End Central Park Road Rage: Keep Cars Out

central_park_traffic.jpgThe Central Park loop drive was never meant for traffic. Photo: Frodrig/Flickr

The city’s ongoing effort to have it both ways in Central Park resulted in another near-tragedy last week.

Brian Dooda was riding his bike in the park when he got into an altercation with the driver of an SUV. It seems Dooda was not riding in the "recreational lane" that the city has thoughtfully provided for those who have the quaint notion that Central Park is a place to escape the urban din. Instead, Dooda was out in one of the traffic lanes, "keeping a steady pace of 25 mph" as he later reported on the New York Cycle Club’s message board.

Going the legal speed limit in Central Park apparently wasn’t good enough for the SUV driver, who shared his displeasure with Dooda by cutting across his path, reportedly missing Dooda’s front wheel by inches. Dooda caught up to the driver at a light. What allegedly unfolded is vividly described on Dooda’s NYCC post, but in abbreviated form Dooda says the driver intentionally drove into him twice, with Dooda ending up on the car’s hood and being driven some 200 feet while pleading for his life. Dooda says he finally fell off, essentially unharmed, and the driver sped away. There were witnesses, the license plate number was taken down, and Dooda has filed a report with the police.

Accounts of the incident on Gothamist and Gawker have elicited the usual quotient of "all cyclists deserve to die because a messenger hit me once" comments. Others piled on with their own "I told you so’s" following the revelation that the SUV driver was a Fox News writer named Don Broderick (who apparently is using the "he hit me first" defense).

But all this finger-pointing and name-calling misses a larger issue. As most of us know, recreational users of Central Park have been unhappily sharing the park’s loop road with car traffic for decades. This was the road that the park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, intended to be an integral part of the park experience and to never serve as a traffic thoroughfare. They won the competition to design Central Park precisely because they devised an ingenious way of allowing traffic to cross the park unnoticed via the four transverses.

Over the years, Central Park’s recreational users have clawed back much car-free time, literally hour by hour. But as someone who has spent thousands of hours out on the loop road, I can report that clashes between drivers and park-goers — ranging from horn honking to curses to threats — occur with unsurprising frequency. The Dooda-Broderick incident made it beyond the park’s boundaries only because of the egregiousness of Broderick’s alleged actions. It stands as the latest stark reminder that Central Park’s loop road cannot be both a refuge and a commuting corridor.

The city administration is boldly closing roads ranging from Park Avenue to Broadway to fulfill Mayor Bloomberg’s vision of a "greener, greater New York City," but it still clings to the myth that cars must invade Manhattan’s original green road, one that was never meant for traffic in the first place.

Sources within City Hall say that potential spillover traffic in Harlem is the only thing standing between New Yorkers and a car-free park. In fact, Harlem is the neighborhood that has the most to gain from a car-free park. A 2007 Transportation Alternatives study found that 57 percent of private car traffic using the park’s northern entrances originates outside of Harlem. Closing the park to traffic would remove hundreds of cars from Harlem’s streets and reduce tailpipe emissions in the neighborhood by about 3,240 pounds each day.

Until officials summon the small measure of political will needed to return the loop road to its rightful users, it will continue to be a contested street to which both drivers and park users believe they have a righteous claim. And the next Brian Dooda may not be so lucky.

  • Gwin

    This story – and the ensuing ignorant comments on Gothamist – sickens me. I don’t care about the Fox News angle, but it always stuns me how horrible people in cars can be, and how the average person decides to side with them simply because they had a run-in with one inconsiderate cyclist.

    Listen up, people: pedestrians and cyclists should be on the same side! There are so many driving in this city who shouldn’t be — because they have road rage issues — or who needn’t be, thanks to the vast public transportation resources we have…

  • Chris

    The writer of this post read my mind after I heard about this incident. In fact, I would gladly trade some of the new plaza area in Times Square to have Central Park be a park, not an expressway. It’s pretty unbelievable that the one large park space in central Manhattan has been engineered to provide maximum terror to recreational users during prime periods of the day for recreation.

  • doo

    Don’t forget about Prospect Park. It’s the same story. Cars drive violently, while the restricted space causes squeezed-in pedestrians and cyclists to fight over inches. Overall, the atmosphere becomes hostile and unpleasant for everyone during those hours.

  • New Yorkers also stand to benefit from car-free parks in another way: they’d have an exhaust-free backyard for their kids to play in without fear of them getting hit by a car. With parks in short supply and with the wealthy able to send their children to New England summer camps, it seems unjust that the two places with wide open spaces in NYC — Central and Prospect Parks — have to be expressways for so many hours of the day.

