JSK’s “98 Percent” Car-Free Central Park Claim Is 100 Percent Wrong

DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show last Wednesday to talk about the agency’s plans to, as Lehrer put it, "spread the Times Square model." When Lehrer invited listeners to call in with their ideas for other streets that should be made car-free zones, "Steve from Manhattan" asked why the Central Park loop wasn’t being closed to traffic, calling it "obvious" and a "no-brainer." In her response, the commissioner said that Central Park’s loop road already is closed to traffic "98 percent of the time."

If this were true, it would invite the question why it’s such a big deal to finish the job, but in fact Sadik-Khan’s statistic is simply false. Worse, she’s clearly been using this inaccurate figure for quite some time, because she also cited it in a conversation I had with her back in October 2008.

Here are the facts: Because different sections of the loop are open to traffic for different lengths of time, the actual percentage depends on where you are on the loop and also on what you define as "the time" (for example, is it every hour of every day or only the hours when people are actually in the park?). Given this, the actual percentage of time that cars are banned ranges from a low of 25 percent to a high of 94 percent, depending where you are on the loop.

Let’s assume that "the time" means every hour of every day. With the West Drive now open to traffic for only two hours on weekday mornings, it’s closed to traffic 94 percent of "the time," which is the likely source of Sadik-Khan’s "98 percent." But as any recreational user of Central Park knows, the six-mile loop has an East Drive as well, which is open to traffic far longer. The East Drive north of 72nd Street is open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and the half-mile segment between the Sixth Avenue entrance and the E. 72nd Street exit permits vehicular access from morning until night, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This means the section north of 72nd is closed to traffic 88 percent of "the time" and the southern section is closed only 64 percent of "the time."

The percentage of car-free time drops if we limit "the time" to weekday hours when people are actually likely to be in the park, and exclude weekends (when cars have been banned for 43 years), the overnight curfew (when no one is allowed in the park anyway), and the period from 10 p.m. to the curfews’ start at 1 a.m. If "the time" is instead defined as weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the West Drive is closed to traffic 87 percent of the time, the northern part of the East Drive is closed 77 percent of the time, and the southern section is closed only one quarter of the time.

Whatever the percentages are, the fact remains that the drives are open to traffic during the precise hours when non-motorized use is highest: before the start of the workday on the West Drive; when kids are getting out of school and adults off from work on the northern section of the East Drive; and virtually all day on the East Drive’s southern corner. The commissioner’s implicit assertion that the park is almost completely closed to traffic is highly misleading and unhelpful.

On the more hopeful side, Sadik-Khan told Lehrer that closing the park to cars is "something we’ve been looking at," but she hastened to add that "it’s a balancing act in terms of understanding how the traffic flows through this important part of the city."

One wonders how much more data DOT needs before its understanding is complete. Over the past two decades the agency has repeatedly installed traffic counters both in the park and on surrounding streets. After each of its major adjustments to car access it has conducted detailed studies, none of which found any significant traffic problems. Isn’t it time DOT heeded the advice that urbanist Jane Jacobs offered me in a letter from 2002?

We had the same sort of fight in Washington Square Park in the late 1950s and in my neighborhood here in Toronto a couple of years ago: same prediction of traffic chaos, same result of no chaos, diminished traffic counts and no counts increased elsewhere in consequence. Isn’t it curious that traffic engineers are so loath to learn something new even after repeated demonstrations? Both in Washington Square Park and in my Toronto neighborhood we got our way by pressing for an experimental trial period. A trial, with traffic counts on the Central Park perimeter streets, will be more persuasive than any amount of talk, letter-writing, resolutions, and other endless wheel-spinning.

  • Nice post, Ken. I would eliminate fromt he calculation the curfew hours between 1 a.m. and approximately 6 a.m., when supposedly no one is allowed in the park.

    Speaking of which, I’ve heard a rumor that during curfew hours, cars are permitted in to pick up late night partgoers from the Boat House. Can anyone confirm?

  • I’ve never been clear on whether cyclists are allowed to ride through the park, without stopping, after 1 a.m. I’ve done it in Prospect Park, in full view of the cops, who didn’t give me a ticket. Does anyone know?

