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 time it’s the NYPD, not the Department of Transportation, behind the double message.

Holiday_hours_09_3.jpgThese small, flimsy flyers are the only thing tipping off pedestrians and cyclists to the presence of more traffic in Central Park. Photo: Ken Coughlin.

According to a well-placed source with knowledge of the situation, the NYPD issued a directive this year that cars be allowed to use the loop’s southeast corner as a cut-through for an additional two hours, until 9 p.m., on weekdays. The expansion runs until "January 2010," according to notices. The NYPD has not returned inquiries about the reason for the change or why it is setting traffic policy.

The road in question is the southeast corner of the Central Park loop, a half-mile stretch that allows drivers to go from Sixth Avenue to the Upper East Side by cutting across a corner of the park. Two years ago Streetsblog reported that the DOT had quietly done away with "holiday hours" on Central Park’s loop road, ending the annual suspension of car-free time that had been used to accommodate motorists during the holidays. The change was a huge success in that the only people who seemed to notice were the park’s recreational users, who were delighted. Holiday hours didn’t resurface last winter, and the annual holiday traffic plan that DOT produced for 2009 contains no mention of the change [PDF]. (The DOT and Parks Department press offices both directed inquiries to the NYPD.)

Park users may have thought holiday traffic hours were gone for good, but they were wrong.

Holiday_hours_sign.jpgWould you notice this sign if you were passing by? Photo: Ken Coughlin.

Meanwhile, the way the change has been broadcast is revealing. The reduction in car-free hours is being announced to cyclists, runners and other park users by a small, 8½ by 11-inch flyer fastened to a pole a few feet shy of the point where someone on foot or on a bike would merge with car traffic. Identical small signs are secured to poles at six or seven other points along the route. The signs, which look for all the world like the "lost pet" or "affordable housecleaning" flyers taped to light poles all over town, would barely register with a cyclist or runner, much less be readable by them. Nevertheless, the signs warn recreational users to "Proceed With Caution."

"I was riding home through the park at 8:30 p.m. and cars were pouring in from Sixth Avenue," said commuter cyclist Albert Ahronheim, who first alerted Streetsblog to the extra time allotted to park traffic. "I thought someone must have left the gate open by mistake." Ahronheim only discovered the small signs when he returned the next evening to take a closer look.

By contrast, the city has taken great pains to ensure that any driver traveling up Sixth Avenue is aware of the change. Like a bright star in the east guiding the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem, a large mobile electric sign is positioned at Sixth Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets, announcing in foot-high, blinking letters: "PARK OPEN TILL 9 PM N/B [northbound] ACCESS 59TH AND 6TH EAST DRIVE IN CENTRAL PARK UNTIL 9PM." To ensure that no motorist will fail to remark the glad tidings, a duplicate sign flashes between 58th and 59th Streets — still enough time to change lanes and speed into the world’s most famous urban green space.

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