Ex-Parks Commissioner: I Won’t Bike in Central Park Anymore

The famous loops are 'chaos' — and claimed the life of a cyclist. So what will the city do about it?

Yes, it's scary: A pedestrian peers at the Central Park intersection where a cyclist collided with a pedestrian Monday afternoon. Photo: Eve Kessler
Yes, it's scary: A pedestrian peers at the Central Park intersection where a cyclist collided with a pedestrian Monday afternoon. Photo: Eve Kessler

Central Park has become so chaotic and dangerous that a former city parks commissioner says he won’t bike in the greenspace anymore.

Adrian Benepe, who spent a decade as Mayor Bloomberg’s parks commissioner, called the situation on the park’s roadways a “crisis,” telling Streetsblog that he had given up cycling in the park because of the “chaos,” unpleasantness and danger caused by the park’s growing popularity and a lack of pedestrian and cycling safety infrastructure.

Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.
Ex-Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

“It’s the Wild, Wild West. It has to stop being the Wild West,” said Benepe, who now works at the Trust for Public Land.

The chaos starts with bad design — roadways are still striped for the (mostly absent) automobiles, and the many traffic signals inside the park don’t immediately appear that they apply to pedestrians and cyclists. So it’s not just that no one obeys the rules — it’s not clear what those rules are. Indeed, Benepe said, after the park officially became car-free last June, the city “never figured out the new rules of the road.”

If the city can’t figure out the rules, how can the users? (Hint: They can’t.)

The lawlessness of the park’s roadways last week claimed the life of a cyclist, Charles Cheeseboro, 43, of Harlem. Last week, Cheeseboro struck a pedestrian and lost control of his e-bike on the east side of the park, landing on his head. He died two days later, the 20th cyclist to die in the city this year, double the number for all of 2018. The pedestrian suffered minor injuries.

Cheeseboro wiped out at an especially dangerous crossing, traffic-signalized intersection at about 74th Street on East Drive, just north of the 72nd Street Terrace Drive. The road there is a veritable textbook of bad street design — but so are many other spots in the park.

Why is this still on the pavement, a year after cars were supposedly banned from Central Park? Photo: Eve Kessler
Why is this still on the pavement, a year after cars were supposedly banned from Central Park? Photo: Eve Kessler

Traffic from the south and east converges, dumping into the intersection from a fairly steep incline. Traffic from the west approaches at two points. The traffic light and crosswalk sit in a trough, with the road angling upward just past it. Anyone coming off the hill on a bike from the south or east must defy momentum to stop. The crash remains under investigation, police said.

“It is a highly dangerous intersection for all users,” said Ken Coughlin, former chairman of the Community Board 7 Parks and Environment Committee. “I’ve come close to being hit there myself while riding toward the East Side. Cyclists going north on the East Drive are rounding a small turn and picking up speed downhill.  Cyclists and others heading east and trying to cross the drive have to really pay attention and move fast to avoid traffic to their right. And, to continue east on the 72nd Street crossing, they have to head slightly uphill and into the oncoming northbound traffic. Meanwhile, some northbound cyclists on the drive going down the hill are making a left onto the 72nd Street crossing, adding to the confusion.”

The”wholly inadequate” pavement markings and signage there are “the main culprit” of the crash, Coughlin said.

Pedestrians aren’t happy, either.

The intersection is “not safe,” said Manhattanite Olga Baron as she pushed a client in a wheelchair on the Terrace Drive.

Whose car is that going north? it has a Maryland license plate. Photo: Eve Kessler
Whose car is that going north on East Drive, stopped at the intersection where Charles Cheeseboro fatally crashed? It has a Maryland license plate and no official markings. You can see the road rise from the intersection, which sits at the bottom of an incline. Photo: Eve Kessler

So what is going on?

Central Park remains in chaos, despite (or perhaps because of) the removal of cars last June. People are getting hurt all around the park — albeit in fewer numbers than when cars dominated the park, but there are more crashes.

In the previous 13 months before cars were banished, there were 39 reported crashes injuring 23 cyclists, one pedestrian, and one motorist. In the 13 months since, there were 41 reported crashes in the park, injuring 12 cyclists, four pedestrians, and three motorists (yes, motorists), according to city data.

(The idea that the park is “car free” is a gross exaggeration. The Department of Transportation said that the only permitted vehicles are emergency vehicles, workers using Parks or Conservancy vehicles, and trucks or cars servicing concessions like the Tavern on the Green. Yet many private cars inside the park belong to cops who work at the Central Park Precinct. Neither the NYPD nor DOT comments on that.)