  • glenn

    Let’s say I’m an everyday bike commuter through Central Park. From that perspective, I might be dealing with cars all the time.

  • According to the restaurant’s website, it’s pickup and dropoff only between the hours of three and seven p.m., and patrons are advised to use the Met Museum garage at other times. I have seen cars there, picking up and dropping off, after seven p.m.

    Ken, can you discuss any data derived from measuring traffic in the neighborhood during the week before the Marathon when the park is closed to automobiles?

  • glenn

    The current benefit of the additional hour has been early morning exercisers, people who walk their dogs and early morning bike commuters.

    When I have commuted to work by bike through the park, I always start real early to avoid the cars. Unfortunately that means getting in 2 hours early…

    I would definitely ride my bike to work more often if the Park were finally closed to cars for good.

  • I’ve been ejected by NYPD from Central Park as early as 1:05 a.m., and I know cyclists who have been ticketed for violation the curfew.

  • Good job, Ken!

    Now, why is there a curfew?

  • vnm

    I use the West Drive almost exclusively between 8 and 9 a.m., to bike to work. From my perspective, it is open to cars 98% of the time.

  • The curfew reflects the park’s history of violent and other crime at night, and probably also the desire to save costs by limiting the number of NYPD needed to monitor the park. However, things have changed quite a bit, certainly enough for the city to re-evaluate the curfew. Extending the park hours to 3 a.m. or later on Friday and Saturday nights during the warmer six months would certainly be reasonable.

  • It sounded wrong when she said it!

    I second BicyclesOnly, it’s not really sensible to include the night hours when the park is CLOSED. If one excludes those hours (one should) in calculating the percentage of time the park is car free, then it’s way less than 98%.

    As far as the curfew, as I understand it, no one–bikes, cars, peds–is allowed in the park after 1:00am. Those who have gotten off without a ticket (not for being on a bike, but for being in the park) have just been lucky.

  • aliostuni

    Were the park car-free, the space on the loop could be distributed much more sensibly: both by mode and direction. The need for counterflow traffic is evident by the bike riders (generally tourists, delivery people, and the occasional commuter) who already go against the flow. It’s dangerous right now, but it doesn’t need to be: and a safe route both uptown and downtown could be provided so easily simply by eliminating the unnecessary motorized vehicle traffic that eats so much space.

  • Josh

    My hunch is that she just said “98% of the time” as a proxy for “most of the time”. I agree with all the above comments that it’d be better off if there were no cars on it ever, but let’s not jump on JSK (one of the strongest voices for making city space available to people rather than just to cars, after all) for what might just be a poorly turned phrase.

  • Ken Coughlin

    To answer Jonathan about counts during the Marathon closing, for years TA had tried to get the previous DOT administration to take that opportunity to measure traffic impacts, to no avail. Our campaign did a few counts on CPW and Columbus Ave. both during and after the Marathon closing in ’02 and ’03 and found a very small (5-10 percent) uptick in traffic during the closing but also no unusual traffic tie-ups. It’s not a fair measure anyway because the short duration of the Marathon closing doesn’t give drivers adequate time to adjust habits or switch to other modes. The Regional Plan Association estimates that traffic “shrinkage” would be between 20 and 60 percent.

    The DOT has done three major, detailed studies of the traffic impact of various closings — two studies in 2005 (one on the impact of The Gates) and one in 2007. There is nothing in any of these studies that justifies hesitating on a three-month trial closing.

  • Woody

    We made nice progress earlier in the Bloomie Administration in getting the traffic hours whittled back, and secondary entrances to the Park shut. But for whatever reason, this Mayor and this Commish seem to feel that a total closure would be too controversial, if only perhaps among the Upper East Side set that goes out to dine.

    Focus on getting a few more slices off the salami.

    Make the evening Rush Hour only two hours long. The stock exchange is open until 4 p.m., how the heck does “Rush Hour” begin at 3 p.m.? Aim for a Rush Hour of 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., but live with 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. This really should be an easy win.

    Close the East Side Drive at 90th St. The fine citizens who dine with Bloomie and those who vote for him leave the Park at 72nd or 90th St already. Very few drivers exiting at 110th St are going to Harlem — they’re headed to Westchester and Connecticut.

