Cyclists abandon their last green paradise in Manhattan, business starts to decline
Flashing yellow lights in Central Park? DOT: ‘No way.’
March 28, 2011
Councilwoman Gale Brewer introduced a bill to ban motorized vehicles in Central and Prospect Parks last
At the same time Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (10th Dist.) submitted a measure to introduce flashing yellow lights in the park during non-motorist hours to facilitate continuous cycling along the park drives.
The possibility of closing Central Park to cars completely might meet a lot of opposition, and could end in a compromise, said Brewer who represents the upper west side 6th district, an area that borders Central Park. “I would like to see at least during the summer, no cars at all,” she noted.
The bill introductions came after weeks of intense activity in Manhattan’s Central Park where many cyclists received $270 tickets for going through red lights when the park was closed to motorist traffic.
But the bills are already too late to stem the stampede of riders out of their idyllic cycling venue: Dave Jordan president of the Century Road Club Association which has over 750 members said “Ninety percent of our members are no longer training in Central Park.”
Add to that, there’s confusion about who should be stopping when only cyclists are being ticketed for running red lights, and not runners with baby joggers, walkers, skaters, or even the city police themselves.
Ellen Jaffe, president of the New York Cycling Club that has 2,000 members said she could not put a definite number on how many of their group were no longer riding in the park, but she said it was a lot.
“Cyclists feel scapegoated in a very big way, a sense that we have been picked on,” she said, noting that while all other users “roll right through the red light,” the cyclist stands alone there waiting for the light to turn green. “It adds confusion, and makes using the park very dangerous,” she added.
The city’s police department said that they are enforcing law” “If they go through a red light they are no different than any other person,” said a spokesperson for the NYPD. But when the park is closed for motorist traffic? No comment.
And even though most cyclists agree that safety is paramount when it comes to pedestrians, they wonder out loud why they seem to be the only ones being ticketed at 6 and 7 AM in the morning–when there is barely another soul in the park.
“They have robbed us of any meaningful way of doing recreational cycling in Central Park,” Jaffe concluded.
Jordan, who also runs a cycling coaching business said he used to have up to three sessions in the park a day: now he has three a month.
Last week Jordan presented 1800 signatures from cyclists in support of the flashing yellow light bill to Councilman Rodriguez.
According to cyclists who received tickets since January of this year, they were met by police “traps” set up primarily at the middle of long downhill stretches where cyclists were sure to go through red lights.
Defending his department’s actions on March 15, Commander Phillip Wisnia of Police of the Central Park precinct told attendees that 230 summonses have been issued to cyclists so far in 2011. Meanwhile 160 speeding summonses were issued to drivers all of last year and 62 in 2009. But he gave no real hint of why he had been asked to commence the sudden crackdown.
The disappearance of cycling users from Central Park is affecting the businesses that support them, said Brewer, who has received phone calls from bike stores about the changes.
“They are driving business away and driving people out of the park, ” confirmed Bicycle Renaissance co-manager Shane Hall whose store is located on Columbus Ave. and 81st St.” Just giving out tickets is not going to solve things.”
The total number of tickets issued this year has not been released by the police department, but cyclists say anecdotally it has been much more than they have ever experienced.
“The ticketing is targeting cyclists only and not pedestrians, runners or people on wheelchairs who also go through red lights on the drives, and that is not equitable,” said Barry Benepe, AIA-APA who was one of the original Transportation Alternative members who helped close the park drives to cars in 1966.
“The freedom of movement for cyclists and pedestrians in this city is what makes it so attractive, which you don’t have in the countryside because you always have to worry about being hit by a car,” he added.
Benepe said pedestrians can get used to looking out for cyclists, and cyclists can do the same. “Red light signals should be for motorist traffic,” he noted.
Brewer said her bill to reduce car traffic to zero is a rejoinder to the same bill introduced in 2006 which was later dropped when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that car hours would be reduced during summer hours. Now Bloomberg has made a public statement that he would not approve closing the park completely to cars.
But Brewer said it was also a response to increasing complaints from both cyclists and now businesses who have indicated that they think the NYPD crackdowns are bordering on “draconian.”
The flashing yellow light bill, which asks that Central Park stop lights show warnings rather than require red light stops at major intersections along the park drive when cars are not present, could have little success without the support of the city’s department of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik Khan who has already signaled that she is not in favor of the change.
