New York City’s number of gridlock alert days will climb to 16 this year, up from 10 last year, and they will start Sept. 24 to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly session.CreditCreditHolly Pickett for The New York Times
There are bad traffic days in New York City — many of them. And then there are gridlock alert days.
These are the worst-of-the-worst days, when pedestrians outpace cars, streets morph into parking lots and road rage flares at every turn.
But in another sign that the city is getting more crowded, the annual congestion warning will now expand to 16 days, up from 10 days last year, and will start earlier than ever before, on Sept. 24, to cover the United Nations General Assembly session. Thousands of world leaders and diplomats — including President Trump — and their security details are expected to descend for a whirlwind of meetings, parties and shopping that is always an economic windfall for the city.
The traffic jams and security-related street closures will turn Manhattan into a labyrinth, even for seasoned drivers.
“U.N. week, forget about it,” said Leo Lazarev, 68, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician who will have no choice but to drive his truck with equipment. He has been late getting to appointments in previous years because of the traffic jams. “Everything is bad,” he said. “You can’t drive. You can’t walk. People are all over the place.”
In fact, United Nations gridlock is now worse than holiday gridlock for the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center or the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square. It took an average of 19 minutes to drive just one mile in Midtown Manhattan on a Monday during the United Nations session last year, up from an average of 10 minutes the rest of the year, according to city data. The only time it took longer — 20 minutes — was in a blizzard in March. By comparison, the mile-long drive took 14 minutes the day of the Rockefeller Center tree lighting.
“U.N. week is the most challenging traffic time in New York City and I’m not even sure people know that,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner. “If you are in the traffic, you are the traffic.”
Beginning this week, the city will spend $500,000 on a new campaign to warn of gridlock days on the radio and in internet ads to try to get more drivers off the road on the six weekdays from Sept. 24 through Oct. 1, the busiest stretch of the United Nations session, and at the end-of-the-year holidays.
The message to drivers? “Your trip through Midtown will take three times as long.”
In the past, when gridlock days started in November on the Friday before Thanksgiving and ran to Christmas, the city publicized them with news releases, social media and articles that often appeared on the gridlock day itself. City transportation officials said that after surveying drivers online, they learned that some drivers did not have enough time to change their plans.
So this year, the paid ads will begin a week in advance of the gridlock days.
If these gridlock warnings are not scary enough, they will be accompanied by new incentives to try other ways of getting around: a half-priced, three-day pass for Citi Bike; discounts on shared car pool rides with Via; and $5 flat-rate parking at Citi Field before noon in lots that are adjacent to the No. 7 subway line.
New York City’s gridlock alert days are the most extensive congestion warning system in the country, though other cities and states also issue alerts when there are major delays expected from storms, construction or special events. A gridlock alert day is essentially an advisory for drivers — who can choose to heed it, or not — but it often coincides with other city measures to keep traffic moving, including adding traffic agents and suspending most construction affecting streets during the United Nations session and holidays.
The number of vehicles driving into Manhattan’s central business district on a typical fall weekday has actually dropped to about 718,000 in 2017, from about 815,000 in 2004, according to city traffic estimates. But traffic has slowed to a crawl in recent years with vehicles in Midtown Manhattan averaging 4.7 miles per hour. There are many reasons: a fleet of Ubers and other for-hire cars, many of them circulating empty through the streets in search of riders; a spike in delivery trucks as e-commerce has boomed; and nonstop construction that has blocked or narrowed car lanes. A campaign to pass a comprehensive congestion pricing plan to charge drivers in the busiest areas of Manhattan failed in Albany earlier this year.
The congestion warnings were the brainchild of Samuel I. Schwartz shortly after he became the city’s traffic commissioner in 1982. Mr. Schwartz, now a consultant, recalled that he had sought to impress a reporter with his grasp of city traffic by compiling daily vehicle counts from the city’s tolled bridges and tunnels. When asked what he planned to do with that information, Mr. Schwartz declared that the busiest days would thereafter be known as gridlock alert days. “The intent was to reduce the total volume of traffic coming in,” Mr. Schwartz said. “And to lower driver expectations to keep them calm.”
Mr. Schwartz said that United Nations traffic was heavy even in the 1980s, though it did not make his top gridlock days. Once, however, when President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, both came to the city, Mr. Schwartz said the only way he could get around to make inspections was on a bike and people complained that all the attention to traffic problems was detracting from world affairs.
On a recent afternoon, workers and residents in Midtown Manhattan said they welcomed the expansion of gridlock alerts because something had to be done to take back their neighborhood. Karen Unger, a legal assistant, said she has come to dread the United Nations session. Her commute to Midtown by express bus from her home in Bayside, Queens, doubles to two hours each way because of gridlock. “It makes me mad,” she said.
Sandra Ritter, 56, a security officer, said she hoped that more drivers would pay attention. “I mean why would you want to bring your car in knowing this is going to go on,” she said. “If they say a hurricane is coming, what would you do — you’d start making preparations.”
But Mike Pieczyski, 55, an advertising strategist, said he was skeptical that simply calling more gridlock alert days would be enough.
“When you have the president coming here on top of regular traffic, it’s a mess,” he said. “I think the only thing that will really work is if you pick up the United Nations building and move it to another country.”