Learning from NYC’s Car-Free Parks

As San Francisco ponders the future of JFK Drive and the Great Highway, New Yorkers say banishing cars from their parks was worth it.

The birds are chirping boldly, almost deafeningly. Somewhere in the distance, a jazz band is playing a bebop lick. Cyclists of all ages ride down the middle of the street. It’s a scene that until recently would have looked, and sounded, quite different.

In previous years, the birds, buskers, and bicyclists all would have been sharing the air and asphalt with a multitude of cars and all of their accompanying auditory and olfactory byproducts. But today, in the middle of this urban park, crammed inside one of the most densely populated cities in the country, cars are few and far between.

“When I see a car in a park, it feels jarring, it feels wrong,” said Sarika Dani, who was soaking up the sunshine on a recent weekday afternoon. 

Dani is not visiting Golden Gate Park, where JFK Drive was transformed into a car-free space at the beginning of the pandemic, but on West Drive in Central Park. This road, like nearly all of the roads in New York City’s Central and Prospect parks, has been completely car-free for the past three years. And hardly anyone, it seems, is looking back.

The long and winding paths New York City’s grand parks took on their way to becoming car-free islands in an urban sea of automobiles offers some illuminating context for the ongoing debates about JFK Drive and the Great Highway — another major street in a spectacular natural environment that banished cars in 2020. Judging from what I’ve learned here in New York — and what I know about my home of San Francisco — it’s clear that building support for car-free zones poses a significant political challenge, even in left-leaning, environmentally conscious coastal cities. But based upon what I’ve observed in both Central and Golden Gate parks, once these spaces are repurposed for people, they become a quieter, safer, and altogether more inviting refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Big Apples & Oranges 

Before I go on comparing New York and San Francisco, let me acknowledge that the two cities are, of course, different. New York is home to 8 million people, San Francisco’s population is just under 900,000. New York has a robust subway system, and San Francisco has a dinky one. New Yorkers are uptight and San Franciscans are laid back. 

But the two cities, and their people, also have their similarities. They are the two most densely populated big cities in America, and both regularly rank at the top of “best places to live car-free” lists. They both have long, skinny, beautiful principal parks — although, it must be noted, San Francisco’s is slightly larger. And if the Outer Sunset is, culturally speaking, becoming something like San Francisco’s Brooklyn, then, just for the hell of it, we can loosely analogize the Great Highway to Prospect Park.

Proceeding from this baseline analogy, let’s consider how New York City’s major parks went car-free — a story that begins around the time San Francisco kicked off its first car-free park experiments.

Both Golden Gate Park and Central Park saw their first Sunday closures to car traffic in the 1960s, following successful campaigns by environmentalist hippies. JFK Drive was closed for the first time in the summer of 1967, also known as the Summer of Love. One of the hippies living in San Francisco around that time was a New Yorker named Sam Schwartz. While he was not actively involved in car-free street activism during his California days, he would go on to become a major force behind New York City’s far more successful movement to banish cars from its parks.  

Schwartz became an engineer for New York’s Department of Traffic in 1971 — “sleeping with the enemy,” as he put it in a recent phone conversation with SF Weekly, in order to serve as “the Deep Throat for the environmentalists.” Early on in his career, he surreptitiously crossed out car entrances to Prospect Park on planning blueprints, preventing those access points from being built in the first place. Then in 1974, after newly inaugurated Mayor Abraham Beame got stuck in a traffic jam on 5th Avenue and demanded a rollback of car-free weekends in Central Park, Schwartz devised a compromise that both appeased Beame and kept some areas car-free. In subsequent decades, Schwartz worked as a private consultant, helping activists design plans to “chip away” at car access to Prospect and Central parks. 

These efforts were not easy. In the ’80s, there was still a lot of “screaming about the park,” Schwartz said. Opposition came from the taxi industry, business owners near Central Park, as well as “wealthy residents on the Upper East Side,” who enjoyed a bucolic shortcut to their Midtown offices. In contrast to the current debates around car-free JFK, in which the De Young Museum has emerged as a major opponent, the museums and other institutions in Central Park were never a significant force in the conversation, Schwartz recalled. 

Following years of raucous back and forth between activists, neighbors, and business groups, by the 2000s, more of the streets of Central and Prospect parks were off-limits to cars than not. (The transverse drives in Central Park, equivalent to Golden Gate Park’s Crossover Drive, have never been subject to the car bans.) Still, it was a struggle to go the rest of the way.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg put the kibosh on a 2011 proposal to make Central Park completely car-free. “We’ve done studies,” Bloomberg insisted on his radio show. “If you did not allow cars in the park during rush hour, the rest of the city streets would be overloaded, and it would create an awful lot of traffic jams.” It was a surprising argument from a mayor whose biggest achievements included banning cars from large stretches of Times Square and Broadway. As the New York Post dryly noted at the time, Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest people, lives steps from Central Park on the Upper East Side, and would have to bear the burden of increased traffic on his own commute — that is, if that traffic ever materialized.   

By 2015, Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, extended the car bans in Central and Prospect parks to nearly all interior streets, nearly all of the time. And in 2018, de Blasio put the car bans into effect 24/7, fulfilling the dreams of six decades of activists. Even then, after all of that chipping away at car access, there was a lot of grumbling among Upper East and West Siders.

“Everyone said it was gonna be the end of the world,” said Upper West Side denizen Tony Summerland, who stopped to speak with me as he walked his puppy through Central Park.

