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


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

  • Jonathan

    More evidence that the usual groundswell of “furious motorists” is merely a media plot, based on people’s second-hand reactions.

    e.g. Q: “Ms. Motorist, aren’t you furious that this year the city is closing the Central Park loop, which is funded by your tax dollars, to traffic during the most congested days of the year, when people could really use the relief?”
    A: Grrr!

    as opposed to…

    Q: “Ms. Gothamite, aren’t you pleased that this year the city is opening the Central Park loop, which is funded by your tax dollars, to tourists and city-dwellers alike in order to celebrate the holiday season by strolling or cycling in New York City’s most beautiful park?”
    A: Great!

    Fantastic job, DOT and TA!

  • Lem

    Thank you for the little gift DOT. But the parks were not nearly car-free. They were on the same weekday schedule as the rest of the year. The roadways were very open to traffic in the peak directions during the peak periods.

    This statement from your article is misleading.
    “people who noticed that both Central and Prospect Park remained car-free during the holidays and were pleased.”

  • If DoT simply forgot to open the parks to traffic, the motorists would wait a few minutes at the gated entry point, then get out of their cars, move the barrier, and drive into the park. Just like they do beginning at ~7:30 a.m. at the Central Park North and W. 96th St. entrances to Park Loop Road every weekday morning.

  • Lem, you’re right. I changed it a bit:

    “people who noticed that weekday car-free hours in Central and Prospect Parks remained intact during the holidays and were pleased.”

  • Clarence Eckerson

    A shout out to author Ken Coughlin, who has worked harder than anyone to make our parks car-free. When they are truly car-free, hopefully we can all pitch in and buy Ken a new guitar that he can sing Dylan on at the kick off ceremony. Anyways…thanks for everything Ken.

  • Ken

    Lem, good point. Must have been wishful thinking on my part.

    Clarence, lol and thanks for the mad props! I nominate “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” for the kickoff.

  • I second, Clarence. And although I miss running into Ken canvassing motorists on the loop during my morning commute, I think the “negative canvass” approach to studying the impact of car free hours in the park exemplified in the post (i.e., few or no complaints, lots of volunteered praise) has yielded an accurate result.

  • Ian D

    Great step in the right direction. The point is demonstrated over and over: making our parks places for people doesn’t result in any worsening of the traffic in the surrounding areas.

  • Next Year

    Howabout next year do a real car-free holiday season? As in, no cars in the parks. DOT can build on the car free summer we are all looking forward too.

  • lee

    you know what would look good instead of that asphalt pavement?


  • Another great add-on to a car-free summer in CP and PP would be a velolib trial like that underway for Governors Island. Have T.A. and the City print up a booklet with maps, destinations and bike amenities (oh, wait, there aren’t any). Use the booklet to sell touring families on spending a day or more exploring the park by bike. The various attractions could be organized into a series of suggested one-day tours with various cultural, recreational, and famly-oriented themes. Package the bike rental with reduced admission to the Zoo, AMNH, etc. The program would be wildly successful, not only among out of towners, but NYers arriving at the park via public transportation.

  • ddartley

    Open a park to traffic? Why on earth would we do that? Is there a natural disaster from which to flee or something?

  • Thanks to Ken for his continued vigilance on this topic and his increasing success!! I personally love the extension of car-free hours to 8am as I am a frequent morning user of the Park.

    Friendly Note to DOT: One thing that really irks me is those traffic lights. If they are only in use for 10-12 hours a day, can they just go to blinking yellow or red? During the other 150 hours the lights are completely ignored by the “official” vehicles of various designations that roam the Park and taken somewhat seriously by infrequent visitors. It would be better IMHO to have a “yield to pedestrian” sign or signal of some sort.

    Here’s to our Parks being true place of quiet contemplation!

