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Closing The Park Loop Drives To Cars?

With New York City anticipating an additional one million residents over the next quarter century, the battle over how to move people in and around the city will only intensify. How much roadway space should be devoted to auto and truck travel, and how much preference should be given to buses, pedestrians and bicycles? What are the implications of these choices for economic growth, time wasted in traffic delays and overall quality of life in the city?

This core issue is like a giant iceberg that pokes to the surface in various places: congestion pricing, parking policy, bike lanes, bus rapid transit, expanding sidewalks. The latest sighting is in the parks. A City Council bill sponsored by Manhattan Councilmember Gale Brewer, and cosponsored by council members whose districts border Central Park and Prospect Park, would close the Central Park loop drive throughout the summer. The bill would also close the Prospect Park loop drive in the afternoon while leaving the drive open for two hours in the morning peak period. Currently, the park drives are open during weekday morning and afternoon peak periods and are closed midday, in the evenings and overnight. (See exact hours here.)

The Council bill raises two basic issues. First, who should be given preferential treatment in the park: people in cars or people out of cars? Proponents argue that these two historic parks were designed and built as refuges from the hustle and bustle of urban life and should be reserved for strolling, running, biking, rollerblading and other leisure activities. Opponents of the bill, including Department of Transportation (DOT) officials who testified at a recent City Council Transportation Committee hearing, argue that the park drives are vital components of the city's street system. They point out that the park drives are already closed for most hours of the day and night, and that a few hours of traffic a day balances the needs of motorists and park users. (Before continuing, a disclosure: I testified in favor of the bill at the Council hearing.)

The second issue concerns traffic impacts. Department of Transportation officials passionately contended at the council hearing that the park drives must be kept open at peak times to prevent unmanageable increases in traffic on alternate routes outside the park. Proponents of the bill maintained that these fears are exaggerated because some drivers will switch to other modes such as bus, subway, walking or biking, and because there is currently street capacity to absorb the traffic diverted from the park drives.

The bill itself acknowledges the importance of the traffic concerns; it would close the park drives from June 24 to September 25 of this year only. The bill calls on the Department of Transportation to study the traffic impacts of this pilot program and submit a report by the end of the year. The City Council would presumably revisit the issue early next year before deciding whether to repeat the closures in future summers.

The drives were rarely closed at all before 1966, but there has been a steady reduction in the hours that cars are allowed in the park, as well as other restrictions (such as a requirement that all cars have two or more passengers on certain roads during certain times of day). There has been a drop in traffic over the years as well. Peak hour traffic in Central Park declined 23 percent from 1991 to 2004, according to a transportation department report, which found that new restrictions in 2004 did not significantly affect traffic volume on adjacent streets.

Facing solid council support for the bill, the day before the Council hearing Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced with transportation officials a new mayoral plan for additional closures of the park drives. Essentially, the mayor's new plan is to close the drives in the non-peak direction (for example northbound in Central Park during the morning) for six months starting June 5.

The City Council will now have to decide whether to accept Bloomberg's partial closures, or proceed with the bill to close Central Park drives completely and the Prospect Park loop except for two hours on weekday mornings. If the council adopts the bill, Bloomberg will have to decide whether to veto it. A veto could be overridden by the Council.

The mayor's plan moves in the same direction as the Council bill, but it raises a third issue: safety. Anyone who has jogged or biked in either park while rush hour traffic is whooshing by knows that the feeling is not exactly one of bucolic relaxation. But actual accidents seem to be remarkably rare, presumably because park users as well as drivers get used to the others' presence. The mayor's plan allows joggers, bikers and rollerbladers to have free rein of part of the loop, then requires that they squeeze back into the jogger/bike lanes for another part of the loop. How safely this arrangement will work has not been tested.

Transportation officials believe that motorists and park users will quickly learn and adapt to what some see as confusing and complex aspects of the mayor's new plan. And well they might. But the same might be true of closing the park drives entirely. It is interesting to note the pattern from the December 2004 Holiday Plan closure. The Holiday Plan was designed to reduce traffic - and traffic fell. The Department of Transportation report concludes that the plan was a success: "The project met or exceeded expectations for improving mobility, promoting alternative modes of transportation and improving safety without adversely affecting traffic conditions."

The transportation department also closed down the drives during peak hours in February, 2005 to accommodate setting up and taking down the "Gates" exhibition. The Gates traffic plan was designed to move more traffic on streets outside the park -- and it too succeeded. While there was an increase in traffic, there was also an increase in traffic speed, because the agency undertook steps to improve traffic flow.

The lesson from these experiences seems pretty simple: with some smart planning, you can in fact get what you want. Thus, it would seem that if the City Council and Bloomberg Administration want to reserve these crown jewels of the city's park system for the peaceful enjoyment of its citizens, they could close the drives "without adversely affecting traffic conditions." At least, many say, it seems worth a try.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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