Sanity Prevails as Advocates and Officials Discuss Central Park Safety Issues

street_justice2

Monday night, Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey, the commanding officer of NYPD’s Central Park Precinct, led a discussion of street safety in Central Park. Convened by the Central Park Conservancy, it drew representatives of most major advocates and organizations of recreational users of the park, including NY Road Runners, Transportation Alternatives, Asphalt Green Triathalon, Central Park Skate Patrol, and various bike clubs and bike racing organizations.

Responding to the tragic killing of Jill Tarlov, the group worked to build on education and enforcement programs for users of the Central Park loop. In contrast to the overheated rhetoric in the tabloids and local TV newscasts, sanity prevailed. Some of the more radical proposals that have surfaced of late — such as closing the loop to bikes — were not even mentioned. Lowering the speed limit in the park did not come up either. It appears that, at least in the short term, cyclists’ use of the park will continue as it has before, albeit with a continuation of the increased level of enforcement already seen for most of 2014.

Inspector Corey started with some statistics: Year to date, there have been 168 crashes involving cyclists in the park, with six involving motor vehicles, 98 involving cyclists crashing on their own, 27 involving two or more cyclists, and 37 involving pedestrians. In addition with the two recent pedestrian fatalities, she mentioned three cases involving pedestrian skull fractures, including one which occurred during the early morning hours when training bicyclists are supposed to use the park loop.

Corey also reported nearly 700 moving violations and 100 criminal citations issued to cyclists year-to-date — a nearly six-fold increase over the first nine months of 2013. Most of these summonses were for failure to yield to pedestrians, although she indicated that there has been an increase in red light tickets as well following the two recent fatalities and other serious crashes.

I raised the issue of criminal summonses, since I’ve received several reports of cyclists on the loop going slowly through red lights, while no pedestrians were in the crosswalk, receiving summonses for “reckless driving” — a misdemeanor charge that applies only to motor vehicle operators and is used only for the most serious misconduct by motorists. The recipients of these summons will be forced to appear in criminal court — there is no way to resolve the summons by mail — but will have the charges dismissed (because they are not motor vehicle operators) after wasting half a day at court. I explained that this kind of criminal summonsing is not only completely improper, but breeds contempt, rather than respect, for the law. Inspector Corey promised to investigate these criminal summonses.

Corey also explained a common misunderstanding she has experienced with cyclists, when she or precinct officers are present in uniform “in control” of an intersection. This often occurs during concerts in the park but also at other times. The officers will insist that all traffic follow their instructions, which may include waiting at a light when (at least from a cyclist’s perspective) there is no apparent reason to do so. She explained that cyclists disobeying orders to stop at intersections that police are “in control” of are subject to summonses, and that pointed, disrespectful complaints to officers from cyclists are not uncommon and are counterproductive. She did add that she was not assigning officers to do early-morning red-light enforcement on cyclists, and that enforcement of the “two earphone” rule (listening to one earphone is allowed, but not two) had recently begun.

Update: Deputy Inspector Corey called me on Saturday to confirm that the criminal summons for reckless driving issued to a cyclist would be voided, and that she and her staff are undertaking a review of the approximately 700 summonses issued to cyclists this year to confirm that they were properly coded so that surcharges and license penalty points would not be applied.

For their part, the cycling and other advocacy organizations present at the meeting condemned training rides and other “fast cycling” during the afternoon and evening when the recent fatalities occurred. It was noted that some bike/ped crashes involved runners who unexpectedly turned into the cycling lane, and that education with runners and pedestrians should be a continued priority. The need to publicize the rule that the outer lane of the loop is forbidden to cyclists and pedestrians except for incidental use (e.g., passing congestion in the bike lane) was also discussed.

Several people who bike in the park (including myself) expressed the view that cyclists who ride alone — and are not getting the peer reinforcement of safe riding behavior and safety messaging that club/group riding can often provide — accounted for much of the problem, and these individuals should be the subject of targeted education and enforcement efforts, including pursuit, if safe, of cyclists who deliberately disregard direct orders from police.

