Lone drivers banned from central New York centre

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The Independent US

New Yorkers were trying to adjust to draconian new measures brought in yesterday banning cars with single occupants from entering most of Manhattan between 6am and noon on weekdays.

On the orders of the Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, police checkpoints were set up at almost all the major arteries into Manhattan across or under the East River. The same restriction, also enforced by checkpoints, has been introduced at the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River from today.

Any drivers arriving at the checkpoints without any passengers were turned back with no excuses accepted. Exceptions were made only for drivers with disabilities or with government or press license plates. Taxis and limousines were also allowed in with a driver only.

It is an extraordinary step that until a few weeks ago might have seemed unthinkable in a country so attached to the automobile and so protective of individual freedoms. It compounded the feeling for some New Yorkers that they were living under something approaching martial law.

But with the mood so different since the terror attacks on 11 September, so that any sacrifice seemed small compared with the suffering of the victims and their families, most car owners seemed ready to accept the new arrangements, which could remain in place for several weeks or even months.

"I've been in New York my whole life and if I have to take subways and buses, I'll do it," said Harvey Smilowitz, a pharmaceutical salesman who usually drives from Livingston, New Jersey. Yesterday he took a train. "I think too many people drive in the city anyway."

The Mayor opted for the ban after traffic around Manhattan almost ground to a halt on Tuesday, with queues stretching back from the various points of entry for miles. It was the worst case of commuter gridlock the city had ever seen, sending tempers flaring and radiators boiling. The traffic jams had simply become unmanageable, bringing much of New York to a standstill.

A variety of factors have combined to create the giant transport foul-up. Many of the normal traffic flows were already disrupted as a direct result of the attacks, with detours and closures posted all over the southern tip of Manhattan. The Holland Tunnel, for example, a key point of entry into lower Manhattan, remained closed to everything except emergency services traffic.

But things became a lot worse on Tuesday after the US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, issued a warning that would-be terrorists, some linked to the hijackers responsible for the carnage of two weeks ago, had illegally obtained permits to drive hazardous materials vehicles and might be planning a new attack.

New York police immediately responded by erecting a series of checkpoints. Officials said they were also reacting to other, unspecified, security alerts. Yesterday, police officers were still pulling over and randomly inspecting all kinds of lorries and even public buses. The inspections alone were causing huge tail-backs for drivers already frustrated by traffic jams.

The hope was that the new regulations would force people either to form car-pools with one another or abandon their cars in favour of buses or trains.

"I have to urge everyone as strongly as I possibly can to take public transportation," the Mayor said, announcing the ban. "You're going to get into Manhattan a lot easier and you're going to get out of Manhattan a lot easier."

Apart from the human aggravation the snarl-ups created – many palms were pressed on many horns on Tuesday – there was also the harm caused to the city's shaky economy.

The city authorities, who calculated that roughly 62 per cent of vehicles circulating around Manhattan south of 92nd Street were single-occupancy cars, said they would try to evaluate overnight whether the experiment had helped or made no difference at all.

An unscientific inspection of roads in Midtown suggested the former – traffic seemed unusually light.

The Mayor said: "Let's try it for a couple of days. We'll all work together. If it has a big impact on traffic, then we'll continue it. If it doesn't have the impact we think it will, and it is just inconveniencing people, then we won't."

While some drivers questioned whether Mr Giuliani had the right to introduce such measures, advocates of public transport rushed to support him.

"There are many thousands of people who put American flags on their cars to express their concern," said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign that represents subway travellers. "Now these drivers can do their part by putting passengers in their vehicles and reducing the horrendous congestion."