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Some Thoughts on Prospect Park

February 29, 2012

When the Prospect Park Road Sharing Taskforce announced its proposal for a new design of the Park Loop (note: can we please all stop calling it the Drive?) I mostly held off from rendering my judgement until after I attended the public forum, held last night at the Picnic House.  I figured it was worth waiting to see what other details emerged at the presentation.

Overall, my feeling is that the design is a step in the right direction.  Anything that reduces the effects of cars in the park is worthwhile, even if it’s not the full-on ban on cars that many advocates, neighborhood residents, and other interested parties had hoped the Taskforce would at least recommend.  Sadly, such a recommendation was not part of the proposals last night.  (More on that later in this post.)

Still, there are many reasons to like this design.  A few, in my mind, are:

  • It can be implemented almost immediately, hopefully reducing the likelihood of injuries to park users just as quickly.
  • The design reflects the fact that the vast majority of people experience the park on foot or by bike, and not behind the wheel of the car.
  • Pavement markings will be more clear. No longer will symbols reflect the minority of time when cars are allowed in the park. Instead they will reflect the majority of time when they are not.
  • Reducing motorists to a single lane limits opportunities for speeding by motorists and eliminates their ability to weave in and out of multiple lanes.  (Provided they are driving behind a slow “lead car.”)
  • The design sends a strong message to drivers: you are guests here.  Please remember your place.

I’ll dive into a few nitpicky details later–there’s too much emphasis on outreach and enforcement, for example, and cyclists will soon have to stop for all red lights, which is not going to work on a number of levels–but for now I wanted to address what Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors has elegantly labeled, “the S.U.V. in the room.”

Emily Lloyd, the Park Administrator, said that the idea of banning cars from the park was taken “off the table,” which came as a shock to the ninety-nine people–out of one hundred–who voiced their support for a car-free park at November’s hearing.  It was also something that was stated by speaker after speaker at the Picnic House last night.

In the Times, Lloyd mentioned that the Taskforce “did not see this as an issue of cars in the park,” but, that, of course, is 100% wrong.  The reason the pavement markings are currently as confusing as they are is precisely because they are designed for the four hours every day that cars are in the park.  The reason we are having conversations about what cyclists and pedestrians should do at traffic lights is because of traffic lights that were installed to accommodate car traffic.  Indeed, nearly every element of the Taskforce’s proposed design change grows directly out of the decision to allow cars in the park.  I found Lloyd’s black-and-white stance that even a trial ban is not in the cards right now to be a complete misreading of public sentiment as well as a failure in her duty as a steward of what, it should not need repeating, is a park.  As Brooklyn resident Hilda Cohen said last night, when she tried describing to her son why cars are allowed in the park she realized that “the idea of cars in the park makes about as much sense as cars in the kitchen.”

The choice is not between either banning cars from the park permanently or taking the idea of a ban “off the table” altogether.  In a way, Lloyd missed a perfect opportunity to serve as an ally for the people who, after two public meetings and decades of advocacy, overwhelmingly favor a car-free park.  Plus, she could have done it without the burden of actually having to do anything.  All it would have taken was a simple statement: “The current proposal allows us to address safety concerns immediately while allowing DOT to explore the possibility of further limiting cars in the park in the future.”

Is closing the park to cars a political football?  You bet it is.  Council Member Brad Lander mentioned publicly that banning cars in the park would ignite a “culture war.”  But that’s for the politicians like Lander, Marty Markowitz, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Mayor Bloomberg to sort out and for our conflict-driven media to cover.  The Prospect Park Road Sharing Taskforce’s duty was not to consider politics, but to consider one thing and one thing only: safety.  Being able to enjoy a stroll or a bike ride in a park without worrying about getting hit by a car racing at 53 miles per hour should not be a political issue.*

*From a recent Park Slope Neighbors study of car speeds in the park:

Park Slope Neighbors conducted a radar study on the park’s West Drive, about 100 feet northwest of the Prospect Park Lake, on Thursday, February 23, between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., when cars are permitted in the park.  The study revealed that a shocking 99% of drivers (193 out of 195 vehicles measured discretely) were exceeding the park’s 25-mile-per-hour speed limit, averaging nearly 39 MPH.  Close to half of drivers (45.6%) were driving at 40 MPH or faster, and PSN recorded a top speed of a highway-like 53 MPH.

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15 Comments
  1. Albert Ahronheim permalink
    February 29, 2012 9:54 am

    Excellent assessment. Thanks for making the not-unimportant distinction between calling it “The Loop” and “The Drive” — the latter of which implies that it was originally designed for driving and should retain space and time for motor-driven vehicles. It wasn’t and it shouldn’t.

    The same goes for Central Park.

  2. Dave 'Paco' Abraham permalink
    February 29, 2012 10:39 am

    So bikes still have to stop at red lights designated for cars? That won’t happen in reality, nor is it even needed. Flashing yellows for cyclists to stop when peds are in the crosswalk would be just fine. Also… if this is just paint on the ground, won’t cars wanting to speed but stuck behind a car going the speed limit (considered too slow for reckless drivers) simply drive over the lines, into the bike lane, to get ahead? As soon as this is implemented… let’s get some video footage of driver behaviors and see if this actually slows cars much.

