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Car-Free Parks

CB 8 Votes For Car-Free Park Trial, Declares All Cyclists Scofflaws

Manhattan Community Board 8 voted Wednesday night in favor of a car-free Central Park trial this summer, joining an increasingly long list of community boards in support of the proposal. My unofficial tally of the roll call had the final vote at 36-8 in favor.

The car-free park trial has picked up committee votes at no fewer than seven community boards, as well as full board votes from CB 7, CB 5, and CB 9 (we'll have more on the CB 9 vote later today). So far, the proposal seems to be on track to pick up an overwhelming show of public support from the districts surrounding the park, which will be needed to have a shot at overcoming Mayor Bloomberg's opposition.

The CB 8 vote, which comes from a district bordering the park on the Upper East Side, is notable because the board has reverted to displaying one of the more virulently anti-bike stances in the city, and any proposal perceived to benefit cyclists must overcome a certain level of ingrained resistance.

Board member Michelle Birnbaum is probably the most consistently vocal opponent of bike and pedestrian improvements on CB 8. At a recent transportation committee meeting, she objected to the installation of marked crosswalks and pedestrian signals at an approach to the East River esplanade that crosses underneath the FDR Drive at 96th Street, saying that devices like advance-stop bars would cause traffic to back up too far on the highway service road, and that the city can't put "plazas and umbrellas" everywhere.

Birnbaum was the only CB 8 member to speak against the car-free park proposal Wednesday night, which was introduced by transportation committee co-chair Jonathan Horn as "another proposal about Central Park and bicycles," following the board's vote against shared bike-ped paths across the park (more on that below).

Some highlights from Birnbaum's unsuccessful attempt to sway the board against the car-free trial:

    • She dismissed the 100,000 signatures gathered in favor of a permanently car-free park between 2000 and 2005, which car-free park advocate Ken Coughlin mentioned at a recent committee meeting. "They neglected to mention that the 100,000 signatures were being gathered since 2003, which preceded the current car-free hours," she said, asserting that collecting so many signatures is easy if you stand on the loop drive and flag down cyclists. Birnbaum neglected to mention that all those signatures were in favor of a permanent, 24/7 car-free Central Park, and that the people who collected them will tell you that the vast majority came from pedestrians, who are much more likely to stop and sign something than cyclists.
    • The lengthening of the car-free hours in the park in recent years "has been devastating to traffic," she said, citing no evidence.
    • Birnbaum believes "it's important that there's a quick way for traffic to cut through local streets."
    • "The philosophy [behind the car-free park proposal] is based on a Danish engineer who believes that if you eliminate roadways, you eliminate cars. I don't buy that philosophy," she said. In reality there is a wealth of empirical evidence that people consolidate trips, shift to different modes, and otherwise alter their behavior in response to reductions in road space, and it doesn't come from Copenhagen and Jan Gehl.

While those arguments were unpersuasive to most board members Wednesday night, the full board did sign on to a rather virulent declaration of anti-cyclist sentiment, passing a motion opposed to the establishment of shared bike-ped paths across Central Park.

The Central Park Conservancy has been working on a plan to establish four east-west routes that would give cyclists a safe and legal path across the park. While the two routes that the Conservancy is currently considering do not border CB 8, the board took it upon themselves to forcefully denounce the idea of demarcating shared crosstown bike-ped paths inside the park.

The resolution, which took a few minutes for board member Elizabeth Ashby to finish reading aloud, is essentially a lengthy condemnation of people who bike in Central Park. (Sample clause: "Whereas virtually all bicyclists ignore the laws, rules, and regulations in Central Park.") The full board passed it 33-10 by my unofficial tally. Streetsblog has a request in with CB 8 for the official text of the resolution.

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