Central Park Administrator Pushes East-West Bike Routes, Car-Free Park

Central Park Conservancy Administrator Douglas Blonsky,
Central Park Conservancy Administrator Douglas Blonsky, former PlaNYC head Rohit Aggarwala, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Dasha Rettew of the Climate Group announce greener lights in Central Park. Benepe, Sadik-Khan, and Blonsky could make the park car-free today. Photo: NYC DOT via ##http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/park-and-highway-lampposts-get-more-efficient/##City Room##.

Central Park Conservancy head Douglas Blonsky wants his park to get a lot more bike-friendly, he revealed at a meeting of Manhattan’s Community Board 7’s parks committee last night. Not only is he working to create shared use paths that would allow cyclists to cross the park east-west safely and legally, he repeatedly announced his support for removing vehicular traffic from Central Park entirely.

The context for both positions is what Blonsky called “the skyrocketing use” of Central Park. Estimating that the park is visited 35 million times annually, there are ever more conflicts between cars, cyclists, joggers, strollers, dog-walkers, and other park users each year.

The result is a stream of complaints. Cyclists say park rules force them to choose between violating the law by riding on pedestrian paths, looping miles out of their way, or navigating the treacherous transverses, where a cyclist was killed in 2006. Pedestrians say they feel threatened by the cyclists illegally riding on pedestrian-only paths. “A lot more of the complaints are from the side of people who don’t like bikes on the paths and are afraid of them,” said Blonsky.

With cyclists riding east-west whether it’s allowed or not, Blonsky hopes that re-orienting some existing paths as legal routes for cycling will help everyone get along. He suggested four routes. (It might help to follow along on a Central Park map, available here). The easiest to implement would travel roughly along 102nd Street, a route which he said is already used by as many bicyclists as pedestrians. Another path would travel either on the north or south side of the 97th Street Transverse. Another route would likely pass near the Great Lawn, in the low 80s, but heavy pedestrian volumes might force that path to include a segment where cyclists have to dismount.

Each of these routes would be a relatively narrow shared-use path, perhaps similar in look and feel to the Hudson River Greenway above 103rd Street, and intended for slow speeds. While potholes on the paths might get filled, they wouldn’t be widened or rerouted.

The fourth path would travel along the 72nd Street Cross Drive, making it a slightly different challenge. While the first set of paths are currently walkways under Parks Department jurisdiction, the Cross Drive is a road with car traffic, operated by DOT. “If we didn’t have vehicles in the park, that would be easy to do,” said Blonsky. In the meantime, he suggested that DOT could perhaps reduce the Cross Drive to only one lane for cars.

In the long term, Blonsky also suggested paving pieces of the bridle paths through the park and opening those to bikers as well. That would be expensive, however, while opening the four routes he suggested could happen almost immediately with sign-off from Parks and DOT.

As for when these east-west routes could be open, the ball is in the Bloomberg administration’s court. “Right now, DOT’s looking at it and we have to wait until we hear back from them,” said Blonsky. He explained that DOT needs not only to make a decision about the 72nd Street path but to think about integrating these routes with the on-street bike network.

Blonsky suggested that supporters of his plan contact Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and let her know how they feel. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has been “supportive of coming up with a plan,” continued Blonsky, but nothing’s official.

“The Parks Department and the Department of Transportation are working together with the Central Park Conservancy to try to develop some shared east-west paths that would allow cyclists traveling at a low rate of speed to traverse the park legally in several locations,” said a Parks Department spokesperson, noting that details are still being worked out.

Every committee member but one, and every community member who showed up to speak, supported the plan to provide east-west access for cyclists. “Although none of these paths is as wide as you want them to be to accommodate every use,” said committee co-chair Klari Neuwelt, “that’s New York.” In cramped quarters, she said, Blonsky’s plan has “the best shot at meeting all those needs.” The committee decided not to pass a formal resolution, however, because Blonsky wasn’t sure whether one would be helpful.

One striking feature of Blonsky’s comments was his repeated support for making Central Park car-free. When one committee member mentioned the danger of allowing dogs to go off-leash in the park, Blonsky replied, “Another reason to get cars out of Central Park.” He brought up a car-free park again as the solution to complaints about cyclists on the park loop ignoring red lights and the inability to bike around the park clockwise. “It’s way too much recreation use blending in with the vehicles,” he explained, “or too many vehicles.”

He implied, however, that such a move wasn’t happening in the very short-term: “I think DOT wants to look at the numbers right now and evaluate them in light of our last reduction [in car-free hours],” he said.

  • I’m sorry, but closing all east-west routes between 59th and 110th to bus, emergency, and car traffic meets the legal definition of insane. Not everybody rides a bicycle; deal with it.