The intersection where Cheeseboro suffered his fatal wounds is a perfect example of the chaos: pedicab drivers gesticulate wildly and crane their necks as they seek to cut west from the Terrace Drive across northbound East Drive traffic; cyclists ride the wrong way or make hairpin turns; horse carriages, joggers, and bikes form a scrum; recreational and racer cyclists ride at different speeds alongside tractor-trailers and joggers; scared pedestrians (some with pets) don’t know what to do; distracted horse-cart drivers talk to their customers rather than keep their eyes on the road; scooter users and in-line skaters weave in and out; official and non-official cars use the loops like regular streets, and pretty much every kind of user ignores the traffic lights.

A pedicab trying to go west mixes it up with a tractor-trailer at the confluence of the Terrace and East drives. Photo: Eve Kessler
A pedicab trying to go west mixes it up with a tractor-trailer at the confluence of the Terrace and East drives. Photo: Eve Kessler

Of course, the Central Park roads have had safety problems from the get-go. The loops — built in the 19th century for strolling, horseback riding, and carriages — were altered repeatedly in order to accommodate automobiles; their present curves were drawn in the 20th century to slow down cars.  In November, 1929, the city imposed one-way traffic rules on the east and west drives in order to stem vehicle carnage: Drivers crashed 338 times in the park in the first 10 months of 1929, killing eight people and injuring 249, the New York Times noted.

Cyclists also have killed two pedestrians in the park during the last five years. In one case, the cyclist swerved to avoid a group of pedestrians in the bike lane, hitting another. In the other, a 17-year-old cyclist hit a jogger.

What can be done?

Benepe outlined a plan for fixing the loops that might entail such “safety corridors” for pedestrians and the recreational cyclists and bike commuters who make of the majority of park bikers. He said the city needs to take a hard look that should include:

  • a study by an outside mobility-engineering consultant to rethink the loops and institute 21st-century signaling (such as flashing yellow signals at night),
  • an interagency task force to re-envision park mobility and pilot the new system,
  • a two-thirds cut in the around 200 pedicabs, with their regulation as a park concession,
  • speed limits and other rules to discourage the fast cyclists who use the loops for racing from riding during heavy-use hours, and
  • clear regulations for all users, enforced by ticketing.
  • and, most radically, a Parks Department takeover of the park roadways DOT, which would officially signal that this pavement is no longer a city “street.” Such a turnover would make it easier to redesign the roadways as “shared streets.”

The park, which hosts 200,000 people a day, is “a small city,” Benepe said. “You should have the infrastructure to keep that city safe. It’s not there now.”

Managing such infrastructure is not an occult science. The Federal Highway Administration publishes guidelines for it. These say that the “design of off-road trails must be done with the same care and attention to recognized guidelines as design of bike lanes on roadways.”

“Trails are often extremely popular facilities that are in high demand among rollerbladers, bicyclists, joggers, people walking dogs, and a variety of other users,” the guidelines state. “The resulting mix and volume of non-motorized traffic can create dangerous conditions that should be anticipated during the design phase.” (No kidding!)

Is anyone doing anything?

The crisis in Central Park may be dawning on city officials — sort of. But when Streetsblog contacted various agencies after Cheeseboro’s death, all we got is boilerplate statements.

  • Central Park Conservancy spokeswoman Mary Caraccioli said her organization “recognizes that traffic on park drives has become dangerous to riders and pedestrians and requires immediate intervention.” She said the Conservancy is working with the Parks Department, DOT, NYPD and park-user groups “to create a plan to improve the safety and security of the drives …which need to be regulated and managed to avoid tragedies like this week’s accident.”
  • Parks Department Assistant Commissioner Crystal Howard said: “We are saddened by this unfortunate death. We will review former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s recommendations, as we continue to work with all relevant agencies on the matter.”
  • DOT spokesman Scott Gastel said: “We take this tragedy very seriously  and will discuss any recommendations with fellow agencies involved in the park’s operational and enforcement areas.” The agency says it’s updating the markings throughout the park as roads are repaved and meets regularly with Parks and the Conservancy to prioritize bikes and pedestrians.
  • City Hall has left the building with its boss — and declined to comment. (It’s a reminder of why Streetsblog called on the mayor to resign when he announced his run for president.)
  • The DOT’s “Vision Zero partners” in the NYPD did not respond at all.

 

  • Paul52

    Slow down.

  • Paul52

    The speed limit for cars is 25 but, contrary to the myths repeatedly asserted here, drivers routinely stop at red lights.
    Accordingly, pedestrians feel safe crossing on the green light.

    And as reduced speeds, speed bumps, etc are routinely used to regulate vehicle speeds in places like school zones there’s no reason why bike riders can’t be expected to slow down where necessary.

