2/14/03: Balance

First off, I must apologize for the Lamp Post Bulletin Board being broken for so long. I moved the site to a new server in January and I haven't yet been able to get the bulletin board software working properly. I'm finally focused on the problem and will have it fixed soon.

Second, there is some news worth reporting: We started off the year with a notable transportation victory here in Brooklyn. The City DOT finally conceded to a significant increase of car-free hours in Prospect Park. Though we've been fighting for a full, three-month car-free trial period from Memorial Day to Labor Day, this is still a significant victory.

Prospect Park is Brooklyn's "emerald jewel." It was designed by the same guys who created Central Park and, in most ways, they did a much nicer job their second time around. Brooklyn has less Park-land than any of the other four boroughs of New York City. Prospect Park provides the City's most populous borough with its biggest and best green space. Brooklyn is incredibly diverse and provincial. It's easy to stay in your neighborhood and not have much to do with the borough's other communities. Prospect Park is the one place where we all come together on a regular basis. Everyone sees each other in the Park. It's Brooklyn's melting pot. I find that the Park connects me to American history in an extremely tangible way. The Park and just about everything around it were planned and built immediately following the Civil War. Looking at the fearsome Grand Army Plaza Arch from Prospect Park West, you really get the feeling of an optimistic people, a victorious nation, and a budding American empire on the rise. You get the sense that the people who designed and built this place were imagining a future better than their immediate past. Finally, the Park is environmentally important. I recently read that a whole slew of rare birds use it as their main migration pit-stop in the New York area. Clearly, Prospect Park is one of New York City's great assets.

The biggest problem with Prospect Park are the cars. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the Park Drives to give the feeling of a rural country road with gentle winding turns and rolling hills that never allow you to see more than 60 feet ahead. The designers intended the Park Drives to be used by ladies and gentlemen taking leisurely horse-drawn carriage rides on Sunday afternoons. They imagined the roads as a nice antidote to the crowded and severe urban grid. A lovely idea, right?

It is. Until you take the horse-drawn carriages off the winding, hilly roads and replace them with careening SUV's piloted by a hormone-addled Bensonhurst teenagers. Then you've got a recipe for disaster, not to mention noise, pollution and the general atmosphere of incivility that pervades every automobile-saturated environment. Cars on the Park Drives are in a constant state of conflict with cyclists, joggers, stroller-pushing moms and anyone else who wants to use the Park as a refuge from the mechanized mayhem of urban life. Which, after all, was and is still is the purpose of the Park.

The City DOT, however, sees the Park's purpose differently. To DOT, Prospect Park is an outlet for overflow automobile traffic. For years they've allowed the Park Drives to be used as a fast and cheap shortcut from southern Brooklyn to the toll-free bridges over the East River. During the morning rush into Manhattan, many motorists choose to avoid paying to use (the much faster) Brooklyn Battery Tunnel by getting off the Prospect Expressway, tearing through the Park, and bludgeoning their way down Flatbush Avenue to the cross the intensely heinous (but completely toll-free!) Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. It's interesting to note how the lack of tolling on the East River Bridges impacts traffic and quality of life miles away, deep into residential Brooklyn.

So, after many years of community demands for a completely car-free Prospect Park and a year of massive demonstrations and political efforts, DOT finally caved in and decided to extend "summer hours."
The decision came down, essentially, to one person, DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall. Now that's democracy for ya!

During typical "summer hours" cars are allowed in the Park only during the morning and evening rush. Summer hours used to run from April to the end of November. During the rest of the year, cars could rip through the Park 24-7 on weekdays. Because of the work of our campaign, summer hours now lasts 11 months of the year, excluding December. We managed to liberate approximately 100 new car-free days. It's not enough. But it's not bad either. I'm learning that you've got to chip away at these things and persist.

The press release that DOT sent out to announce the extension of summer hours was hilarious in its clumsy efforts to stay "on-message." Each of the three life-long members of the city bureaucracy quoted in the press release notably referred to the need for "balance." Transportation Commissioner Weinshall said, "We want to balance the needs of the various residents of Brooklyn." Parks Commissioner Benepe said, "I commend... DOT for working to balance the needs of all New Yorkers." And Borough President Markowitz (who consistently puts up massive opposition to anything that in any way limits the rights of motorists to do anything they want) said, "this is an amicable balance of uses for Prospect Park and its surrounding communities."

The premise that the needs of motorists in Prospect Park must be balanced with the needs of every other kind of Park user is almost too absurd to respond to. The best I can do is provide an analogy:

Say you had an elephant living in your apartment with your family of five, your pet dog and goldfish. Imagine too, that you live in a city increasingly filled with elephants. In fact, every time you go out on the street you're in danger of being stomped and killed by an elephant. All day, the elephants make loud honking noises that rattle your nerves and at night your sleep is broken regularly by elephant alarms. Imagine that most of the city's rapidly diminishing budget goes towards maintaining an elephant-friendly environment, and that the president of your nation is sending the military overseas to ensure a steady supply of elephant food. These elephants are expensive! Imagine too, that it would be very easy to remove the elephant from your house if you really wanted. It wouldn't be a big engineering feat or cost a lot of money. It wouldn't even be very difficult politically since the elephants are so disorganized. In this scenario would your primary concern be to "balance" the needs of the elephant with every other member of your house? Nope. You'd kick the elephant the fuck out of the house. And if you actually managed to kick the elephant out of your house would you then consider the human-elephant relationship balanced? Not really. The elephants still occupy your streets like an invading army.

But let's try to be positive and a bit more concrete. I for one am glad to hear Commissioner Weinshall and these other guys talking about the need for "balance." Because balance is desperately needed in the city's 60-year-old, monolithic, automobile-focused transportation policy. DOT is the second largest agency in the city and the vast majority of its enormous budget goes towards maintaining an increasingly expensive and decreasingly efficient automobile infrastructure. Pedestrians and cyclists, the majority of New Yorkers, get scraps as the city's budget crises worsen. Where's the balance? Subway and bus riders are dealt fare hikes while SUV drivers receive tax breaks. Where's the balance? We're sending one group of Americans off to Iraq to sure up oil supplies while another group of Americans in their Hummers, Navigators, Sequoias and Avalanches consume more oil than ever. Are we balanced yet?