Tonight: Ask NYPD for a Return to Sanity in Central Park

Major crimes in Central Park may be up by 50 percent, but that hasn’t stopped significant resources from being spent on the ongoing NYPD crackdown targeting recreational cyclists in the park. Precinct officers are stopping cyclists for a variety of infractions, including spot equipment checks for missing bells and lights, but most notoriously are handing out $270 tickets to riders who roll through any of the loop drive’s 47 traffic signals, even if the only other living being in sight is a squirrel.

Under a proposal by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, traffic lights would tell cyclists to yield rather than stop during off-peak hours. Photo: Ed Yourdon ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/4094652187/##via Flickr.##

Whatever you think of the NYPD’s citywide “Operation Safe Cycle,” of which all this is a part, the culture in Central Park for decades has been to allow cyclists to treat the traffic signals as “Yield” signs. Suddenly issuing $270 tickets to anyone who happens to go through a red on a bike while enjoying this most famous of urban oases is a “sick, disgusting, and even somewhat sadistic policy,” to quote a friend of mine not generally given to hyperbole.

If you care about preserving Central Park as a place where cyclists can get some exercise and escape the city, tonight you will want to attend the Central Park Precinct’s Community Council meeting, the precinct’s monthly forum for community input, at 7 pm at 160 Central Park West (the Universalist Church at 76th Street).

Admittedly, when I was in the park spearheading the drive to gather 100,000 signatures for a car-free Central Park, I would sometimes hear complaints about lycra-clad riders treating the park as if it were their personal velodrome. But at tonight’s meeting I and others will argue that if there is a safety issue, the precinct’s extreme solution will do little or nothing to address it. Moreover, requiring cyclists to stop at every red light for the full duration of the cycle no matter the circumstances – and there is, on average, a light every 674 feet on the six-mile loop — arguably removes the park as a viable recreational space for many riders, not just the Lance Armstrong wannabes. (I know several non-racing cyclists who have stopped using the loop.)

The February meeting of the Parks and Environment committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 7, on which I sit, provided some insight into the rationale for the ticket blitz. Precinct Commander Captain Philip Wishnia answered questions and essentially offered two competing explanations: First, he said word had come down from One Police Plaza to zealously enforce all traffic rules against cyclists, and the precinct had no say in the matter. Second, he maintained that the crackdown is an effort to address a purported rise in incidents involving cyclists and other users on the loop drive. Wishnia returned several times to a mishap between a cyclist and a 9-year-old boy, who he said was seriously injured. The logic of Wishnia’s proposed remedy goes like this: Forcing cyclists to stop at all red lights will make it harder for fast cyclists to achieve speeds that could do serious harm to someone on foot.

It became clear, however, that Wishnia has no idea of the scope of the problem he is seeking to address. He said that of 120 reportable incidents involving cyclists in 2010, only 43 involved a cyclist colliding with a pedestrian. And he could not say in how many of these incidents the cyclist was at fault or how many occurred at a crosswalk. A group of recreational cyclists sent a letter to Wishnia last week following up on these questions [PDF], and we hope to get a more thorough response from the precinct at tonight’s meeting.

Many observers, including Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have proposed an alternative: simply shift the park’s traffic signals to blinking yellow during car-free hours, and perhaps add a push-button that would turn the light red for pedestrians who wish to cross during high-use times. Unfortunately, according to the Central Park Conservancy the park’s signals would have to be retooled for this to happen, presumably at considerable expense.

On the legislative front, City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez is about to introduce a bill that would require all the lights to blink yellow during non-car hours. To generate momentum, Rodriguez needs people to encourage their council members to sign onto his bill and to express support to Speaker Christine Quinn.

Another common sense alternative would be for the precinct to treat the lights as if they are already blinking yellow for recreational users like cyclists. The idea would be for officers to exercise discretion and to ticket failures to proceed with caution (VTL 1113) or to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks (VTL 1134). At the CB7 meeting, Wishnia dismissed this idea out of hand, claiming it would amount to “selective enforcement.”

Leaving aside that he is misusing this legal concept, the reality is that Central Park precinct officers routinely exercise discretion and treat different users differently. As was recently reported on Streetsblog, motorists regularly drive through the park at 10 to 15 miles per hour above the 25 mph speed limit, right alongside cops. In addition, a precinct officer recently informed a cyclist that officers are using their judgment about whether to ticket red light-running cyclists at the park’s less crowded northern section, whereas a strict zero-tolerance policy is in force further south. This officer’s assurances notwithstanding, cyclists are reportedly still being ticketed in the park’s northern section.

I don’t harbor illusions that anything will be resolved at Monday night’s meeting, but if the crowd of those pleading for reason is large enough, it will send a clear message up the chain of command that the Central Park loop is not the same as Ninth Avenue.

Of course, we would not be having this discussion if cars were not allowed in the park in the first place. Traffic lights were first installed there in 1932, not to regulate recreational users but to keep the cars that had invaded the park some three decades earlier from killing people. Today, cyclists — the sort of recreational user for whom the park was designed — are being forced to adhere to rules created for cars, which is making it difficult for them to use Central Park as a place of recreation. In other words, even when cars are not in the park, their iniquitous influence endures.

The best solution would be to simply ban cars altogether, which would immediately open up a host of opportunities to better regulate and separate loop users. At the least, the recent ticket blitz has sharpened the contradictions inherent in allowing car traffic in this most famous of urban refuges.

  • Lisa

    What a great summary of this issue, Ken. Can’t wait to see how this plays out tonight! Let’s all try to bring written testimony for tonight as well.

  • Glenn

    This is not a rational use of police time. This is an emotional one.

