If Central Park Was Car-Free, New Safety Measures Could Be in Place 24/7

The pedestrian safety improvements coming to the Central Park loop narrow crossing distances the most during car-free hours. When cars are in the park, pedestrians will have a longer distance to cross. Image: NYC DOT

Four major pedestrian crossings on the Central Park loop will be redesigned to shorten walking distances and alert approaching drivers and cyclists, the city announced today. The new crossing treatments are part of a package that will also lower the speed limit on the loop from 25 to 20 mph.

Two people were killed by cyclists in separate collisions on the loop this summer — 75-year-old Irving Schachter, struck by a teenage cyclist who reportedly swerved into the running lane to avoid a pedicab, and 58-year-old Jill Tarlov, hit at a marked crossing by a cyclist who frequently trained in the park (but whose speed at the time has not been determined).

The changes DOT will implement should reduce the risk of pedestrian injury on the park loop. If motor vehicle speeds decline, all other traffic on the loop should be less harried during the hours when cars are allowed in the park. When cars are not in the park, the four major crossings will be even shorter for pedestrians, with movable barricades and signs with concrete anchors narrowing the distance further. These are the locations that will get the new treatment:

  • West Drive at Delacorte Theater (near W. 81st Street)
  • West Drive at Sheep Meadow (near W. 68th Street)
  • West Drive at Heckscher Ballfields Crossing (near 63rd Street)
  • East Drive at Terrace Drive (near E. 72nd Street)

Still, the fact that this design will minimize crossing distances when cars aren’t around points to the basic shortcoming in the plan: As long as the design of the loop has to accommodate car traffic, safety measures can only go so far. In a completely car-free park, the safer pedestrian crossing distances could be permanent, and the city could get rid of the traffic signals that cause misunderstandings between pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Eric McClure

    The DOT should, in conjunction with this effort in Central Park, ban motor-vehicle traffic in Prospect Park, remove all the signals and crosswalks, and turn the Prospect Park drives into truly shared spaces for pedestrians, cyclists, roller-bladers and scooter-ers. Let eye contact rule, and let NYPD and Park Enforcement crack down on cyclists who fail to cede right of way to pedestrians. And then we can see which system makes these similarly designed parks safer.

  • BridgeTroll

    Cars in parks is the single strangest fact about our city.

  • Cold Shoaler

    This is a great idea, but CP and PP aren’t apples to apples. The former is a cluster f#ck at least an order of magnatude greater than the latter. I totally agree that steps one and two for both are get the cars out 24/7 and tear down the traffic lights, though.

    This DOT proposal is depressing. We’re still configuring the loop around 20 unnecessary hours of driver shortcuts a week. Why is there no leadership on this? F the DOT.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    The current system that puts slower traffic (peds, slow bikes) on the left just to accommodate cars during weekdays is the cause of much confusion during the car-free hours. Eliminate the cars and put the pedestrian and slow bike traffic on the right side of the road and I bet most of the bike on ped crashes would disappear!

    Also, make the pedestrian crosswalk signals pedestrian activated and not just on a random time schedule.

    I would be really worried about the constricted crosswalks causing crashes. And you know the cops are going to sit at the bottom of the hill by the Harlem Meer and bust bicyclists coming down the hill. Its easy and rather safe to hit speeds near 30mph in this part of the park.

  • M to the I

    Why doesn’t the barricade go across the entire length of the car lanes when cars are not permitted to be in the park? Then pedestrians would only have to cross one lane of bicycle traffic and the choke point would be more likely to slow any fast cyclists.

  • Eddie

    There are always NYPD and Parks Department cars in the park, even during car-free hours.

  • Activated signals are in place in Prospect Park and they don’t work. People don’t know to push the beg buttons to cross, largely because that’s not a thing that anyone has to do outside the park. Sadly, we won’t be able to make real progress until we rip the band-aid off and get cars out altogether.

  • Maggie

    Yup. It’s so weird to me that DOT is the agency arranging pedestrian and bike use in a park. The rendering above is really jarring – it looks nothing like a crossing in Central Park. Try a dozen joggers, four cyclists, couple dog walkers, family of tourists, family of New Yorkers including a stroller, two pedicabs and a horse-drawn carriage. Oh plus a cop car targeting cyclists in spandex.

  • SteveVaccaro

    Great comments Andy. The way to do signal activation is to use motion sensors and shorten crossing distances at every crossing. As soon as ped steps off curb, but before ped steps into cyclist/runner/official vehicle traffic, first phase of signal change is automatically activated–flashing red for traffic on the loop, 5 second countdown for ped waiting at barrier to cross. After 5 seconds, ped gets green to cross, loop traffic has solid red. Or something like that.