  • C Vaux

    No, no, no, no bike share in Central Park. The existing bike rental creates enough chaos and crashes as it is with wrong way tourists careening into cyclists and runners on the loop. There are about a bajillion people trying to use the park drives and paths for every activity under the sun. Anyway bikes are not supposed to be on the paths, which are intended to be safe spaces for people to stroll. Take your bike share elsewhere please — and please not to Prospect, Riverside, or the Hudson River Greenway either.

  • CV, like it or not, Central, Prospect and Riverside Parks, and the Hudson River Greenway, allow bike access. They are also major tourist attractions (at least CP and the Greenway are). And though I often find tourists irritating, they bring lots of cash into the city so I’m ready to share the parks with them. And I didn’t say anything about bikes on the pedestrian-only pathways; I’m merely suggesting their use on the designated bike network within the parks. Plus I have noticed a number of European tourists riding bikes in CP who ride more safely than the native NY fitness guys whizzing aroudn the loop.

    So sorry, but we’ve all got to share!

  • Albert Ahronheim

    Thanks and kudos as usual, Ken! Excellent group psychology experiment that turned out as we all might’ve expected.

    Regarding Glenn’s suggestion about the unnecessary traffic lights in the park. Rather than program these lights to blink during car-free hours, for years I’ve been wondering how much energy (and dollars) would be saved if those useless, misleading, car-enabling stoplights would simply *be turned off altogether* during hours when cars are officially banned from the park. This would actually be a lot more than 10-12 hrs/day (for all but the SE corner of the loop). Has anyone ever actually done a count of bulbs used and watts wasted during the (north-)east loop’s actual 7PM-3PM car-free hours (20 hrs/day) and the west loop’s 7PM-8AM & 10AM-3PM car-free hours (16 hrs/day)? And don’t forget the 72nd st. crossover’s additional 4 car-free hours from 3-7PM and the entire loop’s 7PM Friday to 8AM Monday car-free hours. I assume it would only be a drop in the city’s bucket, but out of a few billions drops — especially such tasty symbolic ones — we could be talkin’ real savings!

  • Ken

    I hate to differ with the man responsible for more people signing the car-free Central Park petition than any other mortal, but I prefer Glenn’s idea of blinking lights (I think red is best), and I in fact proposed this to the Parks Dept. at a meeting three months ago and they seemed receptive, and a DOT guy at the meeting said it was doable.

    What is needed is SOMETHING to reduce cyclist/pedestrian conflicts at crosswalks on the loop. Cyclists need a signal that they can’t just blow on by at 25 mph, a warning that there is a potential hazard ahead. At the same time, expecting cyclists and other recreators to scrupulously observe traffic signals made for cars is unrealistic. We’ll see if Parks/DOT ever actually follows through on my suggestion.

  • beng722

    this is great news and I hope it happens again next year…when, in addition, the policy allowing the seasonal shopping malls that are created each year in Bryant Park, Union Square and the Columbus Circle entrance to CP (among, no doubt, many other NYC Park locales) is also reviewed…and changed. I think if you were to ask tourists and residents alike if they’d prefer a park or the commercial venture so many parks become during the holidays that most would respond that they’d prefer a park. For quite a few years now, getting into CP via Columbus Circle during the holidays has been a jarring experience – just the opposite of an escape from the commercialism of city life!

  • Albert Ahronheim

    I defer to the man responsible for the whole car-free Central Park campaign itself. As usual, he’s always thinking, and I’d say he’s convinced me.

    Blinking lights could certainly be another good experiment to try, and I hope DOT goes for it. Anything that could keep pedestrians from incorrectly assuming that bicycles will stop at lights meant for cars is a step in the right direction. And if it has the added benefit of alerting those bicycle racers that think the loop is their own personal velodrome to be careful of and courteous to other legitimate park users, then it might not be a waste of bulbs.

    But I think it’s important that the number of lights be kept to a well thought-out minimum — the lights placed only where they’re really relevant, so that they call attention to themselves as “Actually Important” — otherwise, eventually they’re likely to be ignored like the boy who cried “Wolf!”


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