It was a chilly Sunday afternoon, but the heat was on in Central Park.
I had heard reports that the New York City Police Department had issued $270 summonses that day to some cyclists who failed to stop at traffic signals in the park, part of a flurry of ticketing that began in January. As those of you who work out there know, before the “crackdown” neither cyclists – nor pedestrians – paid much heed to the lights.
And so, on my first training ride of the season, I had little choice but to take radical action, to do something I’d never done before: I obeyed the letter of the law. I stopped behind the white line at every red light that Central Park threw my way.
“Wow, that must have killed your workout,” commented a friend at the gym to whom I related my experience.
Yes it surely did. And beyond that, my Central Park ride helped to illuminate for me once again the challenges that cyclists and pedestrians face in sharing public thoroughfares. When it comes to access and safety for all, how does one balance the law with utility and enjoyment? (Motorists get to sit this one out because I’m focusing today on the park’s car-free hours.)
Quick! How Many Traffic Lights in Central Park?
Let’s put the politics of the ticketing blitz aside for a minute. And let’s not question the logic of targeting recreational riders on a closed loop versus chasing down stop-light-running, salmoning, sidewalk-jumping scofflaws on city streets. Instead, just consider one afternoon of contending with Central Park’s 46 traffic signals.
Would you have guessed there are that many on the big 6-mile loop?
“No way, I thought there were, like, 12,” was the fairly typical response I got when I revealed this tally to a fellow road cyclist in the park that day.
The following video captures some of the flavor of whistling into the wind at Central Park intersections.
Naturally, the number of lights at which you’ll actually have to hit the brakes depends on your speed relative to the timing of the signals. During a multi-loop workout, the minimum number of times that I had to come to a full stop was 8.
No Crackdown on Jaywalkers
What else did I discover on my straight-arrow ride?
- Of the road cyclists with whom I chatted at empty intersections, one said she stopped because she had read about the crackdown, and the other mentioned that a friend had warned him by text message that he had received a summons earlier that day.
- Three other road cyclists whizzed past me at red lights – one laughed openly over his shoulder.
- That derisive rider also barely missed crashing into me. It occurred to me that, as things stand now, cyclists who obey the law may end up being at greater risk of injury simply because some other cyclists assume that they won’t be stopping at lights.
- To wring greater aerobic benefit out of intervals, I sped up and sprinted between lights – a probably not-uncommon inclination that could influence pedestrian safety.
- Pedestrians in general were treating traffic signals in the usual higgeldy-piggeldy way. I haven’t heard of any ticketing blitz for jaywalking in Central Park, though.
For the record, the police officer sitting in his car at one of the intersections where I stopped said a pleasant “thank you” to me. (Had the halo hovering above my helmet been visible to him? I wondered.)
Are Caution Lights the Answer?
Look, I’m a huge supporter of cycling safety. But surely a compromise is to be found between compelling cyclists to stop at every light in Central Park on one hand, and allowing them to blow through them on the other. There’s been discussion, for example, of changing red lights to flashing yellows, signaling caution to both cyclists and pedestrians at intersections during car-free hours.
In a Feb. 22 letter, the city’s five biggest cycling organizations, including Transportation Alternatives and the New York Cycle Club, requested a meeting with NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to discuss “adopting a more rational and effective strategy for encouraging safe recreation on the loop drive.”
Their letter noted that “NYPD’s current approach to the enforcement of traffic laws in Central Park, with tickets given to cyclists no matter the hour or density of traffic, effectively eliminates the park as a destination for recreational cycling and undermines the goal of encouraging safe recreation on the loop drive.”
A petition drive is planned. Pass me a pen. Until things cool down, you’ll find me and my road bike over on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.