Prospect Park Users: Thanks for the Road Diet, Now Let’s Make It Car-Free

During car-free hours, Parks Department and NYPD vehicles would use the right lane, which is also supposed to serve as a passing lane for cyclists. Image: Prospect Park Alliance

Brooklynites like the idea of reducing the number of motor vehicle lanes cutting through Prospect Park from two to one. They’d like zero even better.

A crowd of roughly 150 gathered in the Prospect Park Picnic House last night to hear a proposal from the Prospect Park Alliance’s road sharing task force. As reported yesterday, the plan puts the vehicle lanes on a road diet, expanding pedestrian and bicycle space while reducing the confusion caused by road markings that only apply during the small amount of time when cars are allowed in the park.

Under the plan, the loop would be divided into three roughly equal sections. Motor vehicles would have a single 10-foot lane along with a three-foot shoulder. Cyclists will have 10 feet in the middle of the road, divided into lanes for slower and faster riders. The remaining space, 14 feet or more, would be for runners and walkers. “There was a sense that the space was just not wide enough for both bikes and pedestrians,” said park administrator Emily Lloyd.

During the majority of the week, when most cars are not allowed in the park, the uses would remain the same, hopefully reducing confusion about which park users were supposed to be where when. “All of the things we paint on the roadway can be consistent,” said Lloyd. During car-free hours, the motor vehicle lane would be designated for park or police vehicles. The intent is to encourage cyclists to use it as a passing lane but not a primary space for biking.

Overall, the proposal won near-unanimous support. “The best compromise I’ve seen anybody come up with in years,” said transportation planner Steve Faust. “A marked difference right away,” said Harry Edmund Bolick, a member of the Kissena Cycling Club.

One of the few opponents of the proposal, Mark Russo, argued that having only one lane in the park would mean more congestion. “If you have one slow vehicle,” he said, “you’re going to have massive traffic jams.” DOT projections showed that the average delay due to traffic would only rise from 5.9 seconds to 13.3 seconds on the east side of the loop in the morning, and from 4.6 to 5.6 seconds on the west side in the evening. That’s “a level of service you will never see on a city street during rush hour,” said Lloyd. Only 700 vehicles an hour use the loop during the morning rush, and a scant 250 per hour during the evening.

Most speakers at last night’s meeting thought the plan didn’t go far enough.

As reported by the Daily News and the Post, a large majority called for making Prospect Park car-free all day, every day. “Families like mine avoid the park entirely during car hours,” said Joanna Oltman Smith. “Think about how many roads we have in New York City. Think about how many places we have like Prospect Park.”

Lloyd, however, said that taking cars out of the park had been taken “absolutely off the table” at the start of the task force’s work. Making the park totally car-free, she argued, would have displaced traffic onto surrounding streets and therefore required a much broader and lengthier public outreach process. She also said that motor vehicles weren’t directly causing a safety problem. “None of the accidents that have occurred have been between cars and pedestrians,” she said. “They stop at red lights.”

A likely incomplete count of crashes on the 3.3 mile drive found 17 reported collisions involving cyclists or pedestrians since 2009, said Lloyd. Four of those crashes involved only cyclists.

But drivers are putting park users at risk by traveling at excessive speeds, reported Eric McClure, the co-founder of Park Slope Neighbors. Last Thursday evening, he went out with a radar gun to measure speeding in the park. He found that 193 out of 195 vehicles were exceeding the 25 mph speed limit. Half of all drivers went 39 miles per hour or faster, and one hit a shocking 53 mph. While the road diet should help curb speeding, said McClure, the utter pervasiveness of speeding shows that a one-lane road will likely still have speeders.

City Council Member Brad Lander, who praised the road diet plan, offered a political explanation for why cars weren’t coming out of the park at this point. “This is a really good plan that takes significant steps to safety,” he said. “Cars out of the park is a culture war.”

Much of the conflict in Prospect Park comes where pedestrian paths cross the loop drive. Some pedestrians feel it’s too difficult to make it across the road while many cyclists do not want to stop at red lights. At crossings, the park plans to paint high-visibility crosswalks in an attempt to encourage pedestrians to use them and cyclists to respect them. Signage will also urge walkers not to cross at dangerous locations.

Periodic enforcement blitzes are also planned for the park, including for cyclists running reds. “Everybody wanted the other guy to be enforced,” said Lloyd. “But everybody agreed that somebody needed enforcement.”