  • J

    I’ve nearly been killed at intersections when officers “take control”, while leaving the signals active. I’ve approached the intersection and proceeded with the signal, only to find a car barreling towards me, as a result of an NYPD officer who, unbeknownst to me, had waved cars through. In more safety-minded police departments, the police simply turn off the signal or turn it to flashing yellow or red, so that 1) people are warned that normal conditions do not apply and 2) so that people aren’t given conflicting instructions. The current practice in NYC is lazy, horribly dangerous, and easily fixable.

  • Reader

    “The need to publicize the rule that the outer lane of the loop is forbidden to cyclists and pedestrians except for incidental use (e.g., passing congestion in the bike lane) was also discussed.”

    I’m not sure this law makes any sense, except perhaps to avoid the occasional car that comes barreling through at 25 mph. Yet another reason why the city needs to get cars out.

  • camp6ell

    good to hear the two earphone rule will be enforced.

  • LN

    Any discussion of the 1am park curfew currently enforced on the park roads? If the drive is considered by the NYPD to be subject to the same laws as any other NYC road, and is administrated by DOT, then cyclists, joggers, walkers should be able to use the drive at all times to travel in safe car free environment. I suggest that the officers ticketing cyclists for riding the drive in the early hours of the morning are better employed pulling over the drunk drivers on 5th and CPW which we are trying to avoid. Same problem in Prospect Park.

  • com63

    I’m confused about this rule too. Most of the park has two car lanes, a bike lane and a jogging lane. Which lane is the outer lane? I always thought that when the road is closed to cars, the two car lanes were fair game for cyclists and that the bike lane becomes a jogging lane. Are they saying these lanes are supposed to be empty all weekend and cyclists should stay in the bike lane no matter what?

  • Reader

    Proof positive that the rules are confusing and we need to get cars out.

  • SteveVaccaro

    All the more reason to slow and be 100% sure it’s OK to go through when you see one of these intersections “in control.” I’m not sure that the CP traffic signals, which are reported to be the oldest in the city, have the kind of on-off or flashing yellow features other traffic signals may have.

    In most cases, the “in control” intersections are ones where there are large numbers of pedestrians crossing the Loop, such as after concerts. The police may want to have the intersection be completely clear of all traffic before switching the right of way towards the cyclists or towards the pedestrians. It appears that some cyclists grow impatient quickly with this practice and will verbally abuse the officers when they feel that delays lasting less than a minute are intolerable.

    It’s never fun to stop, but my impression is that this is one of the conditions of continued recreational cycling in the park.

  • SteveVaccaro

    This was not discussed but the 6:00 a.m. “opening time” of the park was discussed. Deputy Inspector Cory expressed surprised at the large numbers of users in the park at 5:30 a.m. In my view this reflects the lengths that conscientious users of the park will go to in avoiding conflicts with other users. Same thing with late night riding, which is when I once used to do my laps.

    It seems to me that with all the mega-gifts that Central Park has been getting, some of that money should be put toward buying whatever services are necessary to allow the park to open earlier or stay open later. That would allow some relief during the periods of peak demand for the Loop. The donors should not be allowed to insist that their tens of millions all go to capital improvements, when what the park needs is to expand hours.

    If it’s feasible to keep the Hudson River bike path open in Riverside Park past 1 a.m., it should be feasible to keep Central Park open as well.

  • SteveVaccaro

    The rules and configuration of the Central Park Loop changed about a year and half ago. The present rule is that the Loop is (for almost all of its length) divided up into three lanes: an inner lanes that allows bi-directional running/walking; a middle lane that allows counter-clockwise bicycling, and an outer lane reserved for counter-clockwise motor vehicles and (below 72nd Street) pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages. Even when the park is closed to “unauthorized vehicles,” cycling in the outer lane is not permitted. The view of the Central Park Conservancy is that there is so much motor vehicle traffic just from Parks Department/CPC, emergency vehicles, and vendor vehicles, that the lane should always be kept clear. “Incidental use” by bicycles of the outer lane, for passing bicyclists in the middle lane, is permitted.

    I don’t really agree with the assessment that there is so much motor vehicle traffic that bicyclists must be forbidden from the outer lane, but it is not a battle to be fought at this moment, IMO. Giving up the outer lane was the price of winning the entire middle lane, as distinct from the 4′ strip full of runners, which was the old design.

