| A bicycle club enjoys the Central Park drive in 1895, four years before the arrival of the automobile.
(Photo courtesy Transportation Alternatives.)
In 1899, the newly-formed Automobile Club of America was granted the first permit to drive a car in Central Park. For the previous five decades, only pedestrians, bicycles, and horse-and-carriages had been allowed.
Many New Yorkers did not like cars in the park then â€“ a 1906 letter to the New York Times bemoaned the "ugly, noisy, and evil-smelling" automobiles â€“ and some still don't like it today.
Nearly a century and a half after they were built, some would like to see Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn returned to their original purpose.
"The parks were not designed for cars," said Aaron Naparstek of the organization Transportation Alternatives, which has been lobbying for car-free parks for the last 20 years. "Because of the curves, you can only see 40 to 50 feet in front of you, which makes driving dangerous."
There have been accidents in the past. A woman cyclist was struck and killed by a van in Prospect Park in 1997. Two people were hit in Central Park in 1998.
Both Central Park and Prospect Park already have some car-free hours. Automobiles use the drives during morning and evening rush hours during the summer. (See blue box for car-free hours)
But advocates want to ban cars 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Opponents argue that banning cars from the parks completely would actually make the city less livable. Automobiles would be forced onto side streets, creating havoc for drivers and the surrounding neighborhoods.
"I simply don't see a compelling public need that justifies displacing thousands of cars into the surround area," argued Alvin Berk of Brooklyn's community board 14.
THE POLITICS OF CAR FREE PARKS
Support for car free parks has been growing in recent years. Environmental groups, running clubs, some former transportation commissioners, and the majority of the City Council members that represent the neighborhoods adjacent to both Central Park and Prospect Park are in favor of the idea.
But victories are still hard to achieve and even those are small. This winter the city agreed to close Prospect Park to cars for a few more hours a week as a trial period.
The major groups standing in the way, advocates say, are the mayor and Department of Transportation and the Parks Department.
"The Department of Transportation looks at those parks and sees unused road capacity," said Naparstek.
The city argues that it is balancing the needs of all New Yorkers with a compromise of car and pedestrian only hours.
"We want to balance the various needs of the residents so everyone can benefit," said Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall.
Until the mayor or the borough presidents hear enough outcry, there is little incentive for the parks to change their policies. And some of the most outspoken opposition comes from neighborhood residents or those who commute to work or school through the park areas.
Alvin Berk of community board 14 says residents fear not only more traffic, but also increases in accidents, higher exhaust emission in neighborhoods, and a reduced quality of life.
"It's not just a matter of inconveniencing drivers," said Berk. "Our concern is for the safety, well being, and health of residents."
BATTLES IN THE STREETS
Passions of drivers and pedestrians can sometimes run high.
During car-free hours in Prospect Park, some motorists have become so incensed, that they climb out of their cars, move the barricades blocking the entrance, and keep on going. Earlier this year, the park had to ask the 78th police precinct to step up enforcement.
And in their efforts to rid parks of cars, activists sometimes resort to environmental guerrilla tactics to battle their 3,000 pound steel enemies.
In recent years, activists armed with plants and banners erected a human barricade across Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park. Or when a cyclist is killed, an outline of a body is often spray-painted on the city street.
And each month, bicyclists gather for what they call Critical Mass to ride as a group through the city streets, boxing in cars, and blocking intersections to protest for pedestrian rights. At times, the groups grow to include hundreds of cyclists, who will stop in the middle of a major intersection, lift their bikes into the air and chant slogans like "No More Cars!" while motorists honk their horns and curse.
Do you have issues with cars in your parks? Visit the Community Gazette homepage, find your neighborhood, and post a message under "COMMUNITY VIEWS â€“ Ideas to Improve Your Neighborhood."