    It’s the at-grade streets where there’s any park character to be modified. But even then, having a bus cross once every ten minutes is not a big deal. With reasonable assumptions on road capacity, it still involves a major cut to the number of motorized vehicles using 72nd per day. The people aren’t clamoring for it, but that’s because it’s not been seriously proposed; they just assume that it won’t happen. Do scoping meetings through CBs 7 and 8 about this and you’ll probably see strongly positive reaction.

  • Woody

    Alon, I did some daydreaming about a streetcar on 72nd that would go underground for most of its route in the Park.

    I’m no engineer, but this looks like a hard route. Starting on the West Side: The underground has to start well inside the Park, because the cut-and-covered 8th Ave line blocks any other below-round route. (It’s two levels of tracks stacked, so going under the subway would get you halfway to China, and streetcars don’t like deep steep declines.) The tracks would have to detour around the John Lennon Memorial. Well, they would. And they could. Then it’s a steep slope down to the West Loop, but much better a grade-separated crossover.

    That puts the tunnel opening just east of the West Loop. Easy, there’s a hill to accommodate the tracks underground. With a little luck they could emerge from under the hill topped by Summerstage, then perhaps another overpass on the Loop to get the streetcar to Fifth Ave.

    O.K., a little luck and careful work because the 80-year-old Bandshell sits on the route and it’s already not so steady.

    O.K., a lot of work to avoid problems with the trees. I’m not sure exactly where the allee of American elms leaves off, but I am sure that any possible damage to even one endangered elm tree would stop the choo choo in its tracks.

    Would citizens of NYC tolerate a tram running street level into the Park on both the Fifth Ave and Central Park West sides, with overpasses on the East and West Loop? Probably. But putting it underground between the Loops is essential. Devotees of Frederick Law Olmsted want to get the cars off 72nd St and they won’t be having any buses or above-ground streetcars crossing the very heart of the Park.

    Now, about the money. My Fearless Forecast is for about a decade more of “jobless recovery.” But if Obama and the Congress can’t get a real jobs program going to make work for the massive number of unemployed Americans, then a Maximum Leader will arise to do it. We might as well draw up wish lists of desired make-work projects now, so the end-of-their-rope masses will not waste time raking leaves.

  • There’s a big difference between letting buses use an existing park route, which costs zero, and building a new tunnel, which would cost $75 million in first-world cities and $500+ million in New York. 72nd Street isn’t 125th or 86th; it’s never going to have enough traffic to justify more than a local bus. Since the latest service cut, the M72 hasn’t even been on the frequent network, though it would probably get back on it if it didn’t need to detour through 66th.

    Your mileage may vary, I never found 72nd Street so crowded it couldn’t accommodate a bus in addition to the foot traffic. The road is wide enough, and there aren’t too many pedestrians on it even when there are no cars. Personally I rarely used the roadway during the day, to avoid the horse carriages and the rickshaws.

    It would raise a lot of environmental justice questions if New York proposed to spend money on undergrounding transit on 72nd. Giving 72nd a higher priority than other corridors would raise questions of why the city is spending money on the aesthetic of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side instead of on the transit needs of poorer neighborhoods.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Alon,

    To you and some others, having a bus pass through Terrace Drive in the Park (i.e., 72nd St. crosstown) 24/7 may be “no big deal”; I’ll disagree with that, but I understand where you’re coming from. But I dispute your belief that pedetrian traffic is minimal. It’s just not so. It’s a very, very popular tourist destination, with of street performers drawing crowds for sustained periods, bridal parties coming through to have pictures taken at Bethesda Fountain, all the joggers and walkers who do the “small Loop” around the southern portion of the Park, and many others (in addition to all the handsome carriage and pedicab traffic). If the M72 were re-routed along this route, a lot of people’s experience of the Park would be affected.

  • I should probably clarify that I never used the word “minimal” to describe 72nd. What I said is that it’s not too crowded to fit on the sidewalks. You’re right that there are many street performers and tourists, but they cluster near the fountain, where the sidewalk is very wide. Even during the hours when cars are banned from the park, few pedestrians use the roadway, except at its margins.

    There’s rickshaw pedicab and carriage traffic, but it’s very light by automobile street standards; it wouldn’t interfere with buses, and vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    I’m 67 years old and when riding near pedestrians in the Park or anywhere, I’m able to do it very slowly without any acrobatics. Hey, I can even pause. Sometimes I do put a foot on the ground to steady myself. Just about anyone can do it.

    I’m able to ride very slowly when it seems called for, perhaps because I ride without smugly assuming any right to get my privileged self from Point A to Point B at maximum speed and to hell with everybody else.

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