Coming this summer to Central Park: No cars

The verdant heart of NYC will finally be liberated of vehicular traffic.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently tweeted about a "BIG" announcement regarding the future of Central Park that was to be made the following day.

My first thought that it might literally have something to do with BIG, the eponymous architecture firm of convention-bending Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Alas, the announcement made the next day — Earth Day — had nothing to do with BIG or architecture at all. It was, however, momentous: Starting June 26, Central Park — all 843 acres of it — will be completely car-free.

As a news release issued by the mayor's office, the permanent car ban, a move geared to boost pedestrian safety and lower air pollution within the lush heart of Manhattan, will mark Central Park's full return to its original use as an "urban refuge and recreation space."

"Our parks are for people, not cars,” said de Blasio in the statement. "For more than a century, cars have turned parts of the world's most iconic park into a highway. Today we take it back."

Emergency vehicles will be exempt from the ban, which impacts the scenic loop roads circling the southern part of the park. The quartet of crosstown streets — 65th, 79th, 86th and 97th Streets — that carry traffic through the middle of the park as below-grade transverse roads will also remain open.

Traffic in Central Park Scenic drives in the northern half of Central Park (above 72nd Street) have been closed to non-emergency vehicles since 2015. (Photo: DSCN0145.jpg)

The long road to becoming car-less

As it turns out, Central Park has been slowly shedding cars for decades.

As reported by the New York Times, Central Park's first partial car ban came in 1966 when Mayor John V. Lindsay proclaimed the sprawling urban green space would no longer permit vehicular traffic on Sundays. The move was so popular that Saturdays were also deemed car-free the following year.

Cars in Central Park remained a weekdays-only affair until June 2015 when they permanently got the boot from all park drives located above 72nd Street. This leaves only the scenic loop drives located below 72nd Street — West Drive, East Drive, Center Drive and Terrace Drive — open to traffic. Even then, these drives — the same ones that will close to cars starting June 26 — are mostly only open for brief periods on weekday mornings. (The Times notes that West Drive, for example, is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and is used by just over 1,000 vehicles daily.)

This all said, many of the 42 million annual visitors to the first — and no doubt most famous — landscaped public park in the United States probably assumed that private vehicles weren't allowed within park limits at all.

Pedicabs on loop drive, Central Park A scene from the past: A cluster of pedicabs cause a traffic backup on one of Central Park's scenic vertical loop drives. (Photo: img_0511)

But for plenty of park users, particularly the joggers, cyclists and zesty morning constitution-takers who share Central Park's loop drives with motorists during the limited hours they are open, the total car ban will no doubt be a marked step in the right direction. A grassroots movement started in 1966 has finally reached its end goal: a completely car-free Central Park.

"With today's announcement, Mayor de Blasio has done what 20 mayors before him could not do: get cars out of Central Park," remarked Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a longstanding New York-based nonprofit that promotes car-free ways to get around town. "We're glad to see this conclusion to the decades-long campaign to return New York's most iconic green space to the way it was originally intended."

Transverse, Central Park Sunken into Central Park's man-made landscape, four below-grade transverse roads will remain open to crosstown traffic. (Photo: Drive Through - Central Park )

Brooklyn paves the way

The decision to permanently close Central Park's non-transverse roads to cars on June 26 (the same day New York City's public schools let out for the summer, by the way) comes just months after the Manhattan landmark's smaller but no less spectacular younger sibling in Brooklyn, Prospect Park, permanently outlawed cars on its scenic loop drives.

Prospect Park's car ban followed a wildly popular trial run in which vehicular traffic was blocked for a relatively short duration: July through September of last year. Just weeks after the temporary ban was lifted, it was announced that cars would be verboten once and for all starting in January.

Both designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park (1857) and Prospect Park (1867) were completed prior to the advent of the automobile and, as mentioned, were never meant to accommodate them. The scenic drives were, however, included in the original designs of both parks to allow for horse-drawn carriage traffic. In fact, Central Park's loop drives were intentionally designed to be extra-windy as a method of preventing horse and carriage racing.

Historic photo of horse-drawn carriage in Central Park Horse-drawn carriages ruled the roads in Central Park long before automobiles came along. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For modern-day motorists sharing the roads with pedestrians and cyclists, the current speed limit in Central Park is a modest 25 miles-per-hour. Still, the very presence of early morning traffic coupled with the undulating nature of the park's scenic drives makes for a harrowing experience for pedestrians and cyclists also using the road.

Even Central Park's transverse roads were part of the original Olmsted and Vaux design. Just as they now allow drivers to cut through the park without having to travel up to 2.5 miles north or south to completely loop around it, these semi-hidden roads, considered "revolutionary" at the time, also provided carriages with a convenient shortcut. Most important, this convenience was not disruptive to 19th park-goers who flocked from all corners of the city to bask in Olmsted and Vaux’s immersive and highly engineered bucolic landscape. They were, and still very much are, out of sight and out of mind.

As the New York Times notes, one of the park's most notable/polarizing 19th-century holdovers, horse-drawn carriages, will continue to be permitted on Central Park's drive despite a previous attempted ban by the de Blasio administration.

Pedestrians and cyclists enjoying Central Park Car-free paradise: the DOT, NYC Parks, NYPD and Central Park Conservancy will oversee Central Park's total car phase-out. (Photo: Central Park)

Cleaner and greener urban parks

Much like with the permanent closure of Prospect Park's roads to vehicular traffic, NYC transportation officials are confident that the closure of Central Park's southern roads will have little lasting impact on local traffic patterns.

"It takes a few weeks, but people find new routes and blend into the grid," transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg tells the Times. "Particularly here in Manhattan, there are a lot of different routes people can take."

Despite expected grumbles from some motorists who might ultimately find it difficult to take a different route, the ban provides a big win for both the activist groups that have tirelessly fought to remove cars from Central Park as well as for city hall as it makes gradual (some might say too gradual) progress on the pedestrianization front all the while inching towards its sustainability goals. It also, of course, gives additional peace of mind to everyday park-goers, especially those early morning joggers and cyclists who share the road with cars. It's a step forward.

And keep in mind that New York isn't the first or the only major urban park to give cars the boot.

A 2008 report written by the Trust for Public Land found that a multitude of roads — about 22 in all, totaling over 40 miles — within America's urban parks have either partially or fully banished cars as of 2007. It's easy to imagine that many more have since been closed to traffic in the past decade. Atlanta's Piedmont Park, San Antonio's Brackenridge Park and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco are mentioned as just some of the parks that have successfully limited vehicular traffic either on a full or part-time basis.

"Central Park is not just one of New York's favorite parks — it's one of the most-beloved, most-recognized parks in the entire world," says Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver. "Now, we're making history by demonstrating just how clean, accessible, and safe an urban park can be."

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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