Summer 2002, p.8

Cars Out!

Barry Benepe,
Greenmarket founder and car-free activist

They were never intended to be commuter routes

by John Henry

It was 1966 when Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving made history by banning cars from Central Park on Sundays. It was also when Barry Benepe, then co-chair of Community Board 7's Parks Committee, began advocating making the park car-free all the time.

To Benepe, a founding member of Transportation Alternatives who later helped establish and direct New York's highly successful Greenmarket program, the car-free concept makes even more sense now than it did 36 years ago. Benepe believes that peace and quiet there have never been more elusive for its non-motorist users.
"You're supposed to leave the city behind in Central Park and get out of the noise and bustle," he says. But when he leaves the busy thoroughfares outside the park and crosses its East and West Drives, Benepe laments, "I'm back on the street. I'm assaulted by traffic."

Benepe, who is now a planning consultant and architect, says that when the park drives were designed in the nineteenth century, they were envisioned as places for horse-drawn carriages to take pleasure excursions. "They were never intended to be commuter routes," he says. "Those were supposed to be the crosstown routes through the park."

Benepe recognizes that the reason why it is so difficult to make the park entirely car-free is both that motorists have a disproportionate influence on public decision making and that politicians themselves are heavily dependent upon cars for travel around town. "They are sympathetic to auto drivers, not pedestrians," he says.

Cars In!

Henry Stern,
Former NYC Parks Commissioner

I don't believe in creating roadblocks to cars

by John Henry

As parks commissioner for 15 years, Henry Stern opposed making Central and Prospect Parks totally car free. Today, he still opposes the idea.

"No parks commissioner has wanted to totally ban cars, because they realize it's totally irresponsible," says Stern. Eliminating cars from Central Park in particular would "flood surrounding areas with cars. How many more cars can you fit on Fifth Avenue, Central Park West and Columbus?"

Stern, who now heads New York Civic, Inc., a non-profit issues-advocacy organization, adds that "the closer people get to responsibility the better they understand the problem of balancing of interests."

He notes that as parks commissioner he approved the expansion of car-free hours in Prospect Park three years ago despite the opposition of a Brooklyn community board that insisted that the move would increase traffic in adjacent streets.

Three out of every four Manhattan households do not own cars and it is possible that a substantial portion of drivers using Central Park live in other boroughs or outside the city. Should not those considerations tip the scale in favor of banning autos from the park?

Stern says no. "The park wasn't built for Manhattan residents. It's for the general public."

Asked if he thinks public policy should be tailored to make driving in Manhattan a less attractive option, Stern says, "I don't believe in creating roadblocks to cars. There's this Luddite view that the car is evil--right up there with beer, wine, fur and meat. But I don't mean to deride anyone. People who want cars out of the parks aren't wackos."

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