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


The Traffic is the Mitigation

mitigate, verb[Latin stem of mitigare, from mitis, mild, gentle]1. Make milder in manner or attitude, make less hostile, mollify.2. Give relief from pain. Lessen the suffering caused by an evil or difficulty.3. Make less oppressive. Make more humane, more bearable. How Orwellian is this? The New York City Department of Transportation’s Holiday Traffic Mitigation Plan went […]

De Blasio Gets More Cars Out of Central Park and Prospect Park

Starting in a few weeks, people will be able to enjoy the Central Park loop north of 72nd Street and the west side of Prospect Park year-round without having to worry about motor vehicle traffic, Mayor de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced this morning. The changes will significantly reduce motor vehicle traffic in both parks while stopping short of […]

The NYPD’s Holiday Gift to Motorists: Central Park

After introducing some yuletide sanity two winters ago, the city is back to sending a schizophrenic message to New Yorkers this holiday season: Please use mass transit, but if you choose to drive, we’ve made it easier by increasing the hours when cars are permitted on a section of Central Park’s loop road. Only this […]
Mayor de Blasio speaking at Grand Army Plaza this morning. Photo: David Meyer

Prospect Park Goes Car-Free Forever on January 2

Over the course of many years and several thousand volunteer hours - including massive petition campaigns in 2002 and 2008 - advocates were able to get DOT to gradually whittle down the times and places where cars were allowed in the park. The mayor's announcement today is the culmination of that steady advocacy and the incremental progress toward a car-free park.

For Nearly Two Years, Ex-NYC DOT Chief Has Undercut the Signature Street Safety and Sustainable Transportation Agenda of Her Successor

Tomorrow, Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Bert Bunyan is expected to weigh in for the first time on the core arguments brought by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign against the City of New York. Ostensibly, the dispute is between the anti-bike lane groups known as “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” (NBBL) and “Seniors for […]