  • Joe R.

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2014/11/shared-use-paths-create-conflict-and.html

    The problem here is having shared paths. Those were all in vogue in the 1950s when designers just thought of bikes as fast pedestrians. Eventually we realized unless you have a very small number of both cyclists and pedestrians shared paths just don’t work. The answer is separate space for cyclists and pedestrians.

    And Daphna is right. Given the lower number of pedestrians relative to cyclists, plus the fact it’s easier to climb steep hills on foot, they are the ones who should have been rerouted. Rerouting cyclists instead seems to have been done solely to punish them because of a few incidents. By the way, what charges are that 3-year old’s parents facing? They should face charges of child neglect at the very least. If they had let her wander onto railroad tracks and she died that’s exactly what would have happened. It’s no different here letting her wander into the path of a bike. The speed of the bike doesn’t matter, either. It could have been going only 10 mph and still severely injured the child. There’s no speed above 0 mph where it’s possible to always stop a bike if something wanders into your path.

    If the city is going to take this route, basically imposing detours and ever lower speed limits on cyclists, it might as well just make the Greenway and Central Park off-limits to bikes, and deal with the holy hell that will be the resulting fallout from doing so. They’re chicken shit instead, trying incrementalism to make these places more and more useless to cyclists.

  • Joe R.

    What I’m describing are public bike paths paid for via tax dollars.

  • Joe R.

    Your two-word answer to every bike problem, same as the bike haters. Some people aren’t retired and/or rich. Given the fact you’ve lived in Manhattan since 1996, and are 67, you’re probably both. You might have all the time in the world to get where you’re going. Most people don’t. Traveling by bike only becomes practical if they can make the trip in x minutes or less. We allow motor vehicles at least 25 mph in this city, more in certain places. Bike infrastructure should be designed to be safely used up to the legal speed limit.

  • Paul52

    Central Park doesn’t exist to facilitate speedy bike commuting nor should it.

    Oh, and during morning rush hour you can ride from 125th St to the Battery faster along the Greenway than you can drive.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I was thinking of the big ones.

    Greenwood.

    Calvary plus Mount Zion. All industrial around the cemeteries. They could park trucks on the cemetery side.

    Woodlawn.

    Yes cyclists would have to slow down to make turns, and then re- accelerate. As they do in city time trials in the Tour De France. That’s part of the challenge.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There are golf courses in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx where I’m thinking of adding cycle tracks. More than one in the case of the Bronx and Brooklyn, not sure about Queens.

  • Donny_Moss

    Benepe is an outspoken supporter of the horse-drawn trade, but what could be more chaotic than spooked horses running out of control through the streets of Central Park? It has happened many times over the years. Recently, I heard a story about a bicyclist crashing into pedestrians after attempting to dodge manure from a carriage horse. Mixing these horses with pedestrians, joggers, pedicabs and bicyclists is a recipe for disaster (not to mention inhumane).

  • Frank Kotter

    Considering you took to the barricades last week against ANY changes to design, it means so much more to me and is a sign that at some point in the late 2000’s we’ll reach a consensus.

  • Paul52

    Since I backed, for example, the separation of bike lane from pedestrian lane in Riverside Park, the banning of cars from Central Park, support making the Park Drive in Central Park two way for riding (which would force pedestrians to the ample number of walking paths), and other changes, my guess here is that your reading comprehension is the issue.

  • Paul52

    Sorry you missed what I thought was obviously sarcasm. The point I’m making is that there are limitless demands for infrastructure changes and limited supply of both the space and the money to make the change.

    More to your original point; while the sidewalks around our cemeteries may be little used, when they are used its for a purpose called “mourning.” Bikers in spandex going 20MPH + whipping past mourners within the usual 4 – 6 inches that the spandex crowd allows the rest of the world?
    Not sure how that adds to the quality of life.

  • Daphna

    Paul52 is basically saying that bicyclists must pay attention but pedestrians, toddlers and their parents, do no need to pay attention. Paul52 is putting all of the onus on riders and advocates that riders go very slowly. This is not a solution. Pointing the finder at bicyclists and characterizing them as “spandex wearing morons” (his words) and “speed riders” is harmful to bike advocacy. Bicyclists need to be united and supportive of each other. We should not be pointing finders at riders who have supposedly bad behavior. Bicyclists pay attention because they have to because their own well being is at stake so this idea that some bicyclists are not paying attention is a myth. Some want to rider fast (within the 25 mph citywide speed limit) and that is legitimate. With the right street markings, design and coordination, pedestrians and bicyclists can co-exist without problems.

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