Flashback Friday: TA’s 1997 Car-Free Park/Earth Day Ride (With Chants!)

After news broke that the east and west drives of Central Park will be car-free for two months this summer, this seemed like a fitting installment from the vault of Clarence Eckerson this week: The Transportation Alternatives 1997 Earth Day ride, which held up the goal of a car-free park Central Park as a symbol of environmentally-friendly transportation policies.

New Yorkers have been demonstrating for a car-free Central Park at least since 1966, when Ed Koch rode in a horse-drawn carriage, leading what the Times called a “heterogenous throng” of cyclists calling to get cars of the park. At the time, drivers had unrestricted access to the park drives — all day, every day. But later that spring the city enacted car-free hours on summer weekends, the first roll-back of automobile incursion into the park since cars were first allowed in 1899.

Many more demonstrations would follow, as did expansions of car-free hours. The 24/7 car-free zone in Central Park north of 72nd Street this summer wouldn’t have happened without all the activism of the last 50-plus years. With traffic still allowed during rush hours most of the year, not to mention the south end of the park this summer, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last car-free Central Park demonstration.

This ride also went over the Queensboro Bridge, where pedestrians and cyclists still did not have a full-time dedicated path. With the city letting motorists use the North Outer Roadway, bike commuters had to stop and board a shuttle bus to get over the bridge on the evening ride home. The 1997 action was part of a long fight for access that advocates won a few years later. Young Clarence had yet to master Streetfilms logistics, however, and that part of the ride is lost to history.

  • Stephen Bauman

    The fight for 24/7 bike/ped access on the Queensboro Bridge was won around 1979. The problem was that the bridge was falling apart and had to be rebuilt. That process started around 1982 and continued for about 20 years. There was no engineering solution that would permit continued bike/ped access during reconstruction – unlike the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Two means were used to provide alternate access during this period. One was the bike shuttle mentioned in the article. The second was getting the MTA to permit cyclists to use the subway between the Queensboro Plaza and Lexington Avenue stations. Bikes were not allowed in the subway (without special permit) before this time.

    Everyone concerned knew that cyclists would extend their trip beyond these two stations. They winked at the provision. There was no enforcement to contain the cyclists. The success of this program led the MTA to permit bikes on the subways at all times. Any operational objections they might have had was contradicted by this program.

    The bridge reconstruction was finally completed around 2002. The bike/ped lane was placed back in service on a 24/7 basis. The only controversy was whether it should be on the north or south side. Both had been used before reconstruction. At one time it even alternated by the time of day. The north side was chosen so that more lanes would be leaving Manhattan than entering it.

  • Steve Faust

    1966’s park decision included both Ed Koch, before he became congressman, and Mayor John Lindsay. Lindsay wanted to ride his bike car free in the park, and ordered car free hours weekends and Tuesday nights. Both were critical.

  • Daphna

    In reading the NYTimes article about car-free Central Park summer (linked to in the today’s headlines section) I learned that Bloomberg restricted car hours in Central Park and in Prospect Park in 2006. I did not realize the implementation of those restricted hours were so recent and were a Bloomberg accomplishment. In Central Park, allowing southbound West Drive and 72nd Street traffic only 8-10am, and northbound East Drive traffic only 3-7pm, and northbound traffic up to 72nd Street 7am-7pm – all only on weekdays – was an improvement. Prospect Park has northbound traffic 7-9am and southbound traffic 5-7pm. The next improvement was when both parks had their car lanes reduced from two to one in 2012 (Feb. 2012 for Prospect Park and Oct. 2012 for Central Park). Now this two month closing of Central Park to cars north of 72nd Street is another good move. Good changes, but agonizingly slow progress.

  • Daphna

    The south outer roadway on the Queensboro bridge needs to be reclaimed from motorists and turned into a permanent pedestrian lane. Then the north outer roadway, which is too crowded as shared bike/ped, can be a bikeway.

    You mention that both the north and south outer roadways were used as dedicated bike/ped paths in the past, not at the same time, but alternating. Now it is time to use them both at the same time and permanently for bike/ped.

  • Stephen Bauman

    Both outer roadways were car free during the 1980 transit strike. The north side was pressed into service for pedestrians. The south side, which was normally car free, was used for bikes.

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    I remember riding the south outer roadway when I was a kid. Good times. Back then it had those metal grates and you can see all the way to the river, scared the hell out of me. I remember hearing why they switched to the north side back then.

    Now the CIty is thinking about exclusive bus lanes for the morning and evening rush. They should make the south outer roadway a bus lane for the evening rush from 4-6p, I think there’s enough clearance for it. And for the morning, the buses can use the HOV, I think they always have.

  • Daphna

    The south outer roadway needs to become a walkway so the north outer roadway can be a bikeway. Having the north outer roadway as shared bike/ped is too crowded. The Queensboro bridge does not need to suffer the same problems as the Brooklyn Bridge because there is an option for an easy addition of a second bike/ped lane – using the south outer roadway (which is perfect for bike/ped and has been dedicated to that at times in the past).

    Buses should get a dedicated lane but it should be one of the other vehicle lanes, not the south outer roadway.


Mayor de Blasio speaking at Grand Army Plaza this morning. Photo: David Meyer

Prospect Park Goes Car-Free Forever on January 2

Over the course of many years and several thousand volunteer hours - including massive petition campaigns in 2002 and 2008 - advocates were able to get DOT to gradually whittle down the times and places where cars were allowed in the park. The mayor's announcement today is the culmination of that steady advocacy and the incremental progress toward a car-free park.

Central Park Above 72nd Street Is Now Car-Free Forever

Last week, people walking and biking on the Central Park loop had to worry about taxi drivers and car commuters motoring through the park as a rush hour shortcut. This morning was different: Above 72nd Street, you could ride your bike, walk your dog, or go for a run on a safer, quieter path with a lot […]