    Get Summer Hours that close the drives from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. After all, that’s when the Park is full of kids from child care and summer camp programs anyway. Call the Summer Hours a “trial period.” We’ll never see traffic in Central Park during the heat of summer again.

    Finally, that strip from 6th Ave to 72nd isn’t going car-free in our lifetimes. So toll it. More than half those vehicles are taxis and town cars anyway, and they all carry E-Z-Pass. Send the proceeds to the Parks Department for use in the parks outside Manhattan.

    Every time the salami gets sliced, we get fewer drivers using the Park and less opposition to closing it to cars altogether. Let’s keep whittling our way to victory.

  • Hannah

    How about the fancy new park signs on many of the barricades? They proclaim that the drive is closed except to official vehicles. Never mind that the drive is wide open to bikes, runners, skaters, skiers, walkers, bird-watchers, and anyone else not in a *motor* vehicle. The sentiment of “closed” kinda misses the whole point of the park.

  • Blind Boy Grunt

    Woody makes some good arguments for interim closings, but I have to say it really irritates me when people make statements like “that strip from 6th Ave to 72nd isn’t going car-free in our lifetimes.” I always wonder why such far-seeing individuals aren’t making millions down on Wall Street. My response to them is: “I’m sorry to hear you’ve given up.” The most accurate thing that can be said about that section of the drive is that without Woody’s help, it may be a little less likely to happen.

  • Kaja

    I’ve done it in Prospect Park, in full view of the cops, who didn’t give me a ticket.

    This is how I found out that parks in NYC close at 1am: Using Prospect Park northbound as a cut-through a bit after one, cops flagged me down and explained the situation. I said I’d book it to Grand Army, and then began climbing the great hill…

    with the police SUV directly behind me, as in tailgating, with the brights on. So that I couldn’t slow down, and requiring every ounce of control to avoid tripping my fight-or-flight response. Outright harassment. Following me up the hill.

    Lessons come in many forms!

    Close the park to auto traffic both ways, and put a double yellow stripe down the center of it. I’d use the loop way more, on my bike, were it bidirectional; as it is I avoid it since it’s mostly going the wrong way.

  • Kaja

    (Meant to quote Mark Epstein there; the comment engine ate my tag.)

  • LN

    Re: Parks closing at 1am. These were put into place by the Central Park and Prospect Park Conservancies. This ticketing is bogus, since the park drives are DOT roads.

    Some worked on this a while back… to no avail. It sucks that when the park is quiet —except for boat house drivers ‘picking up and dropping off’ between 72nd and 96th– and bikers are ticketed.

    At least one person who complained at the central park precinct community meeting about this was told by a CP Conservancy rep that the reason for closing the park was ‘so the animals could sleep’.

  • Peter from Stuy Town

    Thank you for this, Ken. Nice work.

    About a year ago I was stopped riding through Central Park on my bike at 1:30am. My pretty wife’s demeanor probably helped us to be let go with a warning, but the cops were pretty grumpy about us not knowing the curfew is still in effect.

    Oh, and Kaja — you say harassment and it probably was, but I’m willing to bet the cops thought they were doing you a solid.

  • Tubulus

    She’s probably using some sort of total time-miles to calculate the 98%. For example, if the park was car-free or 75% of the day, and half was open to cars the rest of the day, she would say it’s closed to cars 75% + 25%*50% = 87.5% of the time. Haven’t worked out the actual numbers here.

  • This is getting sort of silly. JSK was just using an expression to indicate it was mostly closed. Given all the curfew and weekends plus weekday limits, it is more or not a fib.

    BUT as several folks have mentioned, it is the commuter times which are the main issues. So I humbly suggest we re-frame this as something like “Carfree Central Park Rush Hour” or “Central Park Carfree Rush Hour” etc.

  • sorry: “more or less not a fib”.

  • Bidirectional is a great idea for both CP and PP.

    Requires car-free parks though! Give us both.

  • I take it that using the at-grade streets on Central Park for bus service isn’t an option.

    By the way: I’ve crossed Central Park at 3 a.m. a few times and never been ejected.

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