  • dporpentine

    I don’t think the original point was limited to stops in the park but just the general practice of police conducting traffic without thinking about all users.
    When they were redoing the Grand Army Plaza traffic configuration, cops used to regularly send cars against the light and into pedestrian and bike traffic–all from a position that was well behind the line of sight for those users. And their response to nearly killing you was to yell at you. This was also routine at the point where the Manhattan Bridge empties onto Tillary before it was reconfigured.
    Back when Washington and Atlantic were under heavy construction, cops used to tell me to run the light on my bike and get annoyed when I refused.
    The point: Cops are often very irresponsible traffic guides whose indifference or hostility to people who aren’t in cars is irresponsible to the point of psychopathy.

  • qrt145

    Yes, that’s what they are saying, and yes, the rule is absurd.

    But hey, at least it is less confusing than the previous rule (until they restriped the loop last year or so), which _required_ cyclists to use the car lanes during car-free hours. In other words, cyclists were not supposed to use the bike lane, which became part of the jogging lane during car-free hours. But very few people even knew, because the rule was well hidden in the fine print of the “park rules” signs which few people read.

  • JamesR

    And this is why heading straight to 9W makes so much more sense than Central Park for any sort of enjoyable riding at more than a snail’s pace.

  • J

    Precisely!

  • I’ve had this problem many times at the point where Queens Blvd. hits Northern Blvd. There is often a cop directing the traffic that has come off the Queensboro Bridge, and sending cars through a red light onto the eastbound connecting road that leads from Queens Plaza to eastbound Northern Blvd. After a near miss, I learnt not to trust the green light there.

    When I complained to the officer (not rudely — extremely politely), all she said was that the signals don’t mean anything when an officer is directing traffic. I could not make her understand that a bicyclist coming up QB and preparing to get onto the Queensboro Bridge Greenway will not notice a police officer standing several yards off to his/her left in the middle of the intersection, and is going to rely on the green light to think that it’s OK to cross. Because of this practice, that spot is a booby trap.

    It is true that the signal should be turned off when a cop is directing traffic.

  • jzisfein

    Cyclists ignore Central Park traffic signals because often there are no pedestrians in sight and because observing the signals would take all the joy out of cycling. Ignoring the signals, however, places pedestrians at risk. Is there any discussion of converting the signals to push-to-cross, which would turn the signals red only when there are pedestrians in (or about to enter) the crosswalks?

  • Pam

    It would be even better if there were a rule against pedestrians/runners with two earphones.

  • Joe R.

    Those traffic signals are among the oldest in the city, so retrofitting them for push-to-cross, or even to flash yellow when cars aren’t in the park, probably isn’t feasible without spending $$$. That said, the obvious solution is to just get motor vehicles out of the park permanently, then get rid of the traffic signals altogether. After that’s done, seriously consider grade separating the most problematic crossings. Make the rest yield-to-peds most of the day, yield-to-bikes during off hours. That should keep everyone happy.

    Oh, and keep at least the loop open 24/7 to give cyclists more off-peak hours where they can just ride without stopping.

  • BBnet3000

    I think a signalization still makes sense to regulate those ped crossings given the number of bikes and peds and the demonstrable reluctance of many cyclists to yield to peds. They should be ped-specific crossing caution lights though rather than regular traffic lights, and they should turn to the ped’s favor much faster than the lights do today.

    With those lights that only require bikes to yield to peds rather than to stop regardless, the cops could actually begin to ticket bad behavior rather than simple jaybiking that doesnt actually harm anyone.

  • BBnet3000

    Closing it to cars does not mean transferring the land from DOT to the Parks Department (but does DOT actually own it today?). Presumably it could still remain open, but you could not leave the road and enter the park paths during night hours.

    This is a very good thing given the continuity problems with the protected bike lanes on the Avenues in Manhattan.

  • BBnet3000

    9W is still really far away for a lot of people.

  • BBnet3000

    Yeah, I had an NYPD traffic agent try to kill me on The Bowery at Prince St when I was making a completely legal left on green from the bike jughandle and was crossing the first lane of traffic, he started waving cars at me (through the red light).

