Central Park Goes Car-Free Forever on June 27

The campaign for a car-free park has lasted more than half a century and involved thousands of people. Today's historic announcement by Mayor de Blasio belongs to all of them.

Mayor de Blasio at today's presser announcing that Central Park will soon be car-free. Photo: David Meyer
Mayor de Blasio at today's presser announcing that Central Park will soon be car-free. Photo: David Meyer

Central Park will go car-free forever on June 27, Mayor de Blasio announced today, the culmination of a campaign that has spanned seven mayoralties and more than 50 years.

“This park was not built for automobiles. It was built for people,” de Blasio said this morning. “People walking, people biking — that’s what this park will now be about.”

Central Park predates the automotive era, but as cars proliferated in the city, the oasis of the park became a shortcut for motor vehicle traffic. Motorists had unfettered access to the park’s loop roads until the 1960s, when activists first prevailed on City Hall to begin limiting the presence of automobiles.

Current Central Park roads
Where motor traffic is currently permitted in Central Park, before it goes car-free on June 27.

Currently, cars are permitted on the West Drive and Terrace Drive in the southbound direction from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays and on the Central Drive in the northbound direction from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

The most recent expansion of Central Park’s car-free zone came in 2015, when the de Blasio administration prohibited cars above 72nd Street.

There were many incremental improvements before that — extensions of car-free hours, restrictions on access points, narrowing of the right-of-way for motor vehicles. Traffic volumes have gradually fallen as those measures were put in place. In 1991, traffic peaked at 2,500 cars per hour on the Central Park loop roads. Today, the peak hour sees just 350 northbound vehicles and 500 southbound, according to DOT.

As with Prospect Park, which went fully car-free at the beginning of this year, the traffic nightmare predicted by opponents of a car-free park never materialized.

“It takes a few weeks, but people find new routes and blend into the grid,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

The campaign for a car-free Central Park has taken generations to reach this point. No one has worked harder for it than Ken Coughlin, the leading advocate for more than two decades.

“I’m at a loss for words because I’ve been looking forward to this day for 26 years,” he said. “None of the incremental closings, car restrictions, resulted in any additional traffic on surrounding streets, and DOT had data to support that. It was just a matter of them believing their own statistics.”

Clarence Eckerson has been documenting the car-free Central Park campaign for as long as he’s been making Streetfilms. Here’s his review to mark this milestone.

The full history goes back to the 1960s, when civic leaders including future mayor Ed Koch and future NYC Greenmarket founder Barry Benepe led demonstrations against cars in Central Park. They won the first restrictions on motor traffic, with the Lindsay administration launching car-free summer Sundays in 1966.

Since 1979, Transportation Alternatives has campaigned to get cars out of Central Park. It’s always been an issue large numbers of New Yorkers feel strongly about. In the 1990s, TransAlt car-free park rallies turned out thousands of people. A 2005 petition drive gathered 100,000 signatures.

A few years ago, Coughlin led an effort that got nearly every community board in Manhattan to vote for a car-free park.

Today’s historic announcement belongs to everyone who, for the past half century, has worked on this campaign.

centralparkrally
Via Charles Komanoff
  • This is a great victory. But it not necessarily “forever”. There would be nothing stopping a future mayor from reversing this decision.

    Even the current mayor would reverse it if his bosses in the police department were to tell him to.

  • It’s forever.

  • KeNYC2030

    Dare I say “mission accomplished”?

  • Oh? Do you mean that the next mayor can’t decide to allow cars in the park?

  • The next mayor can certainly propose it, but just like what happened when Bratton and de Blasio floated the idea of reopening Times Square to cars, it will go over like a lead ballon.

  • You will never be able to reintroduce cars into Central Park now. It’s a non-starter. Every group would go against it. The Conservancy, TransAlt, Cycle Clubs, NYRR, parents groups, athletic clubs, hospitals, the list would be 100s of groups long. No mayor would be dumb enough to try it. Okay, maybe Trump might try it but even he would probably lose.

  • I certainly hope that’s the case.

    Still, it’s hard for me to conclude that the reversal of this decision will be impossible for all time to come. We’ll eventually have a mayor who is openly anti-bicylist, or perhaps one who will not use inflammatory language but will frame the removal of some bike infrastructure in terms of “balance” or some such nonsense. And, as we have seen from the recent abandonments on the part of Van Bramer and Rodriguez, bicyclists have no friends in the Council other than Reynoso.

    Maybe the thing to do is to push for the removal of the stoplights in the park, in order to erect a serious obstacle to the reintroduction of cars.

    Anyway, we can enjoy this victory. Thanks to you for your role in pushing the debate to where it is now.

  • Orcutt

    Man the people interviewed in the film are 14 years older today…..

  • Vooch

    Only serfs will not be able to drive in the park. Members of the tax feeding classes will drive blissfully unaware the rules have changed

  • Dr. Bones

    Next step, two way bike lanes?

  • You are absolutely correct. The traffic lights need to be stripped out – or at the very least turned off. There needs to be a redesign of the roadway and more painting/striping so that modes feel even more comfortable. As we all know on a busy summer day the roadway is now insanely busy. I love running, biking and sauntering in the park but the emphasis now should be on how to accommodate everyone better, not writing red light tickets.

  • And the little kid at the end is probably finishing high school!

  • Joe R.

    I was about to say the same thing about removing the traffic lights. Once they’re gone, reintroducing cars would cost serious money, and therefore any opposition to doing so will be even stronger.

  • Eli

    If only they could get rid of the horses (or at least the horsepoop).

