Sacrificing Central Park to Appease the Traffic Gods

The Dept. of Transportation’s 2005 study showed there is no need to eliminate car-free hours during the holidays. So why did they do it this year?


Every November, year after year, the city sends two contradictory messages to motorists. On the one hand, it urges all those coming to the city during the holiday season to use mass transit. On the other, its Department of Transportation announces that to accommodate those who will be driving, the Central Park loop road will be open to traffic all day on weekdays from late November until early January, eliminating daytime car-free hours for the park’s recreational users. In effect, the city is saying, "We encourage you to use mass transit, but if you want to drive, we have this lovely park you can motor through that we hope will speed your way to Midtown!"

This double message aside, DOT’s own traffic data fails to demonstrate a need to throw open Central Park to traffic during the holiday season.

In 2004, the DOT studied the effects of entrance closings that had taken effect in November 2004 The report, published April 2005, can be found here: 2004 Holiday Traffic Plan: Central Park Drive Improvements (PDF file). As part of the study, the agency recorded traffic volumes at various entrances and exits on the loop drive and on several adjacent avenues both at the height of the 2004 holiday season (December 6-10 and 13-17) and after holiday hours had ended (January 10-14, 2005).

Unfortunately, DOT did not record traffic volumes during the five mid-day hours (10 am to 3 pm) that cars use the Park during the holiday period, but it did count cars during the morning and evening rush hours (7-10 am and 3-7 pm). One would expect that to justify opening Central Park to traffic all day, holiday traffic volumes would be substantially greater than during non-holiday periods. This is simply not the case. In fact, the data suggests there is less traffic.

central_park_jogging.jpgCentral Park has two major exits for traffic traveling southbound. Traffic heading into Midtown is most likely to leave the park via the exit at 7th Avenue and Central Park South. The second-most popular exit for southbound cars leaving the park is the one at West 72nd Street.

At the 7th Avenue exit during the rush-hour periods, fewer cars left the park during the holiday weeks than after the holidays: an average of 5,608 cars versus 6,732 cars a day, or 1,124 fewer cars. The West 72nd Street exit saw a small increase in traffic leaving the park during the holiday weeks: an average of 3,570 cars versus 2,960 cars, or 610 more cars a day leaving the park during the holiday period.

Adding it up, there were 514 fewer cars a day, on average, leaving the park at its two major southbound exits during the holiday weeks than afterwards.

Nor were the surrounding avenues unusually packed with cars. There was no significant uptick in traffic on the avenues adjacent to the Park during the holiday weeks compared with the post-holiday week. For example, the holiday versus post-holiday counts during the morning rush at Fifth Avenue between 62nd and 63rd were 4,296 versus 4,379; at Central Park West between 62nd and 63rd they were 1,002 versus 906; and at Columbus Avenue between 62nd and 63rd, they were 4,063 versus 3,954. That adds up to an average 82 additional cars a day during the holiday weeks on these avenues at a time when the city is supposed to be so gridlocked that the Central Park drive simply must be opened to traffic all day.

cars_in_central_park2.jpgWhat could be the reason for the DOT’s continued insistence that the world’s most famous urban refuge must be made available to any motorist who wants to speed through it in the middle of the day? I’m starting to believe that superstition is at work here, the same kind that prompted our ancestors to sacrifice virgins or sheep to appease the gods — only now, the DOT believes that if it doesn’t sacrifice a great urban park each year, the traffic gods will grow angry and something terrible will happen. But something terrible is already happening: For six weeks, recreational users of the Central Park Drives will have no escape from the danger, pollution and aggravation of traffic. The gods must surely be angry.

Ken Coughlin is Chair of the Car-Free Central Park Campaign which has collected over 100,000 signatures in support of a car-free park.

  • Mordecai-Mark Mac Low

    Not only did they open the park to traffic, they announced this in 12 point type on the pedestrian paths… ONLY. I was nearly run down by speeding traffic at 10:15 AM Monday morning, the first day of the mid-day opening, riding my bike to work on what I fully expected to be a closed drive.

