How Central Park Fell Victim to the Automobile
Give drivers an inch and they'll take over your whole city
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This past April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared in a triumphant tweet that, starting this summer, Central Park would finally go car-free:
Central Park goes car free in June. 24/7, 365 days a year — because parks are for people, not cars.
This is a big deal, and the announcement comes after Brooklyn’s Prospect Park officially went car-free in January of this year.
Both Central and Prospect parks were designed by celebrated landscapers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux: they created the former in 1857 and the latter 10 years later. Just like New York City, the parks' fortunes have fluctuated over the years, but today they’re crown jewels of the parks system, receiving millions of visitors annually. In a city where a backyard seems as exotic as a yacht, it’s impossible to overstate their importance. They also happen to be the twin cradles of the New York City cycling scene, with early morning races taking place in one or the other most weekends during the season.
Getting cars out of these parks is a significant victory in the fight to reclaim public space from the automobile, but if you’re a logical person, you may be wondering why the hell anybody ever allowed people to drive cars through two of the world’s most famous urban oases in the first place. Well, at least as far as Central Park goes, you can probably thank a man named Winslow E. Buzby.
Buzby was a lawyer and Automobile Club member who lived on E. 17th Street back in the 19th century. He was also an asshole, which I can say without fear of getting sued, as he’s been been dead for at least a hundred years. And he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill asshole, either; indeed, he was the Rosa Parks of assholes, for in 1899, he hopped in his electric “victoria-phaeton” and drove it into Central Park specifically to test the prohibition on automobiles. Upon being released on $300 bail, Buzby gave one of the whiniest speeches ever given by an entitled rich white man:
There really is no reason, of course, why automobiles should be excluded from Central Park any more than any other kind of pleasure carriages or bicycles. In the Bois de Boulogne in Paris there are as many horseless carriages as there are horse-drawn ones and no complaint is heard that they frighten horses. You might with more reason use the same argument to keep automobile cabs off the streets. Besides, automobile carriages are allowed in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and in Riverside Park, this borough. How, then, can they consistently be barred from Central Park? The discrimination is absurd, and it won’t do. All parks should be closed to them or none at all. Besides, are horses in Manhattan more susceptible of taking fright than those in Brooklyn? And, anyhow, a horse that is so wild that it will bolt at the sight of an automobile ought not to be allowed on a public road. It would just as easily be scared, and with equal danger to the public, by the sight of a piece of paper blown along by the wind or at a child’s sudden yell.
You’d think that in old-timey New York so much as mentioning the Bois de Boulogne would earn you a punch in the nose, but alas, a few public hearings later and cars were allowed into the park. And just as nobody envisioned Walmarts full of semiautomatic weapons when adopting the Second Amendment, the Parks Department couldn’t possibly have predicted hordes of impatient motorists in two-ton, 400-horsepower SUVs barrelling through Olmstead and Vaux’s creation. Instead, the whole cars-in-the-park debate hinged on whether or not they’d scare the horses, so the Parks Department set some speed limits based mainly to address that concern. Enter some more entitled assholes looking to get arrested on purpose:
The attempt to make a test case of the Park Department’s ruling that automobiles must slow down to half the distance allowed, seven miles, when a horse is seen going in the opposite direction, was started yesterday forenoon by Albert C. Bostwick, who entered the Park at Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in a gasolene vehicle. He was accompanied by J.C. Church, President of the Automobile Club of Brooklyn, who, with George F. Chamberlin, comprise the Law Committee of the Automobile Club of America. Behind these two members came Mr. Chamberlin and Albert R. Shattuck, President of the club. They were in a similar automobile, and the two vehicles kept close together.
“Arrest us,” shouted Bostwick to the policeman at the entrance, but he shook his head and made no effort to stop the machines. The automobilists kept on, never slackening pace whether a horse was in sight or not, and when near the West Eighty-second Street entrance another attempt to be arrested was made as the vehicles sped by a mounted policeman. He was Policeman Baldwin. Bostwick, after passing him, turned back, calling out: “I want you to arrest us. We are going faster than the law allows.”
“I can’t arrest you unless you frighten the horses,” was the reply.
Of course, in the ensuing decades, cars took over the roads from horses, so there was no ostensible reason for drivers to go slowly in the park anymore, and by the time everyone realized they’d fucked up, it was too late and the park had evolved into a shortcut. In 1924, Park Commissioner Francis D. Gallatin said that while he’d like to close the park to cars, he worried this would cause too much congestion on the streets around it. Instead, the city kept widening those streets to alleviate the congestion, which only created more of it, ultimately resulting in the complete shitshow we’re all familiar with today.
Fortunately, New Yorkers never stopped demanding car-free parks, and thanks to the decades-long efforts of Transportation Alternatives and others, the city increasingly prioritized people over motor vehicles. For a long time the situation was a weird sort of limbo, with the park roads only open to cars during rush hours. This meant you could be riding along in Propsect Park as happy as you please, only for the floodgates to open, at which point you’d find yourself subsumed in a sea of roiling, churning car traffic. But finally, 119 years after Buzby's whiny speech, those days are over.
Hey, with cars out of the park, maybe we can move onto aerobars next.
Illustration by Taj Mihelich