Say Goodbye to Cars in Central Park

The last private car entered the park at 7 p.m. last night, culminating half a century of advocacy.

Photo: Erwin Figueroa
Photo: Erwin Figueroa

As the clock struck 7 p.m. last night, the final private car to roll through Central Park entered the park’s Center Drive from Sixth Avenue, culminating more than a half-century of car-free park advocacy.

Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White drove a forest green Ford Mustang at walking speed, followed by a parade of city officials and residents who’d come out to celebrate.

The last private car allowed in Central Park. Photo: David Meyer
The last private car allowed in Central Park. Photo: David Meyer

For two generations before this final celebration, New Yorkers won many incremental victories in the campaign to get cars out of Central Park. TransAlt co-founder Barry Benepe led the first demonstrations for a car-free Central Park way back in 1966. At the time, cars were allowed on the park loop 24/7. Those early actions got the Lindsay administration to rollback cars in the park on summer Sundays.

Benepe was on hand yesterday to savor the conclusion to 52 years of advocacy.

Car-free Central Park was a signature issue and organizing goal for the nascent Transportation Alternatives, which was founded in 1973. After progress stagnated during the eighties, a revived TransAlt mounted huge campaigns to get cars out of Central Park and Prospect Park starting in the early nineties.

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Essential to this advocacy was Ken Coughlin, who started volunteering with TransAlt in 1992. In 2005, Coughlin and other volunteers collected more than 100,000 signatures in support of making Central Park car-free. And in 2011, he led an effort to get nearly every community board in Manhattan to endorse a car-free park.

In response to this pressure, a succession of mayors made a series of incremental changes to reduce the presence of cars in the park — expanding car-free hours, closing off park entrances to cars, lowering the speed limit on the park loop, reducing the number of lanes for car traffic. Most recently, in 2015, the de Blasio administration permanently prohibited cars above 72nd Street.

The predictions of carmageddon on nearby streets never materialized. And over time, the number of cars in the park dwindled, from a peak of 2,500 per hour in 1991 to just 350 northbound and 500 southbound in 2018, according to DOT.

Until last night, drivers were still allowed on weekdays on the West Drive and Terrace Drive southbound from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and on the Center Drive northbound from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Earth Day this year, Mayor de Blasio announced the park would go car-free forever.

At yesterday’s celebration, Coughlin put the long campaign for a car-free Central Park in perspective.

“In 1906, there was a letter-writer to the New York Times, who was complaining about the cars that had just been in the park for the last seven years, and said they’re ugly, noisy, and evil-smelling, and where can we look for a remedy? And now we have our answer 112 years later: Mayor de Blasio,” he said. “This feels very unreal to me that this is finally happening.”

Photo: David Meyer
Ken Coughlin at the mic with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, Transportation Commission Polly Trottenberg, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, and TransAlt co-founder and original car-free Central Park activist Barry Benepe (in the white sweater). Photo: David Meyer
  • Jeff

    Has Streetsblog considered a recurring feature on the history of the livable streets movement? I’d love to learn more about the history of the Koch-era protected bike lanes, the midtown bike ban, cars in the parks, bike/ped access to east river bridges, etc., and the activism surrounding it all.

  • Maggie

    So great. Thanks to everyone who made this happen!!

    I feel really unsafe jogging and biking around the box truck that drops off and picks up the food carts from locations around the loop road. Whether by converting the food carts to electric-assisted tricycles or something else, I really would like to see the conservancy and DOT come up with a quick solution where thousands of people don’t have to ruin their Central Park jogs by dodging that massive, disgusting, pollution-belching truck every day.

  • Komanoff

    Sounds like you’re ready to read “The Bicycle Uprising,” my 5-part series posted on Streetsblog in Aug-Sept 2012 that recounted the activism that defeated the 1987 NYC Midtown Bike Ban and energized cycling advocacy from the late 1980s into the 2000s. It’s got vintage photos, posters and covers from Transportation Alternatives’ “City Cyclist” newsletter. Link: http://www.komanoff.net/bicycle/Bicycle_Uprising.pdf

  • AMH

    And I hope our peaceful evening jogs/rides likewise won’t be ruined by cars illegally speeding up the East Drive (which was supposed to be car-free already). Having a space be ostensibly/mostly “car-free” makes it that much more dangerous when a motor vehicle comes blasting through.

  • KeNYC2030

    Fittingly, or eerily, the last car to exit the park was a 1966 Ford Mustang. The driver was immediately stuck in a traffic jam on Fifth Avenue and as of this morning had only made it as far as 60th St.

  • Scott Voolker

    Fantastic news! And thanks to all those who tirelessly advocated for this positive development.

  • Mike

    It’s a start, but there are plenty of streets and other public places that still need to go car free.

  • AMH

    I love that the driver is responsibly wearing a helmet. Many drivers could learn from his example.

  • Linda

    You can’t even once mention Time’s Up! and their many years of pushing car free rides and keeping the issue on the burner?

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