    My girlfriend slammed on her brakes while still in the jughandle (I was ahead of her) and avoided it thankfully, while I rode as fast as I could to get across (while having the green the entire time).

    Oh, and we were on our way to Summer Streets.

  • SSkate

    The Central Park Skate Patrol had someone at the meeting? They still exist? I didn’t see them in the park at all this past summer.

  • bikeadvocate

    The park’s most slow moving (and therefore vulnerable users) would benefit from signals. Children, old folks, and handicapped people can look both ways and start to cross but not be finished crossing before a bike that could not previously be seen comes blowing by them. What’s the solution to that if you eliminate all signals? Grade-separated crossings? These 3 sets of folks are the least able to adjust their plans by 10 blocks to get to a grade-separated crossing (and perhaps least able to climb over a bridge).

    In addition, changing the default rule during the day creates its own hazard. You’re forcing people to internalize two different rules and to be aware of when the default rule changes.

    This is not to say that your changes are not welcome suggestions, but simply that it’s a challenging problem and any solution needs to account for those least able to adjust.

  • SteveVaccaro

    Jim, push-to-cross was not discussed. I have heard significant support for this solution on Streetsblog and in other quarters, but I do wonder whether it would fix the problem. On a busy day, it could mean that a cyclist would hit a red at every single light. Any adjustment to the push-to-cross scheme to prevent such an outcome would generate frustration among peds (pushing the button would not reliably give a prompt green light), so the pedestrians might start to just cross on red. It’s something to be discussed but I wonder whether the answer isn’t to put in a safe speed limit (20? lower?) during the day, with a “safe harbor” for faster riding before 8:00 a.m. and after 11 p.m.

  • Joe R.

    Grade-separated crossings don’t necessarily mean climbing over a bridge. You can keep the bridge at grade level and rebuild the road so it dips under the bridge. Remember if you no longer allow motor vehicles then you only need to drop the roadway about 7 or 8 feet to do this. You don’t even need to worry about the gradients on either side because the momentum a cyclist generates going down will carry them back up the other side. That means only a short segment of road needs to be regraded.

    Also, if you locate the grade-separated crossings at the busiest intersections then chances are good people will be crossing at the most convenient place, without needing to go ten blocks out of their way.

    If we’re looking for solutions, then this is really the only viable one given the number of people using the park. Any system of signals when there’s large numbers of users will mean people will often have to wait. People in general hate waiting, especially in the context of a park, so they will tend to ignore the signals. That defeats the purpose of having them in the first place. Unless you’re prepared for no-tolerance enforcement (that includes ticketing pedestrians who cross on red, even when there’s no cross traffic) which will make the park a very unpleasant place to be, then keeping the signals around as they are now won’t make things better.

    The only place signals might make sense are at less busy crossings. There you could have signals activated by pedestrian sensors which remain red for bikes for only as long as it takes the person to cross and no longer. Provided pedestrian traffic was very low, these signals would be green for bikes most of the time, so the very occasional red would likely be obeyed by most cyclists. These same signals could also have sensors for bikes. When the rule changes at night are in effect (i.e. bikes get priority at crossings instead of pedestrians), the pedestrian won’t get the green if any bikes are detected within x feet of the crosswalk, until after those bikes pass. That fixes the issue of having to remember two sets of rules.

    Remember there are two sets of problems with the existing set up. One, the lights are on dumb timers. This forces people into the choice of stopping at a pointless red light (i.e. if there is no cross traffic), or breaking the law. When there is rarely cross traffic at any given signal, the tendency will be to always ignore it. That could mean disaster the rare times there is cross traffic.

    Two, there are just too many traffic signals. I think there are 46 signals on the 6.1 mile loop. That’s one every 700 feet. You can’t reliably get cyclists to obey red lights when they potentially have one every few blocks (this same issue exists for cyclists on many regular streets as well). The only choice is to replace the busiest crossings with grade separated ones, put pedestrian activated signals (or a simple yield to peds sign) at crosswalks which are not too busy, and remove the least busy crosswalks altogether. The bottom line is pedestrians should rarely need to wait to cross the road, and cyclists should rarely need to stop.