    Just make the park car free and make the lights blinking yellow with the advisory “yield to pedestrians”

  • TKO

    I agree it is not a good use of police time, especially noting the fare jumpers in today’s headlines and the cost to MTA. Yet why is it so hard for cyclists to stop at lights? This seems to get cyclist so angry. It really is not that hard. Time to stop and smell the roses or what ever good or bad smell the city has to offer.

  • Joe R.

    I wasn’t aware that crime in the park was up. If the NYPD were smart, they would realize all the cyclists on the streets of the city at all hours are many sets of eyes which can help them do their job by tipping off where crimes are occurring. Central Park especially is a place where cyclists can undoubtedly help the NYPD fight crime. However, so long as the police continue ticketing for pointless but technically illegal things like jaybiking at empty intersections, I doubt any cyclists will be inclined to act as extra sets of eyes for them.

    I never have/never will ride in Central Park, but I nevertheless see this crackdown as a huge waste of police resources simply to pacify a vocal minority.

  • Danny G
  • Danny G

    (that’s the Central Park precinct)

  • “I would sometimes hear complaints about lycra-clad riders treating the park as if it were their personal velodrome.”

    Someone recently posted on the New York Cycle Club bulletin board that he was able to avoid stopping for red lights by maintaining the posted speed limit – 25 mph on the flats, 20 mph on the hills and turns – so ironically, the lycra-clad Lance Armstrong wannabees are the cyclists least likely to be effected by this crackdown.

    Obviously getting cars out of the park permanently is the best solution but if that isn’t achievable, and if the City is unwilling to change to blinking yellow, or red, then why not retime the lights to 15 or 20 mph, a speed more achievable my most recreational cyclists? Reducing the overall speed limit would certainly make the park safer for everyone.

  • Craig

    What about the bike lanes? I have lived in several cities where bike lanes are treated as separate from car lanes. When there are no cross streets, this makes sense. Also, rather than banning cars completely (which I support), how about making bike lanes wider and taking away a car lane? Then, paint a double line to denote bike lanes.

    A similar case is the Hudson River Trail, which has separate signals for bikes traveling the same direction as cars.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If that isn’t achievable, and if the City is unwilling to change to blinking yellow, or red, then why not retime the lights to 15 or 20 mph, a speed more achievable my most recreational cyclists?”

    Heck, why not 10 to 15 mph. It is a park after all. And that’s more my speed.

    If the technology allows it, the current higher speed could be maintained at designated “lycra clad” hours early in the morning and overnight.

  • Joe R.

    The big problem with timed lights is they only can be optimized for a minority at best. Even doing that, what might be perfect timing one day for that minority will be off the next with head or tail winds. Best solution, barring getting rid of cars and traffic signals from Central Park altogether, is push to cross. In fact, this should be adopted city-wide, along which vehicle sensors. There’s no reason any road user (bike or motor vehicle) should have to stop and wait if nothing is crossing the intersection. That’s wasteful of time, and in the case of motor vehicles, fuel. If no traffic is coming (only applicable at normal intersections, not inside Central Park), or the push to cross button isn’t pressed, the light stays GREEN indefinitely. If traffic is detected, it goes red on the regular timed cycle, but only stays red for as long as it takes for traffic to leave the intersection. We’ve had the technology to do this for at least the last 30 years. Lights which go red on regular cycles are just a dumb, wasteful way to control traffic which belongs in the dust bin of history.

  • Joe R.

    Some interesting observations from the other side of the pond regarding the traffic lights in Central Park (and elsewhere):

    http://cyclinginfo.co.uk/blog/cycling/cycling-through-manhattan/

    My favorite quote from the article (which I agree with wholeheartedly, especially the part about roundabouts):

    “The overriding memory of riding through Manhattan is the sheer number of traffic lights. You can’t help but ride through New York without thinking – Wow, these people are really clever to build all these huge skyscapers – but have you never heard of roundabouts?”

  • Danny G

    Joe R.,

    I agree with you that car-oriented traffic signals are out of place when you don’t have cars. But I’m not a fan of having to push a button to cross a street, especially in a pedestrian city like NYC.

    I’d support simply shutting off the lights entirely during car-free hours (no flashing anything) and letting the police issue some ‘failure to yield’ violations for the most rude 10% of cyclists.

  • kristi

    Am I missing it? We need a “where and when” right up front in the post so that we can show up.

  • Albert

    Third paragraph:

    “…tonight…at 7 pm at 160 Central Park West (the Universalist Church at 76th Street).”

  • Rick

    Common sense won’t prevail. Cyclists are simply being singled out for reasons unbeknownst to me or many other educated people. Here is some common sense i was referring to: Cyclists, slow down at crosswalks, allow pedestrians to cross and pass behind them when safe. Pedestrians, cross in the cross walks, and look. This is called co-existing. Now let’s get rid of cars and horse drawn carriages.

  • Robert Jones

    Hm… from what I could tell, isn’t this “Crackdown” over? I was walking around CP over the weekend and the cops weren’t doing anything about cyclists running red lights.

  • Laura

    Oh yes, they were riding around very slowly and ticketing. I saw at least two people get stopped on Sunday afternoon. I wonder if they are ticketing people who are renting bikes too (who are often from out of the country). Tourists are usually wrapped up in the scenery and I would venture to guess that a lot of them don’t stop at all of the red lights in the park. Just out of curiosity, what is the cost of running a red light when driving a car?

  • William Reilly

    … what is the cost of running a red light when driving a car?

    Here in NYC in any 18 month period the fines for both cars and bikes are:

    1st Offense $270
    2nd Offense $455
    3rd Offense $1020

    Just one February red-light loop of cooling my heeIs, yielding to tumbleweeds, and I no longer ride in CP.

  • Vitus

    The problem is that cyclists do not yield to pedestrians. We have been nearly run down every time we are in Central Park due to renegade cyclists.

  • Lee

    Pedestrians come first.

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