Not-So-Car-Free: Drivers Still Reign In Supposedly Auto-Less Parks

The Central Park Conservancy seeks public comment this Thursday about motor vehicles in the green space.

A car in Central Park, pictured last week -- more than three months since the park went "car-free." Photo courtesy Bill Amstutz, used with permission
A car in Central Park, pictured last week -- more than three months since the park went "car-free." Photo courtesy Bill Amstutz, used with permission

Car-free Central Park is anything but.

Three months after city officials hailed a new era for pedestrians and cyclists to be safe from 2,000-pound vehicles, the city has authorized a long list of drivers who can still motor through the park — and do so all day and night, fraying the nerves of park users.

“It’s only a matter of time whether something happens when somebody gets injured,” said Upper West Side cycling activist Willow Stelzer.

Drivers once had unfettered access to the park roadways, but the city scaled back those hours after a concerted, 50-year push by advocates, first banning cars above 72nd Street in 2015, and then, this year, closing off the rest of the greensward.

The goal was to give cyclists, pedestrians, joggers and birders additional space on the crowded drives. But regular park-goers say that hasn’t happened. One lane continues to be used by city employees and other drivers, who insist that pedestrians and cyclists get out of their way — often at unsafe speeds.

And often, these drivers are going the wrong way on the counter-clockwise loop (see below).

The continued presence of cars on the Central Park drives narrows the path for park-goers. Photos: Mark Gorton
After (left) and before: Police cars on the Central Park drives — pictured here going against traffic — mean less space for bikers and joggers. Photos: Mark Gorton

The continued presence of cars in the parks isn’t just a nuisance, it’s dangerous. By maintaining the right-hand lane for cars, park management is effectively limiting the amount of space for growing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists. Stelzer said she has seen Central Park Conservancy vehicles bully tourists and park-goers out of the lane, turning peaceful walks into mad scrambles. Speeding NYPD cruisers are a regular occurrence, often against the direction of traffic.

“People who are enjoying the park don’t expect to see them, and I think they don’t expect that the right-hand lane is actually where cars will be,” Stelzer said. “It happens so suddenly.”

Most of the cars in the park are city-owned, but not all. Many are bound for Parks and NYPD staff parking lots within the park.

“I’ve noticed lots of private cars,” said East Sider Albert Ahronheim. “Either parks employees or police unmarked cars or something.”

When asked why there are so many cars in a supposedly car-free park, the Parks Department gave Streetsblog its extensive list of cars that are exempted from the rules — a form of placard abuse that includes:

  • NYC Parks, Prospect Park Alliance and Central Park Conservancy vehicles used by staff in the course of maintaining and operating Central Park.
  • Commercial vehicles authorized by Parks to provide delivery, garbage pickup, recycling pickup, landscaping, construction, or maintenance services pertaining to the maintenance and operation of Central Park and activities related to Parks concession spaces and special events.
  • Personal vehicles with a permit from Parks or a permit approved by Parks from a licensed Parks concessionaire to access Central Park to provide services pertaining to the maintenance and operation of Central Park and its concessions spaces and special events.
  • Vehicles approved by Parks to facilitate access to Central Park for individuals with disabilities.

That list did not specifically mention NYPD vehicles or, more important, vehicles driven by NYPD employees, who are also allowed to drive into the park. The “Bridle Path” below the reservoir is littered with both patrol vehicles and placard-wielding personal cars:

Is this a park path or a parking lot? NYPD seems to have decided for us. Photo: David Meyer
Is this a park path or a parking lot? NYPD seems to have decided for us. Photo: David Meyer

“The officers need to get work. Obviously, they need to use the park to get to work,” Detective Ahmed Nasser, an NYPD spokesperson, told Streetsblog. “They need police cars to patrol.”

It is unclear why. Police officers are no different from the millions of other workers who commute in and to New York City every day, the vast majority of them on public transit. And the Central Park Precinct is inarguably one of the safest in the city, with overall crime down 90 percent over the last 25 years. If any precinct could eliminate patrol cars in favor of cops on bikes or in smaller, Cushman-style vehicles, it is the Central Park Precinct.

“Getting on a bike would be the fastest and most efficient way to patrol Central Park, so it’s surprising to see police relying on cars,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesperson Joseph Cutrufo. “There’s not a lot of automobile traffic to patrol.”

A call to the precinct’s commanding officer, Captain Peter Andrea, was not returned. When I stopped by the station house, I was told to call the public information office.

Prospect Park, which went car-free about six months before Central Park, faces similar de-automobiling pains. But since the spring, fewer cars are entering the park, said Stanley Greenberg of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, who sits on the all-volunteer Prospect Park Community Council.

