In October, Mayor Bill de Blasio happily bowed to the weight of history and decreed that Prospect Park would be car-free.
The change goes into effect in January, but the story starts in the 1860s.
The mighty park’s meandering roads have always generated strict rules, controversy, norm-bending and politicking. “The drives of Prospect Park will be open to the use of the public, solely for pleasure riding or driving,” says the 1868 annual report from the Board of Commissioners for the park, which opened the year before. “Animals to be used upon them, must be well broken, and constantly held in such control, that they may be easily and quickly turned or stopped.”
There was even a speed limit: eight mph. And the animals and animal-drawn vehicles had to keep moving. Traffic must flow.
New Yorkers lived to see the park on wheels
Traveling the road was a key part of parkgoing, says David Colley, author of the monograph “Prospect Park.”
“You were supposed to sit back and enjoy,” he says: a tour of the luxurious almost-rural expanse was a break from city life, just as it is now. Leisure carriages were often the provinces of the wealthy, but eventually the MetroCard swipers of the 19th century were also able to roll through the park’s natural breadth: public carriage service started for 25 cents in 1870.
Cars arrived around the turn of the century, more “playthings of the rich,” writes Colley. One of the pioneers was George Jay Gould, son of a railroad developer and robber baron. Gould asked permission to use the drives after a polo match.
The rest of us caught up, though. Automobile traffic increased by 100 percent between 1904 and 1908, the year Ford Model T’s began to clog the drives, according to Colley’s book. The speed limit was raised to 20 mph in 1924, and there were 622 automobile accidents in the next two years, an early indicator that maybe this wasn’t the place for drivers to relax.
Naturally, because this is a story about both parks and cars, Robert Moses finds his way into the mix. The powerful midcentury parks and construction administrator made his mark in part by straightening a section of interior road in the 1950s. Before Moses, it was a “braided path,” with plantings in the middle of the roadway, says former Prospect Park administrator and Prospect Park Alliance co-founder Tupper Thomas. That made for a pretty carriage ride, but not necessarily efficient driving. Moses took the detour out.
This wasn’t surprising then. “People loved to drive into the park,” Thomas says. It helped them get to the parts they wanted to find. They would park all over the place. It wasn’t just Moses who was car-centric: it was us.
Taking back the streets
During the car years, Prospect Park also suffered some hard times. It was known for muggers, and even a zookeeper in the 1970s who shot some animals. There were fewer people clamoring to bike or run on the road, says Thomas. A couple million people would visit the park yearly when she started in the early 1980s, she says. Over ten million a year enjoy it now, and advocates for non-motorized transportation have multiplied too.
But the notion of reducing car traffic had already begun in the late 1960s, when Mayor John Lindsay limited car access in Central and Prospect Park. Advocates from groups like Transportation Alternatives and other activists held demonstrations and petition drives for those parks to be car-free, with politicians and administrators at times responding and cutting away car access little by little.
In recent years, with Prospect exploding with visitors of the non-motorized kind, there’s little room for gas-belchers. Drivers who used the park as a shortcut might bemoan being sent to nearby roads or highways, but the park was never intended for that. The horse carriage or Model T drivers might be closer to the bikers or runners of today, showing off their new wheels or getting some fresh air, which they now do in droves.
“That road bed is just a natural health facility,” says Thomas.
Now it can be that in full, after de Blasio made the big change final. The engines’ end in a few weeks comes many cultural moments after the asphalt was laid in this part of Brooklyn, but maybe we’re now back to basics.