  • neroden

    Is there actually any training for traffic cops in NYC? Because the more I hear, the more it seems like there isn’t.

  • cek

    Was there any discussion of increased presence of officers on bicycles? It seems to me that those officers would be more useful for pursuit for education/enforcement directed at cyclists. (I did see notice bicycle officers during the week or so immediately after the second fatal accident – or perhaps I just noticed them more than previously.)

  • jzisfein

    “A cyclist would hit a red at every single light”: Steve, that would not happen in the early mornings, or in the evenings, or at most crosswalks in the northern part of the park at any time of day. Cyclists in training would ride at those times and places. Yes, on summer weekend afternoons, the southern end of the park might have a string of red signals. That’s when pedestrians need the most protection, and that’s when the only responsible way to cycle is slowly.

    “Pushing the button would not reliably give a prompt green light”: On push-to-cross, when a walk signal turns to don’t walk, there is an interval before the walk light re-appears, typically 90-120 seconds. Pedestrians could think the button is broken and start crossing. However, a well designed push-to-cross installation gives immediate feedback when the button is pushed, typically a chirp and then an LED on the button stays on until the walk signal appears. Examples: 9W at John St. in Englewood Cliffs, and 119 at 9A in Elmsford.

    The best solution is to get cars out of the park and then remove all or most traffic signals and replace with well marked crosswalks and “yield to pedestrians” signage. Unfortunately, I don’t believe removal of the signals is politically possible, especially after pedestrian deaths. Hence my suggestion of push-to-cross. At the very least, TA should be able to get a cost estimate for push-to-cross from DOT.

  • SteveVaccaro

    All good points, Jim. I’m clearly not up on the state-of-the-art as far as push-to-cross goes! It should definitely be explored as an option.

  • Joe R.

    You could have a countdown display which shows how many seconds are left until you get the walk signal. It’s been shown that people are more likely to wait if they have some idea of how long they will be waiting.

    That said, push-to-cross really only makes sense at less busy crossings where a cyclist will end up with green most of the time (and hence will be more likely to stop at the occasional red). At busy crossings where the lights will frequently be red for either cyclists or pedestrians, grade separation is the only viable solution as the lights will be systematically ignored if they frequently result in delays. Also, any kind of time slicing via traffic signals decreases the capacity of the road or crosswalk by about 50%. At peak times this may well result in pedlock or traffic jams.

  • lop

    Instead of red lights what about pedestrian activated warning lights? The pedestrian presses a button and cyclists/cars get a flashing yellow light. The bikes only have to stop long enough for the pedestrian to cross, not long enough for any pedestrian to cross.

  • Joe R.

    Steve,

    Although there hasn’t yet been a legal test case, I honestly feel given the lack of a legal requirement for speed-measuring devices on bicycles (and the total infeasibility of such a requirement from a practical/logistical standpoint) that speed limits in general can’t legally be applied to cyclists (or skateboarders/roller bladers/runners). They aren’t in the UK, for example ( http://www.astounding.org.uk/ian/cyclelaw/speed_limits.html ). Practically speaking, how can one keep to a speed limit if one doesn’t know their speed? Moreover, even if someone has a speed-measuring device on their bike, it’s not professionally calibrated, and therefore from a legal standpoint not valid as a speed-measuring device.

    You might be able to ticket cyclists for riding at a speed which is “unsafe for conditions”, but even here you run into issues. Unsafe based on whose judgement? The officer’s? Remember “reasonable and prudent” used to be what governed speeds on roads. We got away from that, and went to numerical speed limits, precisely because of the wide range of speeds officers of the law judged as reasonable and prudent. Moreover, if you didn’t physically have a collision, it can be taken as proof positive that you weren’t riding too fast for the conditions.

    Really, the answer is to just redesign the loop so cyclists moving at any speed which is possible for a cyclist to be moving at doesn’t pose a safety issue.

  • MEP

    Can someone explain what the current cycling rules are for Central Park? If you have to wait at every red light until it is green you would never be able to ride in the park. Can you ride early or late with a light and not have to stop for lights? Thanks!

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