Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
New Yorkers have been fighting over this for decades. But a new proposal to study a full ban next summer would bring some sorely needed hard data to the debate.
There’s been plenty of debate about cyclists speeding through New York’s Central Park lately, after two people on bikes hit and killed pedestrians there over a two-month period. It’s a contentious topic, although everyone agrees that there’s a general need for mutual respect and more clarity about the way people on bikes and people on foot interact.
But one major contributor to the park’s chaotic road culture has been largely overlooked in the debate: Automobile drivers are allowed to use the loop road at various hours of the day, right alongside bikers, joggers, horse-drawn carriages, and families in search of fresh air.
A vocal cohort of New Yorkers have been actively fighting for decades to get cars out of the park, but they’ve consistently encountered opposition from the city government (check out the below film made by Streetfilms director Clarence Eckerson for Transportation Alternatives 10 years ago for more historical perspective). Car-free-park advocates have made some headway over the years: Currently, motor vehicles are banned throughout the park on weekends and from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays. Much of the 6.1-mile road is car-free in the middle of the day as well. And for a couple of summers running, the loop north of 72nd Street has been entirely free of cars from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
This patchwork of car-free hours doesn’t, however, change the fundamental reality that a lot of the time, the park loop functions as a busy arterial road blasting through Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s romantic landscape masterpiece. Especially in the park’s heavily used southern end, cars are a loud, fast, and dangerous presence, spewing fumes and particulate pollution alongside locals and tourists alike who are trying to enjoy one of the city’s top attractions in peace.
Now two city councilmembers from Manhattan, Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine, are introducing a bill that would ban cars on the park loop road entirely for three months next summer, as part of a study. "Currently, the Central Park loop is packed with cars, cyclists, and runners all vying for limited space; removing cars from the loop will dramatically reduce the risk of dangerous collisions," the councilmembers said in a statement. "Closing the Central Park loop to cars from June 24 to Sept 25 in 2015 will provide comprehensive data on the impact on traffic in the surrounding areas, and it will be a meaningful step to a permanently car-free Central Park."
The study would look at the effect of the closure on traffic volume in surrounding streets, as well as the environmental impact and effects on pedestrian flow.
If the proposal for the car-free study goes through, it could result in the collection of data that would bolster the argument for a more permanent and comprehensive ban of car traffic from the park— essentially taking the car-free debate from the realm of emotion to that of reason. And, as Stephen Miller at Streetsblog points out, a park road without car traffic could be redesigned with the safe interaction of pedestrians, runners, cyclists, and skaters as the primary concern.
As the city creates more and more room for pedestrians and people riding bicycles on its streets, the presence of cars in the green space long known as “the lungs of New York” seems more and more like an outdated anomaly. Eliminating cars would restore the park to its 19th-century roots as a refuge from the urban hurly-burly. It would, at the same time, bring it into the 21st century, an era when the value of spaces for people rather than cars has been happily rediscovered.