sunrise to 7 pm. Weekdays unchanged.
1972 "Parks Week" experiment in May establishes weekday car-free hours.
1975 Weekday no-car hours instituted, June 2 to Labor Day.
1978 Car-free schedule extended to weeknights. Car-free summer hours extended to May 1 to October 22.
1979 Weekends made car-free. Weekday car-free hours reduced. Bike/pedestrian lane added to loop.
1981 Cars allowed to intrude on lower loop, 6th Avenue to 72nd Street during weekday car-free period.
1992 W. 110th Street, W. 106th Street and 5th Avenue entrances closed to cars.
1994 Summer hours extended to 10 months of the year, January 1 to the first week of November. Columbus Circle entrance closed to cars and landscaped.

Read the latest news about the Car-Free Central Park campaign.