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Car-Free Parks

What if DOT Simply Forgot to Open the Parks to Traffic?

central_park_car_free.jpg

This holiday season, users of Central and Prospect Parks got an unexpected and welcome gift after years of finding coal (and exhaust) in their stockings. Interestingly, the sources of that exhaust didn't seem to complain (or perhaps even notice) that things had changed.

For years, cars have been barred from most of the Parks' Loop Drives during weekday non-rush hours. But year after year, an exception has been made for the period between Thanksgiving and New Years when the city has temporarily lifted the weekday traffic ban. They called it "Holiday Hours." The reason, to quote a 2005 Department of Transportation press release, was "to provide additional capacity to help process the expected increase in vehicular trips during the holiday season" and, as former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall said in 2006, "to help make room for the many people that want to enjoy our City's attractions." In other words: Accommodating more motor vehicle traffic was the mitigation for too much motor vehicle traffic.

Whether there is any evidence that "additional capacity" is needed or does anything more than fuel traffic congestion was the subject of a post on this site in November 2006 (see "Sacrificing Central Park to Appease the Traffic Gods"). But there is no doubt that the sudden appearance of car traffic during times of day that have been car-free for the previous ten months has been an annual jolt to the park's thousands of recreational users.

This year, however, at the urging of Transportation Alternatives, DOT for the first time quietly failed to open the Parks' gates to the anticipated crush of Santas hurtling to Midtown to fill their SUVs with gifts. The suspension of car-free hours was itself suspended. What ensued is instructive: nothing.

DOT officials say that they didn't receive any calls or complaints through 311 and the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit heard nothing from motorists furious that they hadn't received their customary holiday handout. Traffic congestion around the Parks did not appear to be any worse than usual.

But while drivers may not have noticed or cared much, the Parks' recreational users certainly did. According to a DOT official, the agency received considerable feedback through e-mail and other means from people who noticed that weekday car-free hours in Central and Prospect Parks remained intact during the holidays and were pleased. T.A., too, heard from many delighted park users, some of whom could not believe their eyes (or their lungs).

"We're going to keep reviewing how it went, but certainly we'd look to do it again next holiday season," the DOT official said. "At this point we see no reason to make a change."

All this bodes well for the three-month trial closing of both parks to traffic this summer, a long-overdue measure being pushed by TA and numerous elected officials, including Upper West Side Council Member Gale A. Brewer, who introduced the car-free summer legislation two years ago. To be sure, drivers are more likely to notice when a privilege is taken away rather than simply not reinstated. But nearly every incremental restriction of car traffic in both parks has been preceded by dire predictions of traffic cataclysm. Time and time again, these fears have proved groundless.

The holiday hours story should embolden officials to take an extended holiday from traffic and make Central and Prospect Parks the refuges they were meant to be.

Photo: Swruler9284 / Flickr

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