“When the big change came, it was pretty bad for a couple of months,” Greenberg said. “I think the word came down from NYPD that you can’t do this. Now, it’s mostly drips and drabs.”

The city also turned the Park Circle entrance into a pedestrian-priority “shared space,” with gravel epoxy. Work is now underway at the Grand Army Plaza entrance, but similar improvements are not currently planned for Central Park’s entrances, DOT spokesperson Alana Morales said.

Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives drove the last car out of Central Park — or did he? Photo: Ken Coughlin
Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives drove the last car out of Central Park — or did he? Photo: Ken Coughlin

Ahronheim, who joined the car-free Central Park campaign shortly after he moved to the neighborhood in 2000, has a list of proposals for the Manhattan park: remove traffic lights from the drives, allow cyclists and pedestrians to use the right-hand when emergency vehicles are not present, shift city employees to smaller vehicles, and more. Naturally, he’ll also be asking Parks and NYPD employees to leave their personal cars at home.

“I’ve always been distressed with how carelessly Parks employees drive their legal cars in the park,” he said. “In my opinion, they should not go any faster than bicyclists.”

The continued presence of cars in the park disappoints Ahronheim, who helped usher the last car out of the park with a car-free spin on the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”

“This will be the last car,” he sang on June 27. “How do we know? Bill de Blasio! Thank you, Mister Mayor!”

Last week, Ahronheim had changed his tune. “I was sadly premature,” he said.

This Thursday, October 11, the Central Park Conservancy will host a public “Recreation Roundtable” on the subject of “the demands and challenges of increased use on the Drive now that the Park is car-free.” The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at North Meadow Recreation Center, located mid-park at 97th Street.

Update (10/11/2018): The meeting has been postponed due to inclement weather.

  • djx

    I’ve had to drive in Central Park to bring in or remove materials for events, and the rules I/my organization have always applied to ourselves are to enter and exit in such a way that we’re on the park drives as little as possible. That is we enter at the last possible exit to do our business, and exist at the first possible exit.

    We wouldn’t enter at, say, Central Park North and drive all the way to bottom of the park because it’s faster than going down a regular avenue to get there. That should be illegal, and – though I doubt NYPD would enforce it.

    ““I’ve always been distressed with how carelessly Parks employees drive their legal cars in the park,”

    Well, according to NYPD five or so years ago, the speed limit for bikes as 15mph while for cars it was 25mph at the same time. They actually tried to enforce this. BARF

  • Emmily_Litella

    And yet Flushing Meadow park roads are signed 15 MPH, including the four laner between Tennis Center and Citi-Field. More and more motorists are discovering the various cut through routes. Rush hours are becoming quite treacherous throughout the park.

  • qrt145

    It’s not called the Bridal Path, but the Bridle Path. Maybe one sees more brides than horses on it nowadays, but that’s the name! 🙂

  • William Lawson

    Amazing, I had thought that the word “bridle” in association with a path was in most English speakers’ vocabularies.Or maybe it’s one of those words which people hear but have no idea that it’s spelled differently.

  • qrt145

    I go through the park multiple times a week. In my experience the parks and conservancy people do make a point of driving slowly, since I can mostly keep up with them on my bike and I’m not particularly fast.

    Police and garbage truck drivers are different story.

    I also have the impression that they let people drive to get to the parking lot at the Loeb Boathouse restaurant. The restaurant has a shuttle service, but I don’t encounter it all that often.

  • William Lawson

    Well of course entitled cops and city workers would spoil this historic era by burrowing their heads even deeper in the trough of placard abuse. And naturally these idiots think it’s still the 1970’s when you could tell a gullible public anything you like from your infallible position of “authority” and they would just believe it without question. Just tell them that you need the cars to do your work and remind them how important your work is – *city* work, not the aimless to-and-fro’ing that makes up the days of you unconnected peons. If they question you further, make them out to be enemies of the state, or “jealous” of your privileges, or communists or whatever. There are dirty, filthy, corrupt pieces of shit from the roots to the branches of this city.

  • Samuelitooooo

    “Commercial vehicles authorized by Parks to provide delivery, garbage pickup, recycling pickup, landscaping, construction, or maintenance services pertaining to the maintenance and operation of Central Park and activities related to Parks concession spaces and special events.”

    How many of these can be done by cargo bike?

  • Cars fly across Prospect Park’s Center Drive and up the hill toward Grand Army Plaza. It’s especially dangerous on Center Drive, as there are a lot of blind spots and runners and cyclists going in two directions. This is clearly a tragedy waiting to happen.

    Many of these cars have tinted windows, which leads me to think they’re personal cop cars heading to area precincts.

