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

11:58 AM EDT on March 14, 2011

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.

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.

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