By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
How many bureaucrats does it take to change a lightbulb (or post a "Do Not Enter" sign)?
Users of Brooklyn's Prospect Park, who once again find their park open to increased weekday vehicular traffic as of last week, have discovered that a simple plea "Please ban cars from this recreational space" has many facets. It has taken three city agencies, five community boards, four city council members, three public hearings, one four-year, seven-volume traffic study, 17,000 postcards and letters to the Brooklyn borough president, and one fatality to . . . well, recommend that the mayor think about changing a sign.
On November 1, the park's car-free "summer hours" ended. (April through October, cars were banned from the park on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then again from 7 to 10 p.m.; cars are still banned on weekends.) Motorists, who share the 3.5-mile Park Drive with joggers, rollerbladers, and cyclists, tend to use the park as a rush hour shortcut through Brooklyn, speeding their commute with a buzz through this bucolic landscape. Despite an April 21 public hearing, in which 75 residents testified in favor of completely banning cars from the park (and only three against the measure), the city's Department of Transportation, the Police Department, and Parks Department have not yet made a decision. But they did recommend to the mayor that the car-free time zone be extended by three hours, so that cars would be excluded from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.
But recreational users insist that's not enough. "It's just unsound policy to have what is essentially a two-lane highway run through the largest recreational area in Brooklyn," asserts Elizabeth Ernish, campaign coordinator for Transportation Alternatives. At the very least, TA would like to see a car ban for a two-month trial period.
TA, which has spearheaded the drive to ban cars from the park, points out that 3 million people use the park every year and only a thin white line separates most of them from speeding traffic. Although talk of a car ban in Prospect Park began as long ago as the '60s, the campaign gained real momentum last year when 57-year-old bicyclist Rachel Fruchter was killed by a car that plowed into her as she swerved out of the crowded bike lane to avoid an oncoming jogger. While Fruchter's accident is the only fatality in recent years, police reports indicate there have been 102 car crashes in the park since 1995 (34 involved cars hitting cars, 18 were cars hitting cyclists, and eight were cars hitting pedestrians). When TA conducted its own traffic study this fall which took one month, compared to DOT's study, which took three years to complete it discovered that 90 percent of motorists exceeded the 30 mph speed limit, that 50 percent of drivers swerved into the recreation lane, and that a car ran a red light every two minutes during the morning rush hour.
Those who favor banning cars argue that the park was meant to be a recreational space, a refuge from the noise, pollution, and hustle of the city streets; that it's a safety hazard to allow cars into the park at the peak recreational hour of 3 p.m. (just as kids get out of school and head to the park); and finally, that diverting traffic to neighboring streets would have a minimal impact because drivers would opt for the major streets, like Flatbush Avenue, Ocean Parkway, and Coney Island Avenue roads designed for heavy traffic.
Opponents of the ban are hard to come by. While the most likely group would seem to be drivers, almost no one has testified at hearings or organized on behalf of those who dread the thought of a longer commute around the park. And only one community board has taken a stance against the car ban: Community Board 14 in Flatbush.
Ranting against the obnoxious bikers in "skintight clothing" who organize otherwise orderly and tractable residents into car-free-park campaigns, Alvin M. Berk, chair of CB 14, acknowledges Fruchter's death, but says, "You can't make public policy on the basis of a single accident." Furthermore, he worries about increased traffic along Flatbush Avenue and insists that safety concerns are misplaced: "Most parents in this neighborhood want their kids to come home after school and do homework, not play in the park." Berk paints the debate as a class struggle that pits affluent Park Slope residents against his working-class community. "Most of the community in Flatbush is busy earning a living and raising kids," he explains. "Most of them aren't involved in advocacy groups and signing petitions."
The city agencies involved simply dismissed the "total car-ban" petitions as pipe dreams, and sent their modest proposal for three more car-free hours to the mayor on April 21. Five months later, it's business as usual in Prospect Park any traffic-barring barriers once again packed away to languish in the bureaucratic labyrinth.