“We looked into this request last month and determined that the proposed ‘flashing yellow’ change would create confusion as to when it would be safe for pedestrians to cross—as it would at any crosswalk. A continuous flashing yellow phase in the street would have to be accompanied by a corresponding, continuous ‘don’t walk’ phase at all times for pedestrians in the crosswalk, creating potential conflicts,” said DOT spokesperson Montgomery Dean on Friday.
Still, its not clear if Sadik-Khan has total jurisdiction over the use of traffic signals in the city’s parks: According to some advocates who spoke off the record, Chapter 21, part 533(a)5 of the City Charter states that the parks department has responsibility and jurisdiction over the “use of” all surfaces within the city’s parks. While the language does not mention traffic signals specifically, it does lay the foundation for the parks department to handle its own problems. One thing is clear, DOT has always installed and maintained all of the traffic signals in Central Park.
But the truth of who can decide, and if it is up to one agency, both parks and transportation, or even the city council, is unclear. Historically the park drives have been a shared responsibility between the parks department and the DOT.
Regardless of who can give the red light (or ban them), both cyclists and legislators are fed up.
The final straw for cyclists occurred last week when 10 tickets were issued for speeding in the park with a 15- mph speed limit for cyclists that no longer existed.
Police had issued the tickets in error to nine of the cyclists, and went to their homes personally to apologize for the mistake.
The Park’s Department who disavowed this latest police activity in the park said some still existing 15 mph signs were hold overs from the time when Betsey Gotbaum was commissioner from 1990 to 1994, and that the speed limit for cyclists is the same as it is for cars, 25 MPH. The tenth ticket that held was made to a cyclist who was traveling at 28 mph.
David Jordan of CRCA said, “The police are stepping up enforcement of the safe cyclists, not the dangerous cyclists. There are so many things they could do to make cycling safer, instead, they do things unilaterally.”
Still when probed to see how Jordan might instruct the police on how to tell the difference between jerks racing through the park and buzzing both cyclists and pedestrians, and nice guys who respect others, he said police would have to follow the riders.
Ellen Jaffe of the NYCC mobilized members to attend a press conference being held by Councilman Rodriguez last week. Jordan was also present, and both of them spoke alongside city councilmembers.
Jaffe said the NYPD’s treatment is uneven especially given that “You can be hit by a car and the attitude by the police is you might not even be able to make a report.”
Some park users have said anecdotally that fast cycling has been on the increase. But there have been no specific reports or evidence of who and how fast the cyclists were riding.
There is also no information on how much cyclists have historically contributed to accidents in Central Park, since detailed records are not forthcoming from the police department.
Lawsuits by pedestrians who have been struck by cyclists include one where a child was blinded in one eye. But it was not clear from the source if the accident occurred in an intersection where the cyclists did not stop or outside of crosswalks, with the pedestrians walking blindly into the fray.
In all, the city paid more than $524 million in 2010 for ALL tort case settlements according to the Mayor’s Management Report, though a number for the amount paid for parks accidents only–and those related specifically to cyclists– was not identified.
To get a true idea of the extent of ticketing activity and whether it is fairly focused on cyclists, Cyclists International made numerous requests to the NYPD to get the counts of traffic tickets issued citywide to cyclists and motorists during the first three months of the year, but so far have not received any answer.
The non-response from the city’s police department is habitual, and serves only to enhance the frustration and anger of cyclists who feel they are being targeted by a behind-the-scenes, hand-shake deal between the Mayor, the DOT and the NYPD. (The Parks department has not commented but seem to be not part of the action.)
But such an understanding between the DOT and NYPD was already made publicly.
Last fall Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan said she would take measures to make sure that all users of city streets obey the city’s traffic laws, a response to the swelling outcry against bike lanes that was accompanied by criticism from New Yorkers and politicians that cyclists were running red lights and disrespecting traffic laws .
In November 2010 Sadik Khan reportedly told writer Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal, “We’re working very hard to do as much as we can to improve the education that we’re doing, to improve the outreach that we’re doing, and to improve enforcement by working with our partners at the NYPD.”
Though neither NYPD nor DOT would comment on the “ticket blitz” in Central Park, it’s clear that bigger issues are at stake–saving the massive bike lane projects around the city which will ultimately benefit the same cyclists who are riding in Central Park. That is, if New Yorkers aren’t too prejudiced against cyclists as a group to prevent it.