    And yes, keeping the runners on the outside of the loop would limit conflicts.

  • qrt145

    I think 20 mph is not an unreasonable speed limit for the park. What I don’t like is that it seems inevitable that the NYPD will ticket cyclists going at 21 mph while ignoring motorists going at 40 mph.

  • Joe R.

    It all depends upon time of day, location, etc. 20 mph is certainly reasonable on a summer day at 4 PM. It’s not at 11 PM or 6 AM. If this speed limit is enforced as you say, which is probably exactly what will happen, the park will now be worthless to any serious cyclist looking to do a few laps at a pace high enough to be worthwhile from a fitness/training standpoint. That includes those considerate enough to do their laps when the park is nearly empty. I know these types of cyclists tend to be derided around here, but they pay taxes like any else, and their needs are just as legitimate as people who want to jog, walk their dogs, play basketball, whatever. If we can’t accommodate them in the park, then start building facilities which can (not velodromes but road courses as these are two different types of riding).

    I honestly feel the best solution here involves four things:

    1) Ban cars from the park entirely.
    2) Remove the traffic signals.
    3) Grade separate the busier crossings and fence off the road for at least 1000 feet on either side of the bridge so people crossing are forced to use it.
    4) Have physical barriers between the bike lanes and the jogging/walking lanes.

    3) isn’t as far-fetched or expensive as it sounds. I’ll bet there’s only a handful of really busy crossings meriting grade separation. In those cases, have the roadway dip down so pedestrians don’t have to climb stairs or ramps to cross the bridge. That’s the main reason why people often shun grade-separated crossings. It’s nearly winter now, and the park will not be heavily used until late spring. That means it’s a great time to get started building these crossings as it will entail minimal disruption.

    As for speed limits, I’m of the opinion that any vehicle not legally required to have a professionally calibrated speedometer can’t legally be held to speed limits. That basically means once cars are out of the park, there are no legal speed limits for the loop. In practice though, cyclists seldom exceed about 35 mph, even downhill, so we’re not turning the loop into the Indy 500. So long as we grade separate busy crossings, or those at the bottom of hills, speeds like this shouldn’t present an issue.

  • Joe R.

    Minor point-you also need to detect when the crosswalk is empty so the light remains red for no longer than it takes the person to cross. If we want pedestrian-activated lights to be obeyed, then they need to only go red when someone is actually in the crosswalk.

  • J

    Beg buttons are terrible for pedestrians for the precise reason you state. Automatic detection, as Steve mentioned, is the way to go.

  • Yep. It would definitely need some sort of motion detector.

  • M to the I

    Bingo, that is what I was getting at. During car free hours, this ceases to be a roadway, it becomes a park path. There should not be cars on it unless there is an emergency. Similar to the west side bike path, the number of cars should be limited to a point where a lane of traffic does not have to be reserved for them. What are we fighting for when we are fighting for a car free park?!

  • KeNYC2030

    In addition to the excellent suggestions already made of what can be done when cars are eliminated, the loop road could also be narrowed in key spots. For example, there is no earthly reason for a four-lane highway on the West Drive south of 72nd, the area where Jill Tarlov was killed trying to cross.

    You have to wonder what it will take to finally get the cars out. It’s a testament to how difficult it is to take a privilege away from motorists, even if doing so is overwhelmingly popular and even if preserving that privilege is simply adding to traffic congestion. It’s a real failure of nerve at the highest levels.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    The “beg buttons” they use in Germany are HUGE. They are well placed, conspicuous and light up when pressed so the peds know the light is gonna change. Not against automated detection however. I’ve seen it work well with a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon on a busy street in New Jersey.

  • BBnet3000

    Yep. People jaywalk because the light takes too long (same with running red lights on a bike). The way to solve this is to have lights that change quickly, which standard traffic lights for cars rarely if ever do.

    Proper pedestrian crossing lights that trigger quickly, activated by people walking between bollards would go a long way to making the park safer without de facto banning people who want to exercise on bikes.

  • BBnet3000

    I’d rather cycling and walking have their own space. Especially considering that cycling is more or less off limits anywhere else in the park but the drives.

  • Eddie

    Pedicabs don’t go faster than 20 mph, but they’re still a menace in the park, changing lanes without any notice in order to pick up a fare. A pedicab driver was ultimately responsible for the accident that caused Irv Schachter’s death.

