The city sidewalks are busy sidewalks as shoppers and tourists pour into Manhattan this time of year. But it is the street traffic that requires the utmost planning on the part of the city. The goal: Keep those visitors coming into the city while avoiding the dreaded holiday traffic gridlock.
With 865,000 cars coming into Manhattan each day the rest of the year, there is always an effort to avoid ``blocking the box,'' the intersection of two streets. Gridlock occurs when traffic from both streets gets caught in the middle of the intersection and can't move. The result is a chain reaction that can sometimes halt traffic flow for blocks in all directions.
During the holiday season traffic increases by 90,000 to more than 100,000 additional cars each day, says George J. Perrin, director of public affairs for the New York City Department of Transportation.
The sights of the city are beautiful during the holiday season; the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is heralded by two rows of trumpeting angels. Store windows have fantastic displays on holiday themes. And many families make a tradition of coming in to shop and catch a matinee performance at Radio City Music Hall. But the matinee crowds can worsen the problem for regular commuters, often doubling or tripling the time of their normal commute.
The Transportation Department uses computerized systems to synchronize signals and help track traffic patterns, and it estimates in advance which days will have heavier traffic, leading to a gridlock alert.
The city still responds to situations as they occur. There are more than 2,000 traffic agents who direct traffic, ticket violators, and work to ensure the smooth flow. And in an effort to reward good drivers, some traffic agents are giving out T-shirts and subway tokens to drivers who don't block the box.
New York also has to deal with stretch limousines. ``We've issued thousands of tickets to limos,'' says Mr. Perrin. ``One limo double-parked on a major street can cause tremendous problems.'' At first glance it appears they may be awaiting some important person. But in the backseat of one are several bags of Christmas treasures from nearby department stores.
Bill, a bicycle-riding messenger dressed in stretch pants and sleek jacket for speed, rolls his eyes at the holiday traffic. ``Everybody wants to come into the city,'' he says as he stops briefly on Third Avenue and 47th St. ``It's not just the cars; it's the pedestrians, too.''
Then he sticks his whistle back in his mouth, blows hard enough to make passersby jump, and takes off like a shot into the traffic.