  3. wkgreen permalink
    February 29, 2012 10:47 am

    Nice assessment. If there were substantial numbers supporting cars in the park I would say that this proposal is a decent compromise. But given that drivers in the park are either largely apathetic or that their numbers are greatly overwhelmed by car-free advocates that bothered to attend the meeting it makes it difficult to understand why we continue to allow them to stay there.

    My take is that the proposed plan gives a better defined purpose to more of the roadway, assuming that people abide by the markings, and by confining fast bikes to a 5 ft. strip it should make it easier for anyone on foot trying to cross, to avoid them. My one objection is that it does too little to discourage people from crossing at arbitrary locations. Rather than having 2 ped lanes on one side of the road, it makes more sense to have one on each side. This would allow people to walk along the road on either side before arriving at a safe crossing location, preferably at a crosswalk. As it is, I think that the tendency for folks on the exterior side will be to immediately cross to the inside without watching because that is where the walk lanes are.

    As for making bikes stop at red lights, that is a non-starter. I’ll watch out for, maneuver around, or even, if necessary, stop for anyone crossing who has the right of way. But I will NOT arbitrarily stop at reds. Personally it’s worth racking up a few tickets before I do. After ending my annual financial contribution to the Park Alliance it will still be less than the cost of a gym membership.

  4. February 29, 2012 10:54 am

    Yes, Emily Lloyd mentioned that bikes will have to stop for red lights at all times. Not mentioned last night was the possibility of the NYPD ticketing cyclists for running red lights, whether or not pedestrians are present in the crosswalk.

    The Taskforce is exploring demand-actuated traffic signals that could be put into effect during car-free hours.

  5. February 29, 2012 11:00 am

    nice report, Doug. I’m curious, in your opinion, how does this in any way respond to accidents at the bottom of the hill, which is what got this ball rolling in the first place?

    • anonymous permalink
      February 29, 2012 10:02 pm

      See the yellow lines in the graphic at the top. The walking path will be wider while the total car plus bike lanes width will be narrower. Crossing the car and bike lanes will now be a shorter dash.

  6. alicia permalink
    February 29, 2012 11:12 am

    I’m a speedskater and an occasional park cyclist but I can’t imagine having to drag T-stop at every red light, particularly in my off-peak mid morning training times. I definitely watch for and maneuver around pedestrians crossing both in and out of the crosswalk. Unfortunately they often don’t look before crossing and even when they see me coming underestimate my speed and walk out anyway. Protecting pedestrians is obviously important but so is making the park compatible to a variety of activities including cycling and skating. Don’t know whether changing the signals like flashing yellow or manually activating them is a possibility. Those ideas were seem a better compromise but no one from the task force commented on them.

  7. February 29, 2012 11:39 am

    The Taskforce did address some solutions for problem areas, including signage, buffers, and high-viz crosswalks. Additionally, the idea is that more predictable lane use will decrease confusion along the entire Loop.

    I think the Taskforce is making three big assumptions:

    A) All cyclists, from the casual rider to the fast trainer, will stop at red lights.
    B) All pedestrians will cross at crosswalks and only then when the light is in their favor.
    C) Enforcement and outreach can be comprehensive enough to increase the likelihood of A and B.

    Joanna Oltman Smith smartly pointed out that we can’t expect people to behave differently in the park than they do outside of it.

  8. mark davis permalink
    February 29, 2012 3:17 pm

    I would love to see a 20MPH speed limit and have the lights changed to reflect this. it would work better for cyclists and reduce the speeds of cars in the loop which would better sere the actual users of the park.

  9. February 29, 2012 3:29 pm

    I live in London, rather than Brooklyn. But this post did put me in mind of some of the issues on which I’ve just blogged about motorists’ and pedestrians’ attitudes to the devotion of space to cycling. The debate doesn’t always seem rational and calm – as I point out in the case of Clapham Common, a large public space near where I live.
    http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/02/bikes-can-be-hard-to-overtake.html

  10. tom permalink
    February 29, 2012 5:33 pm

    Did anyone record any car accidents on Thursday evening, 2/23?
    A traffic engineer just might use that PSN info and legitimately re-set the speed at the speed of 85% of those drivers. Is that figure available?

  11. mguralni permalink
    March 2, 2012 2:36 pm

    Before any new striping is laid down on the roadway, does anyone know if there are plans to repave the roadway? It is in pretty bad shape in some spots, particularly the area between Park Circle and the Grecian Temple. The middle lane, currently used by cars, and in the future, by cyclists, is riddled with potholes. A cyclist riding on it could lose their balance and swerve into auto traffic. Now would be the time for resurfacing.

  12. March 2, 2012 3:43 pm

    No idea when or if that’s planned, but you hit on another good argument for getting cars out of the park: the amount of money spent on road repair would go down considerably.

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