Summer 2004, p.10-11

How to Make Play Safe Again

Car-Free Parks

Completely car-free parks would afford NYC parents and kids over 1300 acres of safe space to walk, bicycle and play. The NYC Parks Department, in cooperation with the NYC DOT, the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance, should make Central Park and Prospect Park completely car free 24/7.

Weekend car-free hours in both Central Park and Prospect Park currently serve as a much-needed children’s refuge, but fast cars still rule the parks for five to seven potentially kid-friendly daylight hours per weekday.

Recent Transportation Alternatives radar studies clocked motorists racing as fast as 68 mph in Prospect Park, while in Central Park a car was recently recorded traveling 52 mph, and the median speed of cars in the park hovers around 38 mph. Clearly both parks are less inviting to children (and their parents) when cars are present. In fact, the NYC Parks Department’s own “Guide for Sharing the Drive in Central Park” concedes that “Young children should not use the Drive when there are cars.”

Car-full hours also significantly diminish the safety and attractiveness of the parks during car-free hours, as entrances are rarely closed on time, and cars often find their way into the park anyway. Moreover, the confusion surrounding the schedule of when cars are allowed in means that it’s much easier for parents to simply declare the park off-limits. Finally, the loop drives, designed and striped to organize the flow of traffic, drastically increase the potential for conflict among park walkers, runners, rollerbladers and cyclists even during car-free hours. According to Michael Jones, the Vice-President of Administration for the Central Park Medical Unit, such conflicts would decrease markedly if the loop drives were organized to accommodate park users rather than through traffic.

No Parking on Playgrounds

Citywide and without exception, municipal employees should be banned from parking on scarce park and playground space. What’s more, parking lot space at schools without playgrounds should be reclaimed for play areas.

Firemen, policemen, teachers and other government employees provide vital services to the city of New York. That does not, however, give them a right to park on sidewalks and in parks and school playgrounds, as they often do. For every well publicized offense, such as the recent controversy of DOE and NYPD motor poolers usurping the playground space of 800 school children at schools on the Lower East Side, there are thousands of quiet land-grabs throughout NYC. Given that 55% of city elementary schools don’t have playgrounds, or even access to one, the City should be much more diligent in protecting what little space New York City school children have to play.

More Playstreets and 20 mph Side Streets

Hundreds of residential and school-proximate side streets throughout the city should be designated low speed zones and enforced with strong traffic calming measures like speed humps. The Police Athletic League should enlist the help of the Mayor and more proactive participation from the City DOT to expand the Playstreets program to include more streets extended in duration throughout the year. To make it affordable, the playstreets should be enforced with automated measures such as strong barricades.

According to the June 2004 issue of Governing Magazine, playful streets are on the decline throughout the U.S, “with so many cars competing for so little asphalt, street games are becoming increasingly dangerous.” As a result, cities throughout the U.S. are now enacting ordinances to ban street games.

Before car use began skyrocketing in the 50’s and 60’s, New York City side streets were the bastion of playing children, providing much-needed safe zones in neighborhoods bereft of sufficient park and playground space [See Box: Harlem on my Mind]. Now, the Police Athletic League’s summertime Playstreets program and occasional block parties are the only vestige of playful side streets. The Playstreets program, which in effect creates traffic-free cul-de-sacs, currently administers 127 playstreets throughout the City and gets many more requests for traffic-free playstreets per year than it can handle.

T.A. fought hard in the late nineties to enact legislation to enable the City to designate slow speed zones (as low as 15 mph) on any local street. While slow speed zones are not car-free streets and therefore not playgrounds, they do make it safer to bike and walk along and across streets, make existing play spaces much more accessible, and decrease through traffic. To date, the DOT has lowered speeds on only a handful of streets, citing the primacy of flow of car and truck traffic and an unfounded and misplaced fear that it would make streets more dangerous for drivers. 20mph speed zones in London, originally opposed on the same grounds, are now being expanded throughout the City on a large scale because they have been shown to decrease injuries and fatalities to children by 60% and invite more play.

Harlem on my Mind, 1968

By Denise Campbell

Every summer, at both ends of our block, a police horse was placed along with a metal sign on a pole welded to a block of cement that read, “Play Street Do Not Enter.” This barricade was erected each morning and remained until dusk. The absence of parked cars and threatening traffic made playing in the street an unimaginable thrill, if only because at other times it was off limits. I remember how fear about the dangers of the street was instilled in us. I recall a few times that I pushed through a crowd to peer upon some kid who had been hit by a car. The consequences for stepping off of the curb without approval or supervision were immediate and severe. “Look both ways before crossing. And make sure the light is green,” was the stern warning issued by mother to me and my sister before we headed out to school or to the store. One day I did not heed that warning and when I was nearly run over I was more afraid of my mother finding out than about any injuries I might have sustained. But during the summer, the perilous and hazardous street was transformed into a spacious play area with ample room for riding scooters, roller skating, playing hopscotch, shooting skully, throwing balls, and jumping rope. This was the world my mother entrusted me and my sister to when she went off to work each morning...