    Interestingly, when I called this into the CP Precinct (not yet having seen the signs announcing the opening), they just nodded and, when I asked the desk clerk explicitly if they were going to enforce the closure (that I thought was still in effect), said they would!

  • Albert Ahronheim

    Bravo, Ken!

    One concern: Rightly or wrongly, mightn’t the DOT logically conclude from your paragraph 8 that the “average 82 additional cars a day during the holiday weeks” on 5 Av, CPW, etc., would’ve been much larger if cars were *not* allowed on the loop during the holiday season?


  • Ken

    Albert, since those counts were taken during times when cars are allowed in the park anyway, it would be hard for anyone to argue that the additional mid-day holiday hours would have an impact on them. Indeed, traffic is so light in the park in the middle of the day that it has an impact only on recreational users who have to remember to stay in the rec lane. Let’s hope no literal impacts ensue.

  • Steve

    I was out bicycling yesterday with my family and in-laws in CP. It was a beautiful day and ther park was full of people walking, bicycling, sightseeing, you name it. There were lots of tourists and New Yorkers sho rarely get out into the Park, to my eyes. Adults with their parents in wheelchairs. Families dressed in their Sunday best visiting the carousel. People that apparently resolved to start exercising the day after Thanksgiving. A great opportunity for New York and New Yorkers to enjoy the park.

    Yet a big piece of the park was off-limits–the loop road. The Park Loop was almost deserted in the morning and early afternoon–the “pulses” of traffic coming through each contained 2-5 cars but this kept us off the loop (we had a 4-year old with us. Instead, we tried to squeeze into the 4 foot bike lane or annoyed pedestrians on the paths. What a waste! Even in the later afternoon, there were never more than 5-7 cars per “pulse,” but they monopolized the entire loop.

  • Mordecai

    I was also out in the park yesterday, running with my 3 year old in a jogging stroller. During the warm afternoon, I observed an interesting, but rather dangerous pattern: the rec lane was so full with walkers and runners as to make it almost unpassable for bikers, so they were behaving as they have been trained to for the last eight months during mid-day hours, and riding in the traffic lanes. There were enough bikers that an effective critical mass was reached, forcing cars to slow (all the way down to the speed limit — a lot of these bikers had serious legs!). The slower vehicles were clearly a lot less dangerous to everyone involved.

    This led me to think that speed bumps tuned to the actual speed limit in the park of 25 mph would be very useful in minimizing danger from cars that do choose to enter the park. (Including park workers and others who appear to be allowed to drive at any time.)

  • Tim Messer

    Maybe the MTA should try running some extra service during the holidays instead.

  • Steve

    You know, I may have misjudged the impact of allowing cars in the park–it’s not SO bad . . .:

    OK, seriously, this clip does not reflect traffic resulting from the holiday mitigation plan but rather that caused by NYC marathon preparations on october 31. But it does demonstrate how quickly traffic can transform the park into a parking lot. Thank heavens there is a bike lane or there would be three lanes of cars!

  • roger m

    I concur with Steve. When I’ve been on the Central Park loop, during “winter hours”, there haven’t been that many cars.

    Not having car-free hours during the day has drastically reduced my use of the park. A car-free loop not only benefits people on wheels, but makes the park a MUCH better place for people on foot who are not even in the roadway as the park is much quieter and serene.

    Notice that I refer it as “the loop” where as the city refers to it as the “park DRIVES.” Another indication of car-culture saturated mentality. BTW, there’s way too many “authorized” vehicles on the loop during non-car hours.

    Thanks for your hard work on this issue.

