In the never-ending Central Park battle between cars and pedestrians, the cars last week lost.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting on June 29, Central Park’s entire loop above 72nd Street will be permanently closed to traffic.
Park patrons, both natives and out-of-towners, couldn’t be happier.
“Traffic gets really heavy around 6,” noted Bella Carol, 18, a cyclist who frequents Central Park often. “It’s going to be a lot safer here now that the cars are gone.”
Lara Zarum, 27, said that the change will make the park more enjoyable, since rush-hour traffic tended to ruin the park’s atmosphere. “I always hate seeing cars in the middle of the park,” she said. “I mean, this is New York. There are plenty of places for them to go.”
Thomas Hager, 19, an Austria native, wonders why it took the city this long to make the park a solely recreational space. “It’s cool that they did this, but in Austria, it’s a common thing for parks to have car-free areas,” he said.
While the car ban has been simmering for some time, officials say at least some of the credit for seeing it through goes to former sprinter and current disabled advocate Michael Ring.
On May 27, Ring posted a petition on change.org calling for the mayor to make Central and Prospect Park car-free. The petition, entitled, “Do we have to wait for someone to die to keep rush hour traffic out of Prospect and Central Parks?” had garnered more than 1,500 signatures by the time de Blasio made his announcement.
“I had no idea my crazy petition was gonna change anything,” he posted on his blog on June 21. “But I did have some fantasy that if the roads were ever closed to rush-hour traffic that I would stand next to the mayor when he made the announcement,” he added.
Ring is a former employee of NYC Runs, an event management organization that hosts more than 40 footraces across the city each year. Ring, a running enthusiast who had finished 29 marathons, was a perfect fit for the organization.
But things changed last April, when he was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a rare disease that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Though he retained his spot as vice president of the Prospect Park Track Club, he could not continue working at NYC Runs.
Gradually, his disability began to expose him to problems he was able to ignore when he was able-bodied -- like, for instance, the traffic clogging up the entrance to Central Park. “I was able to ignore it a lot easier because I was just a runner, and I could just avoid the park during rush hour,” he said. “But after I came back from the hospital, I’d be going towards the park with a bunch of other people, and I’d think, ‘Oh my God! When do the cars stop?!’”
Ring was convinced that opening the park to rush-hour traffic was both dangerous and unnecessary. “I haven’t seen any evidence that it gets people home faster,” he said. “And I mean, why wait until someone gets killed?”
The Department of Transportation agreed with Ring’s assessment. After researching the matter, the department concluded that the change will not significantly affect traffic congestion, according to a press release from the mayor’s office. “Mayor de Blasio has been a long-standing supporter of car-free parks, going back to his years as a council member representing the area,” a spokesman for the mayor said. “We recognize and appreciate the love all New Yorkers have for their parks.”
Ring is still concerned about the southern end of Central Park, which is still open to traffic. “I’m a little worried because the southern end of the park has the most traffic, but it also has the narrowest roads and the horse-drawn carriages,” he blogged. “But I have hope that the east side of Prospect Park and the southern end of Central Park will be rid of rush-hour traffic after the traffic scientists fix the streets a little better on the outside of the parks.”