The end of the world. (Photo: Benjamin Schneider)

‘More of a Sanctuary’

And now?

“It’s probably not that big of a deal to most people,” said Greg, a Central Park-adjacent resident, seated on a bench next to West Drive, who only gave his first name.

A self-identified “driver in New York,” Greg used to enjoy “very carefully” driving through Central Park. But when he’s on foot or on a bike, he concedes, “I enjoy it more when there aren’t cars.” (The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, representing a group that has historically opposed the car bans, did not respond to a request for comment.) 

Summerland, who lived on the Upper East Side in the ’60s and ’70s, when Central Park’s interior roads were typically only closed on weekends, thinks the street closures have encouraged more people to visit the park. “There are so many more people out than there were back then,” he said. At the same time, he believes the car-free streets have helped decongest the park’s walking paths, since joggers and cyclists can now follow the main roads

One of the biggest benefits of the road closure has been for the senses. “It’s nice,” said longtime Upper West Side resident Anne Cohen of the car-free streets in the park. “It’s less noise, no exhaust fumes.” 

The quiet might be the most striking part of a car-free park, clearly separating it from the rest of the city. Not having cars around “makes the park feel safer and greener, makes the park more of a sanctuary,” Dani said. For the past year, she spent much of her free time in Prospect Park, closer to her home in Brooklyn. Without the park and its car-free streets, Dani said, “I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this pandemic.” 

Drastically limiting car access doesn’t seem to prevent any typical park activities, either. People are still picnicking, wheeling around strollers, supervising kids on bikes, and lugging double basses and audio equipment to and from the sites of impromptu performances. Somehow, they all make it work — without a car.

No Perfect Day

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

Greg, as well as others I spoke with, thought traffic around Central Park had probably worsened since the total closure went into effect. Another growing concern is about bicyclists going too fast — especially food delivery workers on e-bikes. And it’s not as if there are no cars. If you hang out around the Central Park loop long enough, you’ll see a trickle of park maintenance vehicles, ambulances, police cars, and even some delivery trucks.

Though both Summerland and Cohen say they have always supported the car-free streets in the park, they did take issue with a bike lane that was recently installed along Central Park West, which removed more than 400 parking spaces. That decision, they say, increased traffic more than the street closures in the park where parking was never available, as more people circled for parking.

Summerland also argues that those spots were frequently used by people traveling from more distant — and, by definition, more diverse and affordable — neighborhoods than the Upper East and West sides. 

The question of equitable access is the biggest challenge looming over the debate about whether to keep JFK Drive car-free. Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents Bayview and Potrero Hill, has described the closure as “recreational redlining,” and more recently said JFK Drive resembles the Jim Crow South. Those strong claims are intensely disputed by people lobbying to keep the car ban in perpetuity. Last week, every member of the Board of Supervisors other than Walton voted to accept the studies SFMTA has done on this street closure. However, the board will have to vote again on the matter if it intends to keep JFK closed to cars longer than 120 days after the COVID-19 emergency declaration is lifted, which could happen as soon as June 15. The SFMTA Board and the SF Rec and Park Board are expected to hold a hearing on the future of the Great Highway sometime this summer. That closure will also expire 120 days after the emergency declaration is lifted, unless further action is taken.

In New York, when the most fervent debates over cars in Central Park were taking place in the 1970s and ’80s, “the word equity was not raised,” Schwartz said. More generally, when it comes to the equity angle of taking space away from cars on city streets, perspectives have shifted over time, according to Schwartz. “When I tried doing bike lanes in the 1980s, the view of bike riders was Black teenagers that were going to come in and steal from white neighborhoods… And now it’s gentrifiers that are coming in.”

Reduced Demand

The same groups who initially opposed closing Central and Prospect parks to cars quieted down pretty quickly after the changes were implemented, Schwartz said. The Community Board adjacent to Prospect Park was “vociferously opposed” to the street closures in the park initially. But these days, Schwartz said, “I don’t hear a peep” about bringing cars back into parks, whether from local Community Boards or serious mayoral or borough president candidates.  

In addition to his work as a consultant, Schwartz also writes the “Gridlock Sam” column for the New York Daily News. He has a mailbag where people complain about areas of bad traffic, but he “can’t recall getting a complaint about the closing of Central Park.” Whenever cars get kicked off a street, he said, “the opposition pretty much disappears because the impacts are not what the opposition ever painted.”

It all ties back to an urban planning phenomenon known as “induced demand,” which describes how cars essentially fill up whatever road space is allocated to them. It’s the reason new lanes of highway don’t actually relieve congestion, and why, when cities tear freeways down, it’s not the end of the world. San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Central freeways are cases in point. “If you have fewer lanes, over time, you’re gonna see fewer vehicles,” Schwartz said. “If you remove it, they will disappear.”

Not everyone, of course, and not all at once. It seems like the Outer Sunset and the many car-full streets in Golden Gate Park have seen increased traffic with JFK and the Great Highway closed. But these challenges are eminently solvable, Schwartz said. And the benefits are worth the sacrifices.  

“The more streets we close, it seems it’s a better and healthier city,” he said. “A population that walks more is a healthier population, a population that bikes more is a healthier population. So I’d say, San Francisco, go for it. Enjoy it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Board of Supervisors voted last week to extend the closure of JFK Drive for several more months while SFMTA conducts studies. In fact, that vote was largely procedural, and the Board will have to vote again to authorize extending the road closure.

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