Traffic Lights Don’t Belong on a Park Loop

It's full of cyclists and joggers, but Amsterdam's Vondelpark loop is designed differently than the one in Central Park. Photo: Jannes Glas/Flickr
Cyclists, joggers, and walkers coexist on the loop in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. Photo: Jannes Glas/Flickr

Two separate crashes in which cyclists struck and killed pedestrians on the Central Park loop have garnered more media attention than any other traffic safety issue in the past two months. In addition to the inevitable reemergence of a few bikelash trolls, the collisions have led to a round of less spiteful stories that still miss the mark, framing the whole issue in terms of adherence to traffic lights. Collisions on the loop roads in both Central Park and Prospect Park are preventable, but trying to compel pedestrians and cyclists to obey signals won’t get the job done.

It’s easy to gather a ton of B-roll of cyclists in the parks proceeding through red lights and pedestrians crossing against the signal or outside crosswalks. This type of coverage, however, misses the point: The problem in the park isn’t that people are disobeying the stop lights. The problem is the traffic lights themselves, which cause more conflict than they prevent.

Traffic signals came to New York in 1920, to impose order on what the New York Times recently called “the growing onslaught of automobiles” navigating the city’s right-angled intersections. On the park loops, conditions are quite different: People crossing on foot, no longer on the lookout for high-speed motorized traffic, expect greater freedom of movement, while the stream of joggers and cyclists on the road, unencumbered by bulky metal cages and generally moving at speeds that enable eye contact with other people, can engage with their surroundings in a way that drivers cannot. It’s nothing like the intersection of two city streets, yet it has similar traffic control devices.

Expecting pedestrians and cyclists in Central Park to obey traffic lights is like expecting drivers on the Belt Parkway to use hand signals before they change lanes. It’s the wrong technique, applied to a situation where it just won’t work.

Although stop lights were invented for automobiles, much of the time, the only cars on the park loops are police or service vehicles slowly going from one section of the park to another. During certain hours, the city opens some sections of the Central Park and Prospect Park loops to drivers looking for a shortcut. These are the only times when traffic signals make sense. When cars are not present, the signals create the false expectation that loop users will wait for permission from the light before proceeding — and that can be dangerous.

It’s unreasonable for a cyclist to assume that a green light means the path ahead will be unobstructed by pedestrians, just as it’s unreasonable to expect cyclists to come to a full stop when it’s safe for them to slow down and navigate around people crossing the loop, just as it’s unreasonable to expect a pedestrian to wait for the light when there is clearly a safe opening to cross.

Getting rid of traffic signals in the parks is a necessary step toward creating loop roads where people on bikes and on foot rely on eye contact and common sense to safely interact, instead of rules that don’t fit the context. And before that can happen, it’s time to finish the job and make the parks permanently car-free, a top request among Central Park users that has support from nearby community boards. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says she’s heard the call loud and clear, but she hasn’t committed to actually following through, citing the need for more study and consensus-building.

Making the loop permanently car-free and getting rid of traffic lights would clear the way for other steps. Once motorists, car lanes, and car signals no longer have to be accommodated, the range of available options to improve safety among pedestrians and cyclists expands. Training on a bike wouldn’t be as appealing, but the park would become slower and safer for everyone.

City Council Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine has proposed lowering the loop’s speed limit from 25 to 20 mph. That’s a good rule of thumb, but especially on crowded sections of the loop south of 72nd Street, new signs won’t be sufficient. Some sort of design change will be needed.

What might work? The busiest crossing points, like near Columbus Circle, are candidates for raised crosswalks. Pavement treatments could send cues to cyclists that they’re approaching heavily-used areas, and markings could be overhauled to make pedestrians and cyclists more aware of each other. A constant police presence to verbally remind fast cyclists to slow down could also help.

These are just suggestions. There are a wide range of potential design fixes that the city should explore. New York City doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel here — it could invite shared space experts from countries with more experience designing car-free streets to weigh in.

Whatever the specific solutions may be, the city has to try something new — a few weeks of ticketing cyclists for running reds won’t solve the core issue: Forcing pedestrians and cyclists to obey rules made for cars is an exercise in futility.

