Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new organization says that restoring the park's historic arches would result in fewer collisions between pedestrians and cyclists.
The deaths of two pedestrians in New York City's Central Park last summer made even longtime residents look sidelong at their beloved back yard. Within two months of each other, Irving Schachter, 75, and Jill Tarlov, 58, were killed after being struck by cyclists along the park's roadways, where people on foot, bikes, skateboards, and pedicabs all jockey for right-of-way. In response, the park lowered its speed limit and installed new pedestrian-crossing signs in December.
But many advocates feel that a safer park won't truly be possible until the park's design is more deeply reconsidered. In September, one official at the mayor's office suggested to the New York Times that Frederick Law Olmsted's and Calvert Vaux's original 1850s plan may be partly to blame, "observing that, on the southwest portion, many of the most popular features are inside the loop, forcing pedestrians to cross where it is most congested and perhaps creating more collisions."
Long-time Central Park tour guide Matthew Falber read that and balked. "It sort of hit me that there was a solution to the problem that was in the original park plan," he told Curbed. That solution was in the arched roads that Omsted and Vaux had included in their design.
The arches were originally intended "to serve both an aesthetic purpose in maintaining the park’s beauty as well as a functional purpose in separating pedestrians from carriage traffic," says the website of the Central Park Arch Project, recently launched by Falber and a group of associates.
Now largely demolished, buried below ground level, or disused (though some can still be passed through), these arches could be restored and rebuilt to separate traffic flows by sending pedestrians below grade, "especially in these most congested and dangerous areas of Central Park."
Falber asserts that the result would be a safer and more beautiful Central Park, fully in line with Mayor Bill de Blasio's road-fatality-reducing Vision Zero plan. A petition to the city for a feasibility study is now live.
But not all road-safety advocates are convinced that restoring Central Park's arches would be a cure-all. Paul Steely White, the executive director of pro-cycling, pro-pedestrian Transportation Alternatives, think Falber's idea would definitely enhance the park's attractiveness, and that it could be part of a needed safety solution. "But I would caution against it being a silver bullet," he says. " We still want pedestrians to be able to cross at grade, and to do so as safely as they could under the arches."
Part of the solution will be changing cyclists' behavior, White adds. Past that? Closing Central Park's six-mile main loop to cars. Transportation Alternatives has long advocated that a car-free Central Park would reduce traffic and right-of-way conflicts among all users. Stephen Miller at Streetsblog NYC has written eloquently about how removing stoplights from the loop—which could only come after a prohibition of automobiles there—would encourage greater communication and eye-contact between pedestrians and cyclists.
That doesn't preclude a more arch-filled Central Park, however. "A park is a work of art, designed to produce certain effects upon the mind of men," Olmsted wrote. "There should be nothing in it, absolutely nothing—not a foot of surface nor a spear of grass—which does not represent study, design, a sagacious consideration and application of known laws of cause and effect with reference to that end."
All of which is to say: The arches were there for a reason. No harm in bringing them back.