A crowd of 300 people, outraged at a police ticket blitz that threatens to effectively eliminate Central Park as a place of recreation for cyclists, ran into an unyielding blue wall at last night’s meeting of the Central Park Precinct’s community council. The precinct commander, Captain Philip Wishnia, offered no hope that his precinct’s enforcement of red-light laws at each of the loop road’s 47 traffic lights will abate, nor any assurances that his officers will exercise meaningful discretion.
Both Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Upper West Side City Council Member Gale Brewer made brief statements at the meeting, urging exploration of a proposal to change the traffic lights to blinking yellow when cars are not in the park. Brewer, however, grasped the essence of the problem. Noting that she has had a bill before the council since 2006 calling for a trial closing of the park to cars, Brewer said, “Let’s get cars out of the park and change the current policy.”
Wishnia initially tried to claim that the precinct’s sudden crackdown is in response to a “dramatic increase in incidents over the years,” an assertion that he failed to substantiate. When speaker after speaker challenged the claim, Wishnia would eventually fall back on the explanation that he is simply being instructed by higher-ups to enforce the law and has no flexibility. He suggested audience members talk to their legislators if they want a change.
Here are some further highlights, if you can call them that (many thanks to audience members Steve Vaccaro and Lisa Sladkus for their notes):
- Wishnia said that 230 summonses have been issued to cyclists so far this year, compared to 160 speeding summonses issued to drivers all of last year and 62 the prior year. Wishnia maintained the summonses given to cyclists are “not a lot” and that it “doesn’t amount to zero tolerance enforcement.”
- “We cyclists don’t understand how routine speeding by motorists in the park is condoned and even encouraged in this way, but you can’t allow a cyclist to ride through a red light in a deserted intersection in the park,” said Vaccaro. “How can an officer have the discretion to ignore one, but not the other?”
- Wishnia responded: “My officers have discretion. Not everyone who went through a light got a summons.” But when a cyclist asked under what circumstances he could go through a red light without getting a ticket, Wishnia replied, “I won’t tell you what your window of opportunity is.”
- One audience member presented his calculation that a park visitor has an infinitesimal chance of being struck by a cyclist (35 million park visitors in 2010 vs. 43 incidents involving cyclists and pedestrians, an unknown number of which were not the cyclist’s fault). When Wishnia was pressed by this and other questioners on his evidence for a problem warranting the current crackdown, he declared, “Even one injury is too many.”
- Stephen Bauman of the Five Borough Bicycle Club made a detailed legal argument that cyclists are not subject to Vehicle and Traffic Laws during non-car hours. “I think you’re making up the law,” Bauman said. “VTL does not apply directly to bicycles, and only to roadways ‘ordinarily used for vehicular travel.'”
- Wishnia claimed that the crashes involving bikes typically happen when the cars aren’t in the park. “I can guarantee you that if you ban cars in the park, there will be more crashes.”
- More from Wishnia: “When you’re leaned over your racing handlebars, you’re not looking out for pedestrians.”
- Wishnia refused to address a question about why officers don’t try to keep joggers out of the bike lane. “Right now we’re talking about cyclists, not runners. There are lots of other things we could talk of.”
- An 8-year-old girl asked Wishia: “If cyclists are being killed all the time, why are they being punished?”
- “I believe in this little yellow light idea that would give cyclists the right to use the park,” said Stringer. “I sent a letter to DOT. If we (i.e. cyclists) respect the yellow light, we shouldn’t be hitting cyclists with $270 tickets.”
- Wishnia estimated the crowd at 300 but claimed that the room could be filled with just as many who favor the current enforcement regime. “Where are they?” the crowd roared back.
Where do we go from here? Your comments appreciated.