  • qrt145

    I’m not defending pedicabs, but I don’t think the pedicab driver was responsible there based on what I read. When you pass any vehicle, you need to do it with enough margin and paying attention so that if the vehicle you are passing changes trajectory suddenly, you are able to slow down or avoid it safely (swerving into pedestrian territory doesn’t qualify).

  • Andy B from Jersey

    My take is that Manhattan road cyclists are like caged animals. There are just so few places for them to go in NYC where they can ride their bikes close to the bikes’ capabilities. I’m lucky here in Jersey. I can just ride a few miles from my house and hop on some rural roads with little traffic and hammer away as fast as I can get my bike to go. A little further away I can hit some hills and bomb down the road at the 40mph posted speed limit. When I do this its all perfectly legal and creates few safety problems for others.

    I’m not excusing those jerks who think its a game to whip through the large crowds of pedestrians in the park at close to full speed but as a roadie cyclist myself I understand the capabilities of these bikes and the desire to get them up to speed.

    It also turns my stomach to see the press go out with a radar gun and try to turn cyclists going 25mph into a pariah when they are going that fast in an open stretch of the loop road with little other traffic.

  • MatthewEH

    Runners might drift over to the inside of the loop nonetheless as an energy/distance-saving measure, and through force of habit. Behavior would change eventually, but not instantly and it wouldn’t be perfect.

  • MatthewEH

    Here’s what confuses me: why would the crossing-shortening barriers be little metal fences? Put in proper retracting electronic bollards!

    Not only could the schedule of the bollards automatically match car-free/car-present hours, but during car-free hours, service vehicles would be able to lower the bollards remotely and go through when clear, rather than being obliged to swerve into the bike lane to continue on their way.

  • qrt145

    The fences are only being proposed in parts of the park with two car lanes. The idea is that during “car-free” hours, there will still be one car lane available, but the total width will be reduced to make it easier to cross. This is also supposed to slow down cyclists and help prevent the type of crash that took Jill Tarlov’s life (it happened on one of the car lanes, at the 63rd St crossing, which is on the list).

    Fences are obviously cheaper, and the park precinct seems to have enough spare time to put them in an take them out every day. They already do that at the park entrances to close them to motor traffic.

  • MatthewEH

    Ah, okay. 2 of the 4 spots they want to apply this treatment do _not_ have two car lanes, so I was confused as to what the proposal actually was.

  • qrt145

    Are you sure? I thought they all had two car lanes. If I’m wrong then your worry about cars moving into the bike lane is very valid!

  • LN

    NOT 24/7 really, since bikers using the park after 1am are regularly tossed out/ticket by the NYPD enforcing the park curfew. The park drive, as the ticketing blitz demonstrates is considered a regular road, until 1am, when the NYPD call it a park so-as to hand out more tickets.

  • Albert

    Erik McClure has it right (see his earlier comment): Remove traffic signals altogether, “*Let eye contact rule*, and let NYPD and Park Enforcement crack down on cyclists who fail to cede right of way to pedestrians.”

    One sure way to *keep* car traffic in the park is to validate its presence by keeping traffic lights—”pedestrian activated” or otherwise

  • MatthewEH

    Quite sure. Delacorte Theater/West Drive at 81st Street has only one traffic/service lane. Similarly at E 72nd Street/East Drive.

  • JamesR

    I’m sorry, but bottlenecking the CP roadway as shown in the rendering is an absolutely horrible idea. The volumes of users of *every* mode are just too high. There’s that, and the speed limit.. fact is, it’s stupidly easy to exceed 20mph on the downhill after Harlem Hill without even pedaling. I get what the impetus for this is, but this particular plan is utter fail.

  • Guest

    Congratulations, your advocacy for lowering speed limits to the point of absurdity had been taken so far that it’s going to burn cyclists too!
    Way to go everyone!

  • Guest

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    I just don’t understand why most of the posters here also agree with you, but want to crucify a driver going 26 mph in what is basically an identical situation.
    Common sense tells anyone who has ever traveled that speed limits need to be set reasonably, or no one will take them seriously. It just seems that everyone has a blind spot to that reality when it affects a mode other than the one they use.

  • Guest

    It’s a massive park. Do you want someone to pick up the garbage and provide security, or not?

  • Cold Shoaler

    Non-emergency security presence does not require a motor vehicle (shoes, bikes, horses could easily cover the entire park). If there are going to be hours for motorized traffic, sanitation vehicles can do their rounds then.

  • Tyson White

    I was quite shocked to see the new “improvements” to the Park loop. The last place I expected to see the words “CARS ONLY” painted on the road is the small oasis of green space we know as Central Park.


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