  • Traffic is horrible anywhere in the city, but particularly in CP. Ever since the Jogger was attacked and the citys build-up of police,FBI, and whatnot in the park. The level of harrasment has been unbearable. Police cars,scooters,and everyother type of motorized annoyance is allowed to run willy-nilly through the park and time of day or night. That along with the vague laws pertaining to use of the park make it an unbearable place to ride a bike. Joggers run clockwise or counter clockwise when the park has installed arrows that clearly point in a counterclockwise direction. Ped’s cross the roadway at any point without consideration of traffic coming their way. Ped’s constantly walk on the roadway with the parks beautiful rambling walkways go unused. The horse carts use the lower loop leaving horse pucky to be blown about the roadway and ruts that cannot be avoided, and a horse path goes unused. With thousand of police occupying the park crime is still at and all time high. Does anyone in city goverment have a clue on how to make a plan that is simple and understandable put it out and let us live with it. the next time you see and officer ask him what the rules are about stopping for lights or use of the joggers lane and see what answer you get. Not to police officers or park ranger will tell you the same thing. This is not rocket science, why are things so simple to understand so complicated in New York?

  • Steve

    Campocat, you make some good points. I like to accommodate the joggers and peds as much as I can, because they are the natural allies for a car-free park and more numerous than bicyclists. On the weekdays they generally leave the bike lane free, though not always (especially on the southern portion of the loop below 72nd Street where a wooden fence divides the bike lane and the jogger lane, and the joggers take the bike lane in order to avoid the peds on the jogger path).

    On the weekends, the joggers and peds take over the entire roadway and assume that everybody will be able to yield to them no matter what they do. Two weekends ago, when I moved into the bicycle lane to avoid a Parks Department garbage truck, a jogger moving in the opposite direction stuck his hand out at face level so I had to duck to avoid getting hit. I pulled over and he yelled at me that I couldn’t ride in the bicycle lane on the weekends because the traffic lanes were open. I told him that he couldn’t hit me and called back, “I hit you anytime I want!”

    I sometimes have a problem taking my 4 year old daughter bicycling in CP because of the possibility that she will be hit by the fitness-training bicyclists on the outer two lanes, while the joggers and pedestrians demand that she stay out of the bicycle lane. When I’m with her, I try to stick to the two roadways in CP that are not part of the loop and are 24 hours prohibited to cars, the spur to the Plaza and the (misnamed) Central Park Driveway which runs from 105th on the East Side to 102nd on the West Side.

    The laws for bicycles in CP are completely unrealistic as applied to the weekend. Bicycles cannot be ridden anywhere in CP except designated paths. That means the officially marked bike lane on the loop, Central Park Driveway, Terrace Drive (at 72nd St) and the spur to the Plaza. On the weekends, however, bicyclists would inevitably kill (and/or be killed by) joggers and pedestrians if they stuck to the loop bike lane. There should be weekend designations for loop–the weekday jogger and bicyclist lanes could be for joggers; the middle traffic lane could be for slow bicyclists, in line skaters, etc.; and the outer lane for fitness-training cyclists.

    At the end of the day, though, in most cases I’d prefer to ride my bike in CP when it’s car free than anywhere on the street in NYC, even with all the joggers, peds, and the rest.

  • Well Steve I have been riding, walking, playing music, rowing, picnicing, and many other assorted things in CP for 50 years. The present condition of the park is just as unbearable, just as it was when you took you life in your hands to ride a bike above 90st in the 1950’s.

    People are dying and getting seriously hurt in the park, and it is not because of crime. We are doing it to ourselves. It is time for a plan, and if the city can’t come up with one, the citizenry should themselves. Politics always follows public opinion, because they all must get elected sooner or later. I could write a plan in twenty minutes. Park congestion is handled in parks all over the world without a fuss. It is time to help people enjoy the park without getting hurt, and still remain fit, healthy, while getting from Point A to Point B.

    Getting cars out of the park is a good start, and I mean city cars also that do not drive in the right direction also. I’m a professional cyclists and I love to see parents bring children to the park to ride their bikes. I often encourage them and I run childrens cycling programs.

    Racing and training are two very different animals. A faster rider always has the obligation to watch out for slow riders and children, peds, scaters, shoping carts, or whatever. The people who can’t stand to be passed by another biker are mental. This is a complex like road rage that happens only in New York parks as I see it, because I have riden all over the world. Once rules of conduct are posted and upheld, the caos will stop. You can’t fault people for running amuck when that is just what we are telling them to do… Stay safe alright


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