Now that cars are banned from Central Park, it’s time to take the stoplights out as well.
The Central Park drives weren’t designed for car traffic. They were designed for horses as well as horse-drawn carriages and chariots; the park is pre-bicycle, pre-running. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park designers, created ways to the interior of Central Park that didn’t involve crossing the road. Just as they did with the transverses, which allow car traffic to cross under Central Park at 65th, 79th, 86th, and 96th streets, but remain out of view of park users, they created means for horse-drawn vehicles to use the drives and pedestrians to cross underneath without running into one another. These are effectively bridges. But to the person on foot, they’re archways, the underside of an arched bridge. They were designed to be visually striking, both to draw people to see the archways on their design merit, and to beautifully frame what is beyond the arch. The Central Park Conservancy lists 25 bridges and arches on their website. Of those, at least 15 appear to go under park roads. There were actually more, including a few bridges over roadways, but they were removed by Robert Moses. In some cases, it was to make it easier for cars to drive through the park.
Cars didn’t enter the park until 1901, after a court case opened the park to cars. Lights came in by the 1930s.
The lights probably drew some pedestrians looking to cross the road. But it might not always have been thus. It’s entirely plausible that the popularity of street crossings increased in the 1970s. As has been documented elsewhere, the city was in the midst of a financial crisis and it’s possible that maintenance was curtailed, that the archways became dark, dank, and decrepit, possibly looking dangerous or used for nefarious purposes, possibly smelling of urine, and people created, “desire lines” to cross the road without using an archway.
A desire line is people walking where they desire, and matting down and possibly killing grass and other vegetation to take their preferred route to a destination. The Parks department often responded by paving those desire lines. It’s an interesting and democratic concept. Unfortunately, once created, hard to undo.
Archways are all over Central Park, from the northern end to the southern, and near most of the major road crossings. There’s a road crossing at west 80th street and the West Drive by the Delacorte Theatre and a southern access point to The Great Lawn, a tricky spot as cyclists are often moving fairly fast. But it would be just as easy for people to cross under the road at the Winterdale Arch, which is by west 82nd.
The pedestrian avenue coming from Columbus Circle to the Drive is another spot with a traffic light and high foot traffic. But it’s also just south of the Greyshot Arch, which was intended to be a major thoroughfare under the road. Many pedestrians walk in from Seventh Avenue and West 59th street and cross the park road, but they could just as easily go under the Dipway Arch, just to the east. Instead of crossing on the road at East 72nd street, there’s another archway just to the north.
All these arches could see greater use, which would probably make everyone safer and happier, and make it faster for people to enter and exit the park interior. With 42 million visitors a year, reducing potential conflicts makes sense. Arguably, having pedestrians cross the road rather than going under it increases safety for all users when the park is near empty. But those times are increasingly rare.
Interestingly, many of the archways in Central Park have been cleaned up, re-lit, and had drainage improved in the recent past. Amanda Schachter of SLO Architecture, sees huge improvements in the archways as of late. “The arches are well-lit now. They’re crazy well-lit. They have super strong lights. The park is making an effort to notice these arches. People have lost track of them.” After her father, a cyclist, died after a ped-bike crash in Central Park, she got involved in looking at pedestrian and bike safety in the park.
She thinks the park should make more of an effort to draw people to use the arches. “It would be great if they got artists projects in each arch.” And, of course publicize it in an itinerary, like an archway tour of Central Park. To her the key is to make finding the arches easier and more attractive.
Much of her thinking stemmed from speaking with Matt Falber, a tireless one-man advocate for the archways. For years, he’s been the executive director of the Central Park Arch Project, which aims to save lives, restore arches, and revise pathways. Much of the second mission is done. Getting stakeholders for the rest is ongoing.
Falber claims that the Greyshot arch might become a more prominent feature. “The pathway they’ve signaled that they might be changing is that pathway ((at 59th street, the Greyshot arch). Just like with anything, if the support is there with enough people, there’s potential to change.”
Falber’s vision includes recreating Outset Arch and placing it over the drives between Tavern On The Green and Sheep Meadow, as a way to deal with the crowds entering the park at West 67th and desiring access to the meadow. The Outset was built in 1873 in the park’s southeast, but destroyed by Moses to make room for an expanded zoo. As the architectural drawings still exist and are in the municipal archives, recreating should only take money. He even points out that it could serve as a finish for the NYC Marathon.
The Central Park Conservancy was asked for comment on stoplight removal. They first suggested getting in touch with the Department of Transportation, as they’re in charge of the roads. The DoT, when asked, responded:
“DOT is not planning to remove traffic signals inside the park, however the operation of the signals will be changed. Pedestrians who want to cross the drive will now be able to push a button to summon the walk signal. In addition, the traffic signals will remain green for cyclists and others traveling along the drive until the pedestrian pushbutton is pressed.
Please note: The signals operation will be updated as the traffic signal controllers are upgraded as part of an unrelated capital project to replace all of the traffic signal, lighting and electrical distribution systems along the park drives. The controllers south of 72nd street have already been replaced and north of 72nd street are being replaced in 2 additional phases over the next 4 years.”
When pressed, the Conservancy declined to comment, even on their work in improving the archways.
Transportation Alternatives, the city’s leading advocate for safer, saner roadways, was instrumental in the push to get cars out of Central Park. (Disclosure: I’m a member) Their executive director, Paul Steely White, was accorded the honor of being in the last car allowed into the park the other night. He has been speaking with Schachter and Falber and sees an exciting future. “I think, first of all, to point out, that cars are gone for good, it’s an opportunity to take a fresh look at the loop drives, and everything about them and establish more rational ways of bicyclists and pedestrians negotiating around each other.”
What that will come to be is unknown. Neither the Conservancy or the DoT is willing to comment on more changes; it seems that it will take more pressure to get more changes.
They should start by looking at an advocacy piece written by onetime Streetsblog reporter Stephen Miller in 2014, “Traffic Lights Don’t Belong on a Park Loop.” Back then, he wrote, “Getting rid of traffic signals in the parks is a necessary step toward creating loop roads where people on bikes and on foot rely on eye contact and common sense to safely interact, instead of rules that don’t fit the context.”
As Miller pointed out in his article, stoplights were designed for car traffic; they didn’t appear in New York until 1920, long after the city’s street system was laid down, and only in response to the mayhem that cars created.
Considering what the DoT has done in terms of redesigning streets with paint, planters, and sticks (technical term: flexible delineators), it seems almost easy, with the right mix of the three to direct pedestrians wanting to get to Central Park’s interior to the archways. In addition, places where people have to cross on foot should be adjusted to places where visibility is better and move existing foliage so that both folks on foot and bike have better sight lines to determine who is coming and how fast. The park could consider even having park workers on hand to direct people as the changes are occurring; when the park first opened, the state of New York deployed a paid advisor to instruct people on how to properly use the park.
Cars out is a great first step. For us to get the Park to an even better place that better serves all park users, we should be simultaneously pressing for both stoplight removal and pathway adjustments.
It can be done.
JP is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France (second edition is out in audio and ebook versions) and Where to Bike New York City.
This article was updated on 6/29/18 to correct the spelling of Olmsted and to complete a sentence in the third paragraph from the end.