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 more elbow room.

Officials and advocates celebrated the permanent expansion of the park’s car-free zone under sunny skies this morning. While traffic is still allowed in the heavily-used southern section of Central Park, today’s ceremony marks a big step on the path to completely car-free parks.

“This is a great day in Central Park,” said Douglas Blonsky, president and CEO of the Central Park Conservancy. “The conservancy for 35 years has been fighting to get cars out of the park and to see this happen is awesome.”

The changes, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this month, build upon the gradual expansion of car-free hours that advocates have fought for since the 1960s, when the loop was overrun by traffic at all hours, every day.

Effective today, the Central Park loop north of 72nd Street is permanently car-free, except for emergency and service vehicles [PDF]. In Prospect Park, the West Drive will go car-free next Monday, July 6 [PDF]. Traffic will continue to be allowed at various hours on the Central Park loop south of 72nd Street, and during morning rush hour on the East Drive in Prospect Park.

“It’s terrific that we’re getting cars out of the park for the north side of the loop,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who co-sponsored car-free parks legislation with Council Member Mark Levine before the de Blasio administration took up the issue earlier this year. “I think we have a little bit of work to do to get [cars] out of the south side. I think that’s where the challenge really is. So we have some good work ahead of us to get that done.”

The park is most crowded south of 72nd Street. That area, where the loop widens from one car lane to two, also has the highest levels of motor vehicle traffic, said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. She hopes the new car-free zones will further reduce traffic and tee up a completely car-free park.

“What we’ve found over time as we’ve closed more and more entrances in the park, the traffic volumes have gone down,” she said this morning near 92nd Street. “We all hope that at some point in the not-too-distant future, we will have a press conference 20 blocks south of here.”

Supporters of car-free parks are going to keep the pressure on. “Allowing cars in the park is actually increasing congestion in the city,” said Manhattan Community Board 7 member and longtime car-free park advocate Ken Coughlin. “It’s drawing cars to Midtown like a magnet, and encouraging driving, which is the last thing we need to do. So we need to continue the fight to eliminate cars on the south loop.”

With cars out of big chunks of Central Park and Prospect Parks, the city’s traffic lights make less sense. Other interventions stand a better chance of reducing conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists, but don’t count on the city changing the current set-up.

“The lights will remain. Bicycles should be stopping at the light,” said Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. “The goal now is to ensure now that bicyclists use the park safely so there are no pedestrian-bicycle conflicts.”

“We’ve got to make sure everybody stops at the traffic lights when you’re riding a bike,” Blonsky said. “That’s the next thing we’ve got to do.”

Meanwhile, the car-free parks plan includes a significant transit improvement. To keep any spillover traffic from slowing down southbound buses, DOT is extending the Fifth Avenue bus lane, which carries 74,000 riders each day, north from 86th Street to 110th Street. Trottenberg said the bus lane will be installed “by the end of the summer.”

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