In late February, members of Park Slope Neighbors, a pro-pedestrian community group, walked into Prospect Park with a radar gun. They’d heard about parkgoers who had to dodge fast-moving cars, and wanted to assess the problem for themselves. They clocked 195 cars, and discovered that 98.9 percent of them—all but two—were breaking the 25 mph speed limit. Half were moving 40 mph or faster. “Someone hit by a car going 40 miles per hour has a roughly 85 percent chance of dying,” Neighbors co-founder Eric McClure tells us. “This speeding is a huge safety concern.”
Brooklynites have been hotly debating traffic safety in the park. Last year, bicyclists and pedestrians collided nine times, compared to three the year before. There have already been four collisions this year, including two in which pedestrians were seriously injured. Park officials are now discussing new measures meant to better accommodate all road users: reducing the number of car lanes to one, and widening existing lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. (Cars are only allowed in the park for four hours every workday, during morning and evening rush hours.) For McClure, this plan is insufficiently ambitious.
“Removing cars from the park should really be considered a prerequisite for solving the issue of conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians,” he said in a press release. “The ongoing presence of motor vehicles in the park will continue to sow confusion over the usage of the car lane during car-free hours, and relying on the honor system to keep drivers confined to their one lane... seems like a recipe for danger.” Also, speeding isn’t the only problem cars pose. “The noise and emissions created by vehicle traffic aren’t great, either,” says McClure.
Too much of our infrastructure was designed around automobiles, back when Robert Moses fantasized about a future in which we would appreciate nature trails and waterfronts through our windshields. But our relationship to cars has evolved. Many still use them as an essential mode of transit, but growing numbers have instead embraced bicycles, mass transit, or our own two feet.
Yet those in Bay Ridge, for example, looking to stroll along the shoreline must also walk alongside the Belt Parkway, a redundant strip of highway that offers motorists a nice view of Staten Island, but diminishes the harborfront experience for joggers, cyclists and ramblers. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, with the BQE rumbling underneath it, has a similar defect. There ought to be places in the city where serenity remains unspoiled—where we can go to escape from cars, and noise, and exhaust pipes. If Prospect Park were closed to cars, drivers could still easily get from Point A to Point B. It might make their trips a little longer, but in 21st-century New York that just ought to be the price of driving.
“Much the way [cars] took over New York City’s streets in the early 20th century, it just became accepted that drivers should have access [to our parks],” McClure tells us. “It’s time for that to change.”
Park Slope Neighbors proposes a three-month moratorium on automobile traffic to the park this summer to study the effects. “If it causes unforeseen problems, we can revert to the norm,” McClure says. But “if those cars don’t add a burden outside the park’s borders, then it’ll be a huge improvement for the millions of people who use Prospect Park for leisure and exercise.”