  • jeff

    Finally! It’s mind boggling and sad that this absolute no-brainer move took so long, but better late than never. Mayor de Blasio deserves some credit – thank you.

  • kevd

    they’ll keep the loop one way, with a car lane for parks vehicles, NYPD patrols, and those well connected enough to not have to follow the law, just as they did in Prospect Park.

  • kevd

    In prospect park this would be feasible 7 months a year, on weekdays.
    But days like today, there are just too many people on the loop.
    Its even more crowded in Central Park.

    An alternate solution? first – PBLs around the park for those traveling clockwise. Very few turning conflicts for them as they’d be on the park side of 5th, 59th, CPW and 110th. second – making the loop open to cyclists 24 hours a day. And if “safety concerns” prevent that, make the external PBLs bi-directional like on PPW.

  • Guest

    While this is wonderful news, there are still plenty of cars in the park: deliveries, employees, cops, emergency vehicles. Once when cycling at a brisk pace, I decided to see what would happen if I stayed in the “car lanes” north of 72nd Street. Sure enough, before long I got honked at by a truck-driving vendor who wanted to get past. While the cops will obviously do whatever they feel like, the CPC needs to require other drivers to go at cycling speed or lower. Long term the park roads need to get different pavements.

  • Dr. Bones

    What are PBLs? My main reason for wanting two way is that the one way contributes to making commuting across the park an exercise in frustration. I commute weekdays to the east side, to a school where i teach, and going there, I have to use the 86th street transept and watch trucks and buses speed by me with inches to spare. Going back, I can use the level part of the looop to get to where you can cross near 96th.

    But really, what is needed are more ways to cross the park safely and legally. It divides two vital parts of the city for several miles, has numerous citibike stations on both sides, and there is still only one place where you can actually cross from one side to the other side in the park, without walking part of the way.

    That’s crazy.

  • Guest

    Interesting idea, but would probably require an extraordinary reconstruction along 5th Avenue to build bus stop islands that worked well to manage interactions between transit passengers and cyclists. Given the location of the mature street trees, you would be taking space for the bike lane and the bus islands from the existing street bed. By the time you’re done, you could only have a transit/bike street, with no space left for general car traffic. Making those UES residents fronting on the park go around the corner and get a less direct cab ride downtown may be a heavy lift.

  • kevd

    PBL = protected bike lane

    why can’t we have bike lanes on the tranverses too? I’ve ridden on a couple of them, and they are pretty treacherous.

  • kevd

    I haven’t been along 5th avenue in a long time, so i’ll certainly defer to you on that. last time I rode down 5th there were no bus islands. I didn’t even realize they were there.

  • Andrew

    There are no bus islands, but there’s a very high volume of bus traffic. Bus islands would be needed to accommodate both a bike lane and bus riders.

  • Andrew

    They’re barely wide enough for the lanes they already have, which have to be wide enough to handle buses (some of the busiest bus lines, per mile, in the city). There’s nowhere to put bike lanes – the existing sidewalks are already insanely narrow.

  • Vooch

    on 5th just follow the model of all other avenues, convert the left curbside to a PBL.

    Drivers can chose what to do with the 28’ of roadway allocated to the exclusive use ; either 2 motor lanes or 1 motor lane and 1 storage lane

    Drivers would still have 60% of the roadway dedicated to their use

  • Dr. Bones

    agreed
    not enough room in those transverses
    in places, they are even too narrow for sidewalks
    5th avenue bike lane would probably leave a single lane of traffic for cars,,, and it’s a consistently busy street in my experience
    & someone once spat on me there for crossing with the walk light into the 72nd street bike lane

    I doubt the locals would be supportive , they might form spit gauntlets

    I still feel a two way bike lane in the park ultimately is doable—-so much room

    and creating a few more real bike paths across the park will be tricky but all of the alternatives seem by comparison nearly impossible

    perhaps open up certain sections to two way bike traffic as a start where it is needed to make a crossing of the park possible

  • kevd

    Yeah, I don’t really go to midtown or uptown.
    So I don’t know what’s up with those street configurations.
    I do know how much better PPW is with a two way PBL, and wish the less rich sides of Prospect Park could get some of that shit, too.
    Central park is someone else’s problem.

  • AMH

    I was disappointed to see the highway-style lane striping renewed just this spring in the north end of the park. It should all be shared space, reinforcing that any vehicles need to defer to park users.

  • AMH

    Those “car lanes” need to go. The park drives are for park users now.

  • snrvlakk

    If the city gets rid of the traffic lights, how do pedestrians–think little kids and little old ladies with walkers–cross the roadways with the cyclists and skateboarders whizzing by?

  • There would still be crosswalks, but with stop signs that would require cyclists to stop if pedestrians were present.

  • snrvlakk

    When I was involved with this (back in the 80’s & 90’s) every effort to restrict auto access to the Park drives was bitterly and very effectively opposed by the yellow cab industry and their lobbyists. I wonder if the recent problems in that industry have resulted in less opposition or less effective opposition.

  • David Day

    Tear out the roads. That’s the only way.

  • Andrew

    Yeah, I don’t really go to midtown or above.
    So I don’t know what’s up with those roads.

    Then here’s a Manhattan bus map, for your reference: http://web.mta.info/nyct/maps/manbus.pdf

    Also see the express bus inset in the lower right-hand corner of the Bronx bus map, since Bronx express buses aren’t shown on the main Manhattan map: http://web.mta.info/nyct/maps/busbx2.pdf

    All of these bus stops are on the park side of the street, unlike on Prospect Park West, whose bus stops (where it has bus traffic at all) are on the opposite side of the street.

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