Already the lanes in Staten Island and Greenpoint, Brooklyn have been repudiated by motorist-driven communities, the Prospect Park West lane in Brooklyn is being challenged by a lawsuit, and a public plaza idea for 34th St. was rejected by local businesses.
These setbacks show that many New Yorkers are still stuck in primordial time–a time before Paris, London,
Portland, OR, and many hundreds of cities have already gained the wisdom of converting their populations to two-wheeled transportation. Pulling New Yorkers out of the dark ages will be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat: the last thing the DOT needs is more gist against cyclists as a group, say advocates.
What’s more the mounting public, media, and politician-wielding hysteria against Sadik-Khan closely resembles a smashing ball coming down a mountain –on its way to a witch hunt. If the critics were honest and wielding axes and knives it might present a better picture for cyclists what the DOT is currently facing in the auditorium of public opinion.
Still that doesn’t help cyclists who feel they are being struck in the heart with a wooden cross. “We look at the parks and the rest of the city as two different issues,” said Jaffe. “What they are doing in the streets makes sense, it is chaotic. But what they [the police] are doing in the parks makes no sense.”
Indeed, many cyclists from CRCA confirmed that they are no longer doing their morning work outs in the biggest park in Manhattan. Centrally located, the park has a 6.1 mile loop that serves as a convenient training course during the early morning hours when the park is mostly empty, save for the occasional dog walker.
What’s more, at downhills in the park such as at 110th St. on the east side, and 86th street on the west side, it is hard for cyclists to travel at anything less than 25 mph without braking.
The park has become a real mecca for people in training, mostly for bike races and triathlons, agreed Hall. But finding an alternative for many of those who live and work in the city is almost impossible.
The rudiments of getting a cycling work out in New York are simple: it’s either Central Park or cross over to New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge.
Cyclists who have daytime jobs don’t have time to travel to travel to New Jersey if they have to be at work at 9 A.M. Thanks to mysterious regulations enacted by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after the World Trade Tower terrorist attack in 2001, the bridge path is closed from 12 A.M. to 6 A.M., meaning that cyclists who intend to ride to the end of 7-mile long River Road in Fort Lee, NJ, cannot do so and make it back in time for work.
(Never mind the thinking behind the measure, which has never been explained by the PANYNJ who hide behind the impenetrable shroud of protecting the bridge from terrorists for a rule that unfairly affects pedestrians and cyclists only, not the millions of cars and trucks capable of carrying bombs across the bridge.)
Nevertheless, the migration to New Jersey is in full swing.
“Some of our customers have said they don’t want to deal with the light issue in Central Park and they would rather ride on River Road in New Jersey,” said Hall. That means his business could go across the bridge too, to New Jersey bike stores.
And if the ticketing keeps up, Hall is not so sure business will be good come the big use months in the spring and summer.
His management has written letters to Councilwoman Brewer, Manhattan’s Borough President Scott Stringer, and to the city’s DOT asking that they consider installing flashing yellow lights for cyclists, caution signs for pedestrians, and “walk” push buttons for people who need more care in crossing, like “mothers with baby carriages.”
CRCA board members have posted a form letter for their members to send to their local city council person.
Jaffe has attended several meetings with the NYPD, Doug Blonsky and other users and says she has spent more time on this issue than she would have ever imagined: “I am beginning to feel like this is more of an advocacy organization and not a cycling recreational club,” she said.
What’s worse, the measures by NYPD–or whomever has asked for them–haven’t resulted in any less injuries for pedestrians, but have resulted in many more for cyclists said our sources.
Anecdotally, observers agreed that crashes and injuries of cyclists were up in the park because groups of cyclists going through a changing light would be fractured, and end up crashing as they stopped for the light. Jaffe said she had heard that runners with jogging carriages were crashing behind cyclists who stopped at red lights. Hall also said he heard cycling accidents had increased, mostly because cyclists stop at the lights, but other users don’t.
Mike Green, previous president of the Century Road Club Association said that two weekends prior when the park was full of users, and most serious cyclists were out riding in New Jersey, he witnessed police standing around not ticketing any cyclists going through red lights.
That inconsistency has made it even more difficult for park users to know when to stop for red lights.
However, both Jaffe and Hall said they were glad that the issue was bringing together the parks department, NYPD and cyclists into a dialogue about how to use the park safely.
But both conceded the attention from police was over the top: “This is the kind of harassment that is going on: They are giving out tickets for not wearing helmets, and there is no helmet law in New York except for 14 and under,” said Hall.