Eastern Parkway Was Never Meant to Be a Highway

The case for making the street more like the pleasure road Frederick Law Olmsted intended.

Photo: el_cigarrito/Shutterstock / el_cigarrito
Photo: el_cigarrito/Shutterstock / el_cigarrito

When Frederick Law Olmsted began designing Eastern Parkway in 1870, he imagined it as a tree-lined “pleasure road” where people could walk, ride horses, and drive carriages to get fresh air. At the time, New York’s roads were crowded and chaotic, crisscrossed by pedestrians dodging trolleys and carriages. Street trees were not part of the cityscape. The cleaner, calmer Brooklyn parkway was the first of many that Olmsted would draw up, the American counterpart to Europe’s grand boulevards. They reflected his belief that parks should be accessible to all, and that they should be connected via greenways. Once completed, Eastern Parkway became a vital link between Crown Heights’ many enclaves, and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission eventually designated the road a scenic landmark, describing it in 1978 as “an endless allée of refreshment.”

It still is today. A dense canopy of elm, ash, and oak trees covers the pedestrian paths, which are well-used by cyclists and families, and its benches are steadily occupied by friends in conversation. During commuting hours, people pour in and out of its four subway stops. Where the street meets Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Museum, and Utica Avenue, vendors sell food, books, housewares, and clothing. But it’s also become the second-deadliest street in Brooklyn, after Flatbush Avenue, measured by pedestrians killed or severely injured. This year, three people have died in traffic collisions on the parkway, and there have been 62 crashes, 20 more than in the same period last year, according to Crashmapper. (The total might be higher, since this only includes data from NYPD reports.) The edges are friendly to people, but the road itself has devolved into a six-lane highway. Using it requires constant vigilance, a feeling of precarity that is at odds with any of the remotely pleasurable emotions that its original vision aimed to invoke. This year, on the occasion of Olmsted’s 200th birthday on April 26, I reflected on the gap between its origins as a “shaded green ribbon” and what it had become. What would it take to turn the street into a place that prioritized pleasure for all who encounter it?

Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1868 diagram for Eastern Parkway. Illustration: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Physically, the parkway hasn’t changed dramatically. The historic section, a 2.2-mile stretch from Grand Army Plaza to Ralph Avenue, has approximately the same layout as when it opened in 1874: a central corridor lined by trees, pedestrian paths, service roads, and sidewalks on each side. But the 55-foot-wide carriage drive of Olmsted’s day is now a six-lane arterial road. The carriage drive’s rough-textured crushed-gravel surface and the stone-covered service roads were all repaved with asphalt. As Jessie Singer writes in There Are No Accidents, when presented with long, straight, wide, smooth roads that look like highways, drivers speed up because it feels “safe” to do so. On Eastern Parkway, the posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour, but drivers regularly exceed 40. At intersections, fast-turning cars encounter most of the pedestrians. As a result, most crashes between cars and pedestrians happen near streets with a subway stop or mid-block.

Although the city has modified the parkway to make driving easier, it hasn’t improved it much for other people. There are no curb cuts on the north mall (though construction has started), making it inaccessible for people with low vision, wheelchair users, stroller pushers, and cyclists. Delivery trucks and vans have no designated drop-off point, which means they often block the service roads. As a pedestrian — I most frequently cross at Grand Army Plaza, Washington Avenue, and Franklin Avenue — I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, expecting someone to clip me as they turn or try to beat a light. As a cyclist, I generally avoid the bike path because it’s so congested and full of uneven paving.

What’s especially dispiriting is that Eastern Parkway gets a decent share of attention from the city. In 2006, the Bloomberg administration created a master plan for the parkway toward improving the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway system, which suggested redesigning intersections, introducing more traffic signals, and marking crosswalks between the malls. DOT offered the same ideas after Eastern Parkway was named a Vision Zero priority corridor in 2015. But two more years slipped by before the agency began taking those steps (and hasn’t finished yet). Traffic patterns have been tweaked with the addition of new left- and right-turn lanes and changes in signal timing to keep traffic moving and reduce conflicts between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. New rubber pedestrian islands in a couple of intersections — at Kingston Avenue and New York Avenue — replaced the concrete islands that were briefly installed but soon removed due to complaints that they would make it difficult for West Indian Day Parade floats to travel down the road. The next major redesign will be implemented at Buffalo Avenue — where there have been ten crashes and 14 people injured since January, and just two weeks ago a car critically injured a cyclist — and will similarly bring new crosswalks, new signaling, and reconfigured traffic lanes. That’s all good, but it doesn’t come close to keeping up with the traffic congestion that is choking New York City.

