City Debates How to Change Central Park’s Traffic Signals to Smooth the Flow of Pedestrians and Cyclists

Photo by Gene Bisbee.

By Alex Israel

With cars having been banned from Central Park, the traffic signals that were placed there to manage traffic make less sense — and may be making life more difficult and treacherous for bicyclists and pedestrians. But replacing those signals is proving to be a complicated task.

Two Community Board 7 (CB7) committees are encouraging the city to explore modifications to the traffic signal system. During its June meeting, members of CB7’s Parks & Environment and Transportation Committees as well as representatives from the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and Central Park Conservancy (CPC) joined to discuss the future of the infrastructure.

“Questions have come up whether the existing signaling is what is best for our present and our future,” said Parks & Environment Committee co-chair Klari Neuwelt, introducing the agenda item. Central Park’s traffic signals were installed during a time when cars were the primary users of the drive and remain in use today, despite the ban on cars that went into effect in 2018.

There are currently 47 active traffic signals in the park, including six that control crossings for vehicles, and 41 that control crossings for pedestrians only, Kimberly Rancourt, Director of Special Projects for DOT, explained in the meeting. DOT is currently working on a multi-year project to revamp each signal to include pedestrian-activated ‘walk’ buttons, added Chris Nolan, Central Park Administrator and Chief Landscape Architect for CPC. Signals towards the south end of the park are more likely to have been updated at this point, he said.

Despite any modernization in progress, members across both committees expressed dissatisfaction with the current system, which they felt could be reevaluated to prioritize both pedestrian and cyclist safety. Earlier this year, CB7 passed a resolution initially proposed by the Transportation Committee, calling on the NYPD and Parks Enforcement Patrol to enforce cyclists breaking traffic laws in the park. But members seemed to believe that reimagining the signal infrastructure might be a more effective solution; many agreed that today’s system encourages cyclists to break the law in situations when a traffic signal is red and no pedestrian is crossing. This, in turn, creates an unsafe environment for pedestrians crossing at or walking in the drive.

“I don’t think the current situation is working for pedestrians or cyclists. I think we have to rethink this,” said Transportation Committee co-chair Howard Yaruss. “Taking a system that was designed for motor vehicles—literally designed for a type of transportation that is not in the park at all now—it’s kind of silly to think it would work for the users of the park now.”

DOT representatives seemed open to exploring new approaches. “We met with the [Central Park] Conservancy a few months ago, early this year, to discuss some of the changes we were thinking of making,” said Colleen Chattergoon, DOT’s Manhattan Community Coordinator. While she said DOT and CPC had discussed updating signals, markings, and repaving at various locations in the park, “nothing has been finalized yet,” and she encouraged the board members to provide their input.

Though the board members largely agreed on problems caused by the signals, an ideal solution was less clear.

One idea floated by Neuwelt would involve making the standard for each signal a flashing yellow light, which would switch to a red light whenever a pedestrian pressed the ‘walk’ button. Cyclists would then take the red lights more seriously, and, in cases when no one is crossing, would no longer be breaking a law by failing to stop, she suggested. (“Technically it would be feasible,” Rancourt confirmed.)

Ken Coughlin, a member of both committees, seconded Neuwelt’s proposal. “All we’ve done with the red lights is create an unreasonable expectation for cyclists,” he said. In addition to standardizing flashing yellow lights, Coughlin suggested exploring the removal of some of the signals altogether, pointing to other effective crosswalks throughout the park without signals. “Make it a culture of ‘yield of pedestrians’, which I think is entirely reasonable, as opposed to a culture of ‘thou shalt stop at a red light even if no one is there’, which I think is unreasonable,” he said.

Yaruss posed a question back to the city. “What is the DOT or the CPC thinking would be a better system?” he asked, encouraging the attending representatives to consider what an optimal park infrastructure might look like. “What would be the best system to ensure compliance by cyclists and safety for pedestrians? And can we have it?”

Members of the public called in to share their thoughts, largely echoing Yaruss’ call on city agencies for bigger picture input.

“There’s nobody who has suffered more from the unusual cyclist who creates havoc in the park than the person who’s talking now,” said Hindy Schachter, whose husband, Irving, who died after being hit by a cyclist while running in the park in 2014. “Redesign is what’s going to create a safer park—not enforcement,” she emphasized, imploring board members and agency representatives to stop thinking about cyclist and pedestrian needs as separate issues.

Ian Clarke, founder of the NYC Skate Coalition, suggested implementing artificial intelligence in the form of sensors and smart signaling to avoid getting red lights at the wrong times. He also wondered whether a citywide effort to encourage some kind of universal park etiquette—similar to the etiquette adopted within skate parks—might be a good way to bring people together.

Lisa Orman, Director of advocacy organization Streetopia UWS, argued in favor of a study—an idea floated by committee members earlier in the conversation. “We need more information on the most heavily used pedestrian crossings. We also need accurate and unbiased crash data,” she said. (Earlier, CPC’s Nolan admitted the last comprehensive survey of park usage was conducted between 2008 and 2009 and compiled in 2011. “We are currently in the process of actually evaluating the modern technologies to redo that survey,” he said.)

Nearly two hours into the conversation, the committees discussed next steps. But no one could agree on a perspective or request for which to base a resolution. “I would like more information,” said Yaruss. “I’m not a traffic engineer … I would like to have the experts we spend our tax dollars on weigh in.”

“We could have a resolution asking for a study, and two or three years later, they haven’t even started a study,” countered Neuwelt.

“I think the issue is that we need to do more studies to be able to make recommendations and to tell you what we think is feasible,” said Rancourt, when asked if DOT might have a response or proposal to share with the committees next month.

Despite DOT’s uncertainty that there would be anything more to discuss, the committee co-chairs decided to table the conversation until the July meeting of the Transportation Committee, encouraging committee members to compile any factual requests that they hope DOT might address. While the date for July’s meeting is not yet set, the Transportation Committee typically meets on the second Tuesday of the month.

Bottom photo by Sean Ng.

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 43 comments | permalink
    1. BJK says:

      The only “rethinking” that will work is to put in gates (like at RR crossings) or raised spikes that operate when pedestrians have the right-of-way. The cyclists ignore the lights so we need to physically prevent them from continuing to do that.

      • Sailgirl says:

        Really? I ride bike recreationally in the park three times a week, and yes, there are those who run the lights – primarily the Armonstrong, attired cyclists – but just last Thursday I had three different people, one with a stroller, walk right out in front of my bike when they had the red light, ignoring the signal in a busy area. Maybe a few spikes would be feasible for them too. It goes both ways.

        • Brandon says:

          Yes, that would be fair. With the current situation both bikes and pedestrians assume the other will ignore the signal so they go whenever they want and hope for the best. We either need enforcement of current rules (which is labor intensive) or physical barriers.

          Of course the pedestrians will easily be able to walk around the barriers of they are only at the crosswalks and I don’t think we really want a fence on around the entire roadway.

      • geoff says:

        Seems like a logical way to go.

        When I was a kid I was one of what then was called the “Schoolboy Patrol” monitors.

        We had the authority to block