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

Central Park Conservancy Administrator Douglas Blonsky,
Central Park Conservancy Administrator Douglas Blonsky,

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.

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