In 2018, New York finally banned cars from Prospect Park. Before that, in the Dark Ages, private vehicles were allowed to drive north on the loop in the mornings and south in the evenings. As you’d suspect, the hour limits were not well observed and there were basically cars in the park all the time. Because when you say cars are allowed some of the time, drivers will assume they’re allowed all the time.
When the full-time ban hit, a few signs were put up at the park entrances, but the physical barriers could and would be moved. For at least six months, private cars were still a fairly common sight along the Prospect Park loop.
Over time, such observations gradually became less and less frequent, even though the physical barriers are just as flimsy or non-existent as before. Sitting here now, I actually can’t remember the last time I saw a private car driving on the Prospect Park loop.
The thing is, there are still vehicles in Prospect Park. Lots of them, in fact. Pretty much every time I go to the park, I see at least one vehicle in the park itself, whether it’s a big maintenance truck, an NYC Parks pickup truck, a cop car (or three), a playground maintenance repair truck, private vans for the Smorgasburg events, etc. etc. Even some private cars still enter on the Licoln Road entrance and cross the loop to enter the parking lot. Nothing is stopping them from turning right and going up the loop just as they did before. But they don’t.
To be clear, I have precisely zero problem with all of these vehicles in the park, because they all drive respectfully. They travel at about the same speed as cyclists if not slower and yield to everyone. They are, in other words, polite and deferential, which was definitely not the case in the park in the months immediately after the ban, not to mention before it.
What changed? My theory: as the ban aged, the park stopped being contested space. Split hours only created split expectations. The “ban” on cars was effective, even though enforcement is neglibible and physical barriers to entry easily surpassed, because the park was no longer contested space. It took some time for that message to permeate, but when it did, it worked. Traffic laws can and are violated all the time because people don’t respect them, but this is one traffic law that people seem to widely respect.
As cities continue to think about the future of Open Streets programs, car-free downtowns, and similar programs, I think about what I learned from Prospect Park. Mainly, driver behavior is less defined by enforced rules and more about norms that have to be established. Drivers—and, hell, pedestrians and cyclists for that matter—ignore rules, regulations, and laws all the time when they don’t accord with respected norms.
There are still a lot of questions about best practices when it comes to open streets and such, including the ubiquitous whataboutisms—what about deliveries for businesses? FedEx and UPS? Taxis and Ubers? etc. etc.—that sound reasonable and are difficult to answer through a series of regulatory imperatives (deliveries only at night, via back alleys, taxis only on certain corners, mandatory right turns, etc. etc.) But I think the answers don’t lie in a series of complex rules about when and where such vehicles can access these streets. Instead, it lies in resetting the expectations of for whom the roads are for, and for whom they are merely invited guests. As I’ve learned in the park, there is nothing wrong with the ocassional vehicle going by at human speed. Sure, there will always be some asshole as an exception to any rule, but if we design the world with the assholes in mind, we’ll end up with shit.
I don’t like articles that try to present the Grand Unifying Theory of anything, so I’m not going to pretend this has all the answers. It definitely doesn’t! Rules are obviously important. After all, it was a rule that made the park car free to begin with. But a few years ago I thought the most important thing for better, safer streets was coming up with a bunch of new rules and making drivers follow them. I find urban planners often love rules, because the profession self-selects for individuals who want to put everything in its neat little place. But now I’m thinking rules only work insofar as they eliminate contested space. We need fewer and simpler rules. Rules are important, but not that important.
I’m currently reading the third volume of Rick Perlstein’s series on the rise of modern American conservatism, of which I am a tremendous admirer. So you can imagine my thrill when he tweeted that my article on the bipartisan infrastructure deal was “fabulous.”
I am fond of a subreddit called Cats With Jobs. This is a cat I saw in the window of a real estate office on Smith Street in South Brooklyn, so this is a landlord cat. The cat was at the corner of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, and Carroll Gardens, all neighborhood names I do not use as a matter of protest because they were invented in the 1950s and 1960s for exclusionary zoning purposes. I’m sorry, but you live in Red Hook. Get over it.
Have a good one,