October 31, 2004
Taking the Drive Out of Central Park
By JOSEPH BERGER
Almost four decades ago, city leaders forced the drivers who use the looping Central Park roadway to start sharing it with joggers and cyclists, first on weekends and later during the week as well. Now the joggers and cyclists are getting closer to having the road all to themselves.
Two recent traffic studies show that the number of cars that use the six-mile roadway has been diminishing - by at least 25 percent since 1991 - as the city has blocked entrances to the road and reduced the hours that taxis and cars can use it. One study by the Regional Plan Association has indicated that shutting down the roadway would not significantly increase traffic on major avenues outside the park, as some have ominously predicted.
Discussions are under way among New York City park and transportation officials about a trial starting as early as this spring in which three more vehicular entrances to the park would be blocked off and cars barred entirely between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., except for the four transverses that cross the park. That would give trees a 12-hour break from fumes and add some car-free running time for late-night and early-rising joggers. The plan still requires the approval of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Nevertheless, the discussions suggest how far the pendulum, nudged by environmental and recreational pressures, has swung in two generations. The roadway that once helped speed taxis bearing East Siders and West Siders to and from their jobs, shops or the theaters in Midtown is increasingly yielding to joggers and bicyclists.
Any further closings are sure to anger the city's taxi industry, whose drivers rely on the loop as a shortcut around avenues like Fifth Avenue and Central Park West that are jammed during the rush. A majority of the cars that use the park road are taxis.
"In New York, time is money," said Mahmood Ahmed, a Pakistani immigrant who has been driving a cab for 15 years. "You waste time, you make less money. Everybody likes to fly."
But joggers, many of them training for the New York City Marathon a week from today, were delighted at the news. Andrea Achelis, who works for a jewelry designer, was running last Thursday in a sweatsuit near the southern end of the park shortly after the park roadway was closed at 10 a.m. The late October sunlight was slanting through the park's yellow and russet foliage.
"I try to wait until late so I don't have to jog with all the fumes," she said. "It's nice now. There are no fumes, it's quiet, and you can connect with nature. You can really enjoy the park."
Warner Johnston, a spokesman for the parks department, and Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, issued a statement Friday saying only that "several options to improve vehicular conditions in the park have been considered and continue to be considered."
Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, the private organization that manages the park under a city contract, said, "If a study supports that we can have some reduction of vehicular traffic in the park, I think that's terrific."
The talks among city officials do not touch upon the transverses that cross the park at 65th, 79th, 86th and 97th Streets, which carry significant volumes of cross-town traffic. Rather, they focus on the six-mile serpentine roadway built 150 years ago for carriages and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as a way of bringing the gentry in touch with the masses.
By the mid-1960's, pressure from environmentalists and groups representing runners and cyclists closed the park to cars on weekends; in following years, the drive was also closed to cars at certain weekday times. Currently, the park is closed to cars all weekend and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays. A weekday exception is made for the branch of roadway that connects the entrance at Sixth Avenue and Central Park South to the one at East 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue; it remains open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
City officials have resisted shutting the park completely to cars, fearing that congestion on nearby avenues could create more pollution than a car ban would prevent. But in the past two decades, the Department of Parks and Recreation has closed off entrances to the roadway at West 110th Street, West 106th Street and Columbus Circle. Among the gateways now under consideration for closings are those at East 102nd Street, East 90th Street (except for exiting cars), and an exit ramp that runs from West 74th Street to West 72nd Street.
In recent years, joggers and cyclists have each had half a lane to the left of the two traffic lanes, though they have often complained that the strip is too narrow, causing them to bump into one another or stray perilously into the car lanes.
Transportation advocacy groups like the Regional Plan Association and Transportation Alternatives, as well as cycling and jogging clubs, have been pushing for a car-free park. Last Tuesday night more than 700 people packed the Unitarian Universalist Church on Central Park West to rally for that goal.
"We have lots of support from runners who want to use the park during the early-morning hours and health advocates for the children who can use the park after school and have nowhere else to go," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.
A study for that organization and the Regional Plan Association by Jeffrey M. Zupan, a senior fellow of the association, tried to refute claims by opponents that closing the park loop permanently would clog adjacent avenues.
Mr. Zupan argued that as drivers and even taxi passengers become discouraged by the inability to use the loop, many might switch to mass transit. But even if there was no "disappearance," Mr. Zupan said, closing the most-used exit - the one that allows 1,457 southbound cars, or 24 per minute, to spill onto Seventh Avenue and into Midtown during a peak morning hour - would add at most only 4 more vehicles per minute to Fifth Avenue, which now has 33 cars per minute, and fewer to other southbound avenues. Traffic might also be eased by the absence of cars making turns into or out of the park, he said.
Another study of the Central Park roadway several months ago whose contents were made known to The New York Times found that simply closing more entrances would reduce traffic. The study counted the cars entering the park at eight gateways between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and found that at some, the volume was more than 50 percent lower than it was during a comparable study done for the city's Transportation Department in 1991. On average, the combined decline at all eight gateways was 26.2 percent.
Michael Woloz, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Taxi Board of Trade, which represents fleet owners, said his members and drivers would be upset by further closings.
"They have a shortcut mentality,'' he said, "and if you take away a shortcut, you're going to get resistance and complaints from the driver community."
Even some joggers are not unalloyed supporters of a car-free park. Richard Edwards, a 48-year-old art dealer who was running Thursday with his wire fox terriers, Max and Emma, said that as a jogger he would appreciate less access for cars. But as a traveling businessman who likes to return quickly to his home on Central Park South, "it's much easier going through the park when you're coming from La Guardia Airport."
"So I see the benefits of both," he said.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
A few years ago in an article about efforts to close the park to traffic, it was mentioned that the Central Park Conservancy was curiously neutral on this issue.
The banning of traffic would not eliminate the roadway, which would still be open for maintenance and emergency vehicles, but the roadway could be re-lined to separate cyclists and pedestrians.
It's obvious to anyone who has used the park regularly for more than a decade that traffic has been reduced considerably.
It's hard to visualize now, but there was once an entrance road at Columbus Circle.
Traffic in the park disrupts the experience, and I think those two fellas would be perplexed if they were here to see it.