  • “As usual, crossing Randalls Island and Wards Island is the most frustrating part, given the stairways on the bridge to Queens, the sharp turns on the bridge to Manhattan, the crummy asphalt on the path between the Manhattan bridge and the stadium, and having to traverse the stadium parking lot.”

    Traversing the stadium parking lot? What do you mean? I am confused by that.

    To get from Queens to to Manhattan on Randall’s Island, you come off the bridge from Queens, and go up the Central Road, past the hospital and the stadium on your left, and the Fire Dept. training centre and the Sportime tennis centre on your right, up to where that road hits the Bronx Shore Road; you then go left. (You can also take the bike path under the Hell Gate Bridge.) Then you take the Bronx Shore Road to where you turn left into the Parks Dept. HQ parking lot in order to find the bridge to Manhattan.

    So I am not following the reference to the stadium parking lot.

  • Joe R.

    On the speed disparity, it’s generally accepted for motor vehicles that large speed differences lead to more conflicts and more collisions. It’s likely the same for bike-motor vehicle interactions. I was thinking about bike infrastructure recently, and came the the conclusion we might need far less of it than we think if we do two things. One, get motor vehicles to reliably go no more than 20 to 30 mph on urban streets. There are good safety and other reasons for this anyway. Two, increase general cycling speeds to more or less match the reduced motor vehicle speeds via some combination of mass-produced velomobiles and e-bikes. With no speed differences between bikes and motor vehicles, it becomes far easier to just flow with motor traffic without separate bicycle infrastructure.

    All that said, there will still be instances where separate bike infrastructure is needed. This could be on roads where it isn’t feasible to reduce motor vehicle speeds to 30 mph or less. It could also be in places where there are a lot of traffic signals, and you want separate bike infrastructure to bypass traffic signals and problematic intersections. Also, when bike traffic passes certain levels where there is enough bike traffic to fill a lane for much of the day, it makes more sense to just have a bike lane separated from motor traffic, even if bike speeds are similar to motor traffic speeds.

  • Joe R.

    You’re not imagining things on the tires. I’ve seen tire rolling resistance tests which confirm the same thing-fatter, lower pressure tires often roll better than narrow, higher pressure tires. Part of the reason for this is the larger tire conforms to microimperfections better, resulting in a smoother ride. As a result, less energy goes into shaking the person and bike. Of course, there is a trade off between lower rolling resistance and aerodynamics where things eventually get better for the narrower tire. However, this typically doesn’t occur until speeds reach 20 to 25 mph. Few urban commuters consistently ride that fast.

  • TriesNotToHitPeople

    I wouldn’t say there’s _no_ reason — you might be riding carefully and legally, swerve to avoid a ped or car, and hit a ped who moved into your path before you could avoid him. I’ve seen that happen, and have had close calls. But, yes, there’s no excuse for not doing whatever is in your power to avoid hitting someone, and too many people are guilty of that.

  • John Allen

    How many thousands of buildings would you tear down to make room for those roundabouts?

  • Uncountable Laps

    You are probably both good and somewhat lucky and haven’t spent those twenty years doing laps in Central Park. I’ve also been riding for a very long-time on NYC streets, and on the park drives. You can be the most attentive and skilled cyclist in the world, and if a jogger stops on a dime and runs right in front of you — which I’ve seen happen three times over the last twenty years — you will hit them. I’ve been lucky enough to not have been in those crashes, but it could have happened to me — or you.

  • Marie

    I believe that pedestrian bridges are the answer. How do we make that happen?

  • Tyson White

    If Mark Levine wants to lower the speed limit in the park to 20 that’s alright – under one condition:
    Motorists are never fined by police or speed cameras unless they go more than 10 mph above the speed limit. If he’s willing to extend the same courtesy to bicycle riders, then I’m all in!

  • Jonathan R

    That’s the long way around. Suggest leaving the Queens bridge, going up Central Road, passing the turnoff to the 103d St bridge, and crossing the road to enter the Icahn parking lot. Hop up on the sidewalk by the water fountain on the north side of the stadium, then use the path around the west side of the mini-golf course until you see the signs to Manhattan, then cross under the bridge and use the north side path to cross into Manhattan.

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