    As for the Gothamist commenters, they are unbelievably predictable. If you want a post to have 50 or more comments within hours, simply write something about bicycles or Park Slope strollers and — voila! — the trolls will come out from under their bridges.

  • Bill from Brooklyn

    There are two distinct issues involved in this horrible event. First, even if you take Brian Dooda’s actions in the worst challenging potential context, how can someone in an SUV not only move deliberately towards a bicyclist, but actually hit him twice, and on the second time drag him on the hood of his vehicle. Hopefully, Mr. Dooda will retain a good civil attorney to not only go after him for the automotive “accident”, but for the deliberate assault. This is one of the rare instances, where based upon the facts as presented, I believe punitive damages are totally appropriate.

    Second, and more importantly from a public policy basis, it is just further proof of why cars don’t belong on the loops in Central Park or Prospect Park at anytime for any purpose.

  • Boris

    The designers of the huge new park on top of the old Fresh Kills dump in Staten Island (to be completed in 30 years) have thoughtfully provided for a few such “recreational drives” for that .0001% of us who will still be driving for fun in 2039. Huge fields of parking are also in the works. Bad old ideas die hard.

  • I remember my first walk through Central Park when I moved here around a decade ago. I entered at 57th Street and walked north, and I remember being rather surprised at having to dodge heavy traffic at that first “drive”. Needless to say, the park-like atmosphere is quite ruined when you can’t walk a few hundred feet without coming across one of these “drives”.

  • Gawker really invited the kind of anti-biking response with the horrible photo illustration of a cyclist on the Central Park transverse. Pro cycling readers on Bike Forum’s Safety and Advocacy forum didn’t even believe it was a real news story, until mainstream media picked up on the story, because of the way in which Gawker and Gothamist reported it.

    That said, Central Park has become far too popular among runners, cyclists, skaters, pedestrians, parents with strollers, dog walkers, and meandering tourists to expect these users to confine their activities to one or two recreational lanes. This situation is only compounded by the lack of pedestrian paths along the drive in the northern section of the park. How many times have we had to avoid children walking or playing in the roadway near Lasker Rink because of the lack of pedestrian space?

    If we can have a car-free Broadway, one leg in the so-called “Crossroads of the World” then why cant the City’s premiere parks, Central Park and Prospect Park, be car-free as well?

  • Cephas

    It’s time for cyclists to take back the roads in the park a la Rosa Parks. Why can’t cyclists – and pedestrians for that matter – simply take to using all the lanes in the park. If the cars don’t like it, let them fume. I have the feeling that not many will risk murder sentences to gain ten minutes. Then again, I could all too easily be wrong…

  • BicyclesOnly

    Next step in the painfully incremental path to a car-free Central Park should be a lane reduction for the cars down to one.

  • BTW this should also serve as a lesson to never cite Gothamist or Gawker as a legitimate news source again. To me they’re no netter than the National Enquirer

    \

  • Reducing the number of traffic lanes would seem like a good idea but.. how many times have we seen cars ‘step out over the line’ in the southern end of the park whenever they become impatient with hansom cabs? To make matters worse, these cars rarely yield to runners or cyclists as they swerve into the recreational lanes. Cutting down on the number of lanes available to cars will probably only prompt them to use the same lanes, illegally.

    I’ve also noticed a fair number of yellow cabs picking up and dropping off fares in Central Park. Cruising for fares within the park certainly should be illegal – if it isn’t already.

  • Do we have to wait for a cyclist / pedestrian / jogger to be killed by traffic on the loop road before Central Park is made car-free? Apparently 100,000 signatures on the car-free petition weren’t enough to sway our politicians. So what’s it going to take?

  • Tila, it’s going to take more of the same organizing and petitioning EVEN IF a driver kills someone there.

  • Doug

    One lane with bollards. From a car’s perspective, one lane is much much less than 2. Boy would I love to see that.

    It always irks me to see people on the drive on the weekend. Most seem to think that if they put their blinkers on they’re not bothering anyone. However, I often adjust my plans to avoid Central Park during the hours when the drive is open.

    Isn’t it obvious that when you have reduced hours on the drive to a pathetic 3 or 4 hours a day that it’s not helping anyone to keep it open at all?

  • MB

    What people in cars and SUVs dont seem to care to understand is that one ‘tap’ of a bicylce or motorcycle or, worse, a pedestrian, can murder someone. There is no justification for using or threatening to use a car/SUV as a weapon, yet that is what these drivers do. Perhaps what is needed is a law that treats these vehicles as weapons when used to manifest road rage, which would rank that action along with other forms of attempted murder.

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