By Howard Freeman
With pedestrian safety in Central Park getting lots of attention in the past few weeks, Monday night’s Community Board 7 Parks & Environment Committee meeting was packed. The four rows of chairs for the public were mostly filled. Most committee members were present, two representatives from the Central Park Conservancy were there, and also attending was NYPD Commander Jessica Corey, Deputy Inspector of the Central Park Precinct. Transportation Committee Chair Andrew Albert also attended.
The officials discussed ways to make the park safer for all users, and brought up proposals including push-to-cross signals at intersections.
The first half of the meeting focused on “road safety” (not “bike vs. pedestrian conflict,” Committee Chair Klari Neuwelt was careful to point out) in Central Park and was the reason for the relatively high turnout.
Commander Corey opened the discussion with a quote from Clarence Cook’s 1869 book A Description of Central Park: “…the theory [is] that every person who comes here shall be enabled to enjoy his visit in his own way.” The quote continued on about the responsibility of carriage drivers to look out for pedestrians and also that no pedestrians shall be “knocked down by any fiery Pegasus.”
This won a laugh to ease what might have been tension, but also raised the point that while in 1869, as noted in one of the book’s footnotes, the roads were laid out to “make racing impossible,” in the 20th century Robert Moses actually straightened certain roads, such as East Drive north of 84th street, in order to make it more friendly for vehicles to move quickly.
Most of the time was spent on the problem of park crosswalks, which include 47 signals that are generally ignored, and how to bring them up to the same standard and functionality as signals outside the park would cost $25 million. DOT was noticeably absent from last night’s meeting, which was unfortunate since this city agency is responsible for all roads and signals in the park.
CB7 and others have been pushing for a total closure of park roads to all “private vehicles” for some time, and there is a bill introduced by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine to do just that next summer (June 24 – September 25, 2015) as a test.
While the Parks & Environment Committee commendably has approached this problem—which has caused numerous injuries and even some recent deaths—by identifying “user groups” (pedestrians, including tourists, commuters, recreational; vehicles and those sub-groups; bikes, including rentals, racing; and so on) that have to co-exist in the park instead of pitting one group against another, there was no data presented during my time at the meeting to describe which user groups are most often involved in accidents, or contributing most to congestion.
Two solutions discussed were having more posted signs in multiple languages at intersections and also the adoption of “push-to-cross” buttons on signal posts. The first is a near-term solution, the latter a longer-term and more costly but perhaps more effective one.
There was general consensus that all “users” who enter the park do so in a different, almost non-urban, frame of mind: that there is a carefree, recreating side to us when in the park that ignores standard rules and regulations, including red lights at crossings.