    Related: now that cars are out of both parks, maybe the city can rename the loops so that they’re not West Drive, East Drive, etc? West Loop, East Loop? How about it?

  • MWaring

    Even ATV’s and golf cart type vehicles would be better than whats currently happening

  • KeNYC2030

    It would be interesting to tally exactly how many vehicles have legal access to the Central Park’s loop road. It must be in the hundreds, and perhaps thousands.

  • MatthewEH

    The one I’ve been seeing lately that annoys me is NYPD School Safety vehicles on the west drive. Those people are clearly just using the drive as a shortcut. Comically so.

    Also, I find it annoying when pedestrians use the right-hand lane. Cyclists and rollerbladers need to use that space to enter and exit the loop, and in congested conditions as a passing area. People on foot out there add chaos.

  • Dr. Bones

    Last week I saw a group of 5 or so cops on bikes coming east out of the 86th street transept. They were, of course, riding on the crappy sidewalk,, all 5 of them because they know that its safer and that they won’t ticket themselves for it. I imagine they probably even ordered anyone walking on the narrow sidewalk to get out of their way, because that has been my experience with bicycle-riding cops—they don’t drop the “my way or the highway” attitude just because they lack a siren. In fact, maybe they feel they have to big up themselves because they feel so vulnerable without a real mobile. They rode right past a delivery cyclist who had crossed the park legally along with the buses and trucks.

    don’t have too much hope for bicycle cops providing a more person-friendly attitude, but please, prove me wrong.

  • Vooch

    Restaurant in Munich’s “Central Park” ( Englische Garten ) – no car parking, no way to even get there by car. There are quite a few restaurants and beer gardens in these extensive park – no cars ever.

    Its not complicated.

  • walks bikes drives

    I cross that transverse all the time and have seen groups of NYPD officers cycling along the sidewalk there too. But the one time I saw them cross paths with pedestrians on the transverse, they were nothing but courteous. Another time, there were only two and we all got stopped at CPW by the light and they struck up a conversation with me. Each time, I was crossing the park the legal way, on the road bed.

  • Dr. Bones

    That’s good to hear, the civility. But still, they are breaking the rules with impunity and we have to choose between being safe or being possibly ticketed. I wonder how often they issue tickets for riding on that poorly maintained sidewalk. The bike-riding cops obviously understand that this is an unsafe passage,

    I’ve also been stopped, politely, on that bridle path that is full of cop cars and trucks. They understand too, I am sure, that it’s ridiculous that bikes are not supposed to ride there when it is the only safe way to get across at that point and it is so full of holes and dips that you can’t go fast enough to endanger a soul, but they do seem to have instructions to tell people to walk their bikes there.

    the park needs to be integrated for bicyclists with the surrounding city like it is for drivers and walkers. that means giving us enough places and ways to get safely and legally across without having to walk at any point

  • walks bikes drives

    Personally, I stay off the bridle path because I really dont like riding on it. But the rules are there because it is a bridle path, and bicycles 1) can scare horses and 2) can erode and damage the cinder surface. Part 2, however, is lost with NYPD consistently driving on it.

  • Dr. Bones

    that’s understandable I guess, although horses are so rare these days as far as I know. And that path section I’m talking about is basically a parking lot for the NYPD.

  • “””
    “The officers need to get work. Obviously, they need to use the park to get to work,” Detective Ahmed Nasser, an NYPD spokesperson, told Streetsblog. “They need police cars to patrol.”
    “””

    Is this a real quote? From the actual police force? In NYC?

    That’s insane! Is that car oriented taken to the delusional level? Or just gaslighting? No way to tell.

    In other news, the one time I visited NYC, I went bike riding in Central Park because it was the only place I felt reasonably safe to do so. I still got bullied off the road by a parks vehicle. I wouldn’t visit again.

    Now, where I live, parks vehicles do occasionally use park paths, they generally proceed at walking pace and stop for oncoming pedestrians. They use the park during off peak times when this is reasonable.

  • Daisy’s World

    Okay, so you’re visiting New York for the first time and the work week for family members is ending. Anticipation begins to build. “Finally!” you gasp, the weekend is here and that means it’s time to hit the town for some New York City sightseeing. Everything is new and being an out-of-towner can seem a little intimidating when trying to hone in on what to do in a city that has more options than you can imagine.

    All of the worries have been lifted because little did you know, your family members already had a Central Park bike tour picked out, meaning the guesswork was lightened, but only a bit. You still need to get ready and figure out how to make the most of your Central Park bike tour. Calm down, our experts have put together a small cheat sheet to get you started. Take a deep breath and find peace in these easy to follow tips to turning your tour into the perfect NYC tour ever! http://www.daisylimo.com

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