Anyone who knows this street can see missed opportunities to do more. At Prospect Park, which Eastern Parkway was intended to extend, the Prospect Park Alliance — the nonprofit public-private partnership that tends the park — has restricted vehicle access, welcomed public-art installations, and begun restoring the landscape. A more biodiverse landscape in lieu of the patchy grass along the road would be nice, but the Parks Department, which manages the pedestrian malls, is stretched so thin that this improvement is unlikely to happen, especially considering how much attention the rest of the city’s parks and playgrounds desperately need. For cyclists, DOT has installed protected and well-marked bike lanes on the park’s periphery. Eastern Parkway could benefit from the same. Perhaps it could also borrow from Central Park, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s other masterpiece, which, through the Central Park Conservancy, has added distinct interpretive signage, wayfinding, and custom trash and recycling cans that give it a unique visual identity and sense of place, again only made possible through the Conservancy’s robust fundraising. Similarly, historical markers explaining the parkway’s past, including what was there before Olmsted built the road, like the Weeksville cemetery it displaced, would enhance the experience of the road as a historic landmark.

Aesthetics aside, what if we designed the road to better accommodate pedestrians and cyclists? That shift in priorities is key, according to Bill Schultheiss, the design director at Toole, an urban-design and engineering firm that developed pedestrian- and bicycle-safety interventions for Arborway, an Olmsted-designed parkway in Boston. “The thing that matters most is centering values over rules we make up in engineering,” Schultheiss says. The city designated Eastern Parkway as an “arterial slow zone” in 2014 — a contradictory concept since, according to Schultheiss, “an ‘arterial’ in our business means moving a lot of traffic fast so you can’t do things like raise a crosswalk or an intersection because it violates the fundamental purpose of the street. And I say that in an era of Vision Zero, the purpose needs to be safety.”

Like many older urban boulevards, Eastern Parkway was reconfigured to meet highway standards during the 20th century. “If the goal is the pleasurable experience of the street, there are a lot of ways to do that — but it isn’t keeping the curbs exactly where they are and traffic as fast as possible,” Schultheiss says. He suggests introducing a larger vocabulary of design interventions to the Parkway, like mid-block crossings, noting that the average 1,000-foot distance between stoplights now is too far, encouraging drivers to speed and pedestrians to cross mid-block. “Even 600 feet is getting to the limit,” he says. He also suggests removing parking to make space for curb extensions and widening crosswalks to give pedestrians more visibility and more space to wait, a practice known as “daylighting,” which has helped Hoboken achieve zero traffic deaths in four years. Schultheiss says one of the most effective tools to slow traffic is a speed table, a flat-topped raised area longer than a speed hump, which he thinks should be installed at each intersection. Paving the main road with sections of cobblestones could also force people to slow down.

To prevent deaths like the one that happened last year, when a driver drag racing down Utica Avenue killed one woman and injured one man near the parkway, the streets that intersect Eastern Parkway also need substantial interventions to slow down traffic. Olmsted’s plan for Eastern Parkway likewise accounted for the surrounding areas, restricting development around the parkway to residential use (nearly 50 years before New York had zoning) and banning any noxious land uses to preserve the parklike sensibility.

As traffic deaths — up 44 percent in 2022 — reach the highest level since Vision Zero was introduced, New Yorkers need more aggressive action to make the city’s streets safer. It starts with how we conceive of them in the first place, as Olmsted did when he designed Eastern Parkway around the principle of pleasure. It’s what made the road novel in the first place and why so many people still enjoy it today. But its deadliness has little chance of changing through incremental fixes. As much as Eastern Parkway needs new traffic signals and curb cuts, it also deserves bolder interventions deserving of the public resource that it is.

Eastern Parkway Was Never Meant to Be a Highway