Summer 2002, p.2

Take Action!

Getting cars out of Central and Prospect Park requires a fundamental change in New York City's attitude towards motoring and treatment of public space. Unlike the readers of this magazine, most of the city's government decision makers and powerful people get around by car.

Whose decision is it?
Ultimately, it is up to the mayor to decide whether Prospect and Central Parks will be car-free. Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg's only statement on the issue has been, "not in your or my lifetime." Not surprisingly, car-free parks is very low on a mayoral agenda that is packed with school reform, a budget crisis and recovery from the Attack On America. Without the attention of the mayor, winning car-free parks requires a lot of political support from local elected officials and community and user groups.

Who are the other players?
Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance: Both Central and Prospect Park are managed by public-private partnerships whose boards are composed mainly of wealthy and powerful real estate financiers. Neither group has taken an official position on the presence of cars in their park, saying that they prefer to let the Parks Department handle such "policy" matters. However, both organizations regularly involve themselves in other policy matters. The Administrator for the Prospect Park Alliance, Tupper Thomas, has softened her view of a car-free park; she no longer claims that cars keep crime down. This summer she lead the Prospect Park's Community Committee, a coalition of user groups and neighborhood organizations-including T.A.-who support the Alliance's work, to a vote that extended summer hours year round. Thomas says that this is as far as she is willing to go right now.

Community Boards: Community boards have historically opposed to any change to the status quo for the parks, even those minor changes in the length of car-free time supported by the DOT. Un-elected bodies with no real authority or expertise, community boards wield only advisory power. This is good because they have repeatedly proven themselves to be wildly out of touch. In reality, community boards are rarely representative of interests beyond their own. But, though they are not accountable, the political power that community boards yield is very real because councilmembers and borough presidents appoint politically strategic citizens to the boards.

How are city agencies involved?
The NYC Department of Transportation: The park drives are the responsibility of the Department of Transportation. The DOT's position is that a full closure is "not feasible." Its decision is based on a 1997 study that predicted that one intersection out of 13 studied would potentially experience a two cycle delay one hour in the afternoon on weekdays. The Department's Commissioner, Iris Weinshall, has lived around the corner from Prospect Park for nearly two decades. She recently told T.A. that, because of growing traffic around the park, a car-free experiment will produce significant traffic diversions into surrounding areas. Weinshall seems unaware of the "shrinkage" that has been shown to occur when traffic capacity is reduced.

The Parks Department: Though the Parks Department is not in charge of the drives, the DOT can turn over space to Parks. Throughout its history, the Parks Department has been the missing advocate for car-free parks. After all, cars impose a terrible burden on the Department and provide little in return. The new Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, has not yet taken a public stand on car-free parks. In the hopes of inspiring Benepe to support a three month trial car-free period in Prospect Park, T.A. will deliver 10,000 postcards to him in July. Parks is a fairly weak agency and being subjected to major budget cuts, so it does not have much political weight.
Having the support of these agencies would give the campaigns a huge boost, but Bloomberg does not need their support to make the parks car-free if he receives enough political pressure.

What is T.A. doing?
Over the past 10 years, Transportation Alternatives' Car-Free Central and Prospect Park Campaigns have worked to build a foundation of support for change. Our strategy has been to engage local elected officials while building a coalition of groups representing nearby neighborhoods and park users. Every time a new elected official throws her or his weight into the ring or a neighborhood group signs on to a letter to the mayor, New York moves a little closer to winning car-free parks.

You can get cars out! Sign a petition and join the car-free Central Park or Brooklyn committees.

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