Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Car-free Parks Movement

Cities across the United States are creating more space for walking, running and biking by shutting down roads through parks and neighborhoods.

This article was originally published in the May 2008 issue of Parks and Recreation Magazine.

By John Greenfield

If the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives gets its way, 2008 will be the year New York banishes motor vehicles from Central Park and Prospect Park all summer long.

Nowadays, cars are only allowed on the parks’ perimeter roads during weekday rush hours and the holiday shopping season. But the group argues speeding autos still threaten the safety and serenity of the intended users: pedestrians, cyclists and others seeking a break from the city’s cacophony. “These parks are the crown jewels of New York and right now car traffic dictates how and when people can use them,” says TA spokesman Wiley Brown.

His group has collected over 100,000 signatures in support of its proposal for a car-free summer and the city’s new transportation commissioner says she’s thinking it over. Assuming this pilot program is successful, TA plans to push for banning autos altogether. “There’s so little time left for cars already it makes sense to just close the parks and be done with it,” says Brown. “We’ve reached a tipping point.”

New York’s proposal is part of a national trend to create safe, inviting places for exercise and relaxation by removing the sight, sound, smell and danger of car traffic. Dozens of cities have recently moved to restrict auto access to parks and other public spaces, according to Ben Welle from the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence in Washington D.C.

Others are planning ciclovia (“bike path”) programs in which networks of streets are temporarily closed to driving and open for non-motorized play. Last summer El Paso, TX, staged the first ciclovia in the U.S. and now Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland and Portland, OR, are working on similar events.

“Cities are beginning to reach a boiling point,” says Welle. “They realize that if all they do is plan around cars they’re not going to be healthy places for people. The obesity crisis, global warming and a migration of people back to the city are pushing this issue to the forefront. Residents want spaces that accommodate people rather than cars. We’re trying to put forward the idea that closing roads can revitalize parks.”

But proposals for road closures often meet stiff resistance from motorists and neighboring communities. They argue that traffic will become snarled, cars will be diverted onto residential streets, parking will suffer and shops and museum will lose patrons.

In 2003, for example, the National Park Service proposed expanding car-free hours on Beach Road in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, to weekday non-rush periods (it was already closed on weekends). Joggers and bicyclists were thrilled and the plan received overwhelming support at community meetings.

However, drivers and nearby residents rallied against the change, and local officials refused to back the plan. The park service abandoned the idea. “The commuters were able to garner more political support,” says park superintendent Adrienne Coleman. “There needs to be cooperation from the surrounding jurisdictions; otherwise its just not going to happen.”

Despite worries from residents, studies have shown that park road closures do not contribute to congestion or parking problems. In San Francisco, a 2007 report commissioned by the mayor found that car-free Sundays on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, in place since the ‘60s, double the number of visitors with little effect on the adjacent neighborhoods. Patronage of the park’s De Young Museum and local businesses actually increases on Sundays.

The San Francisco Bike Coalition used this study to successfully lobby for “Healthy Saturdays” last summer, ending seven years of debate on the subject. “Golden Gate Park is a retreat from urban pressures,” says the coalition’s Leah Shahum. “It needs to be a safe, welcoming place. We wanted Saturdays to look like Sundays.”

Wiley Brown says the minimal affect park road closures have on congestion can be explained by what he calls “induced demand.” When you allow people to speed through parks, you give them an incentive to drive. “Some people think traffic is like water: if you block it from one place it will just go somewhere else. We’ve found that this is not true.” Instead, when roads are closed less people choose to drive, a phenomenon sometimes called “traffic evaporation.”

“I’m not really convinced,” says John Corlett from the American Automobile Association’s New York chapter. “Some of these advocacy groups have a results-oriented approach – ‘Let’s achieve the objective and worry about the impact later.” He says that AAA does not have a knee jerk reaction against closing park roads and he has heard no complaints from motorists about Central Park. But he argues there should be careful study before further closures take place. “The Department of Transportation moves cautiously and I know TA isn’t too happy with that but I understand the DOT’s reasoning.”

If local authorities can be convinced, Boston may be the next big city to remove autos from parkland. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, a 1.6-mile stretch of Memorial Drive along the north bank has been car-free on Sunday afternoons for over 30 years. The resulting greenway, is known as “Riverbend Park.”

In January, the Charles River Conservancy proposed opening a five-mile stretch of the westbound lane of Boston’s Storrow Drive, on the south bank of the river, to non-motorized uses on Sunday mornings. “We want to bring a sense of quietude to the river because right now it’s not as peaceful as it could be,” says the Conservancy’s Nicole Brown. Unlike Memorial, Storrow passes under the streets that intersect it. “The beauty of Storrow Drive is you could get a vigorous, uninterrupted five-mile workout.”

She’s optimistic that the state Department of Conservation and Resources, which owns the road, will eventually support the plan. “Car-free days are hot topics,” she says. “But when we’ve explained the hours and that people can still drive east into the city, people have generally gotten behind this.”

In Phoenix, the Parks and Recreation Department’s new “Silent Sundays” at South Mountain Park and Preserve bans autos from the road to the mountain’s summit once a month, all year ‘round. “It’s a bigger success each time we do it,” says park supervisor Kim Keith, adding that he’s received a lot of positive feedback via e-mail. “80% of the messages are from road bikers who use the road to get to the top of the mountain and like the fact they can relax and not worry about cars. The other 20% are from hikers who appreciate the clean air and quiet.”

The ciclovia model, already common in Latin America and Europe, is the wave of the future for road closures in North American cities. Bogota, Colombia, pioneered the concept in the ‘80s, creating a car-free street route where residents could not only run and bike but also push strollers, play volleyball, skateboard, dance, do aerobics and yoga or just hang out and enjoy the social environment. Today Bogata’s ciclovia takes place each Sunday on a 70-mile network, regularly drawing 1.5 million participants. Every February 1st is Dia Sin Carro, “Car-Free Day,” when private autos are completely barred from the city.

Gil Penalosa, Bogota’s former parks and recreation director, speaks passionately about how ciclovias promote health and a sense of community. “Ciclovia provides a wonderful opportunity to walk, bike and socialize. It’s magical because all of the sudden you are invited to occupy a space where you are normally forbidden.” He calls the event an “exercise in integration” which encourages folks from all walks of life to interact with people of different ages, backgrounds and economic levels.

The ciclovia model is cheap and flexible, Penalosa says. “It doesn’t cost you one cent in capital investment. It can be as successfully in huge cities as small towns. The main thing it requires is political will.” He suggests that municipalities should try it out for a few consecutive Sundays to allow momentum and support to build. “The first Sunday is when people complain the most, the second goes a lot more smoothly and the third is fantastic.”

Last year El Paso, a poor city with only about 25% of the green space of an average American town its size, became the first U.S. municipality to hold a ciclovia. Just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, car-free days had been drawing 60,000 participants on Sundays.

“Because Juarez was so close to us it wasn’t such a radical idea,” says Shamori Whitt, who coordinated the event for the west Texas town. “68% of the women in El Paso are overweight and 78% of the men, and 10% of the population has diabetes. You can’t really argue with those numbers.” The city was able to raise $100,000 in contributions, used mostly to pay police to manage intersections so the ciclovia would not affect cross traffic.

The event took place every Sunday in May on a linear route that included Scenic Drive, a mountain road with a breathtaking vista. “People said they never appreciated how beautiful the view was until they were able to get up there on a bike,” says Whitt. While many cyclists and bladers enjoyed the challenge, she suspects the steep grades intimidated others – there were only 5,000 total participants in this city of 700,000. Next year the ciclovia may be moved to flatter, more populated areas so more people can take part.

Despite the modest turnout Whitt says the ciclovia inspired her. “I was excited that people were getting to know their neighbors. Little kids were coming out of their houses to wave and we saw a lot of dogs out there. We had to set up water stations for animals next to the water fountains for people.”

At four times the population of El Paso, Chicago is proposing a ciclovia, called Sunday Parkways, which could draw much larger crowds this summer. No stranger to car-free events, every year the city hosts Bike the Drive. 15 miles of Lake Shore Drive, an 8-lane superhighway, are closed to traffic, drawing 20,000-plus cyclists. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is spearheading the Sunday Parkways effort and has raised much of the $400,000 needed to run three to five trials, pending approval from the mayor’s office.

The proposed 7.5-mile route uses the city’s historic boulevard system connecting three large parks on the west side of town, largely through low-income areas. In 2006 when the bike federation first pitched the idea it faced opposition from churches along the boulevards who felt alienated from the planning process and worried street closures would hurt church attendance. They complained to their alderman and the project was stalled.

In the spring of 2007 the federation invited church representatives and other community leaders on a fact-finding trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, to experience its ciclovia. Called Via Recreativa, “Recreational Path,” Guadajara’s event is a seven-mile route that draws up to 500,000 participants each weekend. It has brought a wave of customers to businesses that had previously been shuttered on Sundays.

Wowed by what they saw, including churches holding outdoor services along the route, the Chicago clergy decided to endorse Sunday Parkways. In turn, the bike federation agreed to move the proposed ciclovia hours until after services let out. “Now the churches who had challenged us in the past have joined our stakeholders committee,” says the bike federation’s Adolfo Hernandez.

“They’re supporting Sunday Parkways because public health is a major issue in these neighborhoods,” Hernandez says. “Our main goal is to get more people to be active. We’re trying to change the way people view these streets and the way resources are used in the city.”

2 comments:

Brian said...

Nice article.

But I must take issue with your choice of words that carfree streets equals "shutting down" streets.

Activities like Ciclovia and Health Saturdays are better seen as "liberating" streets from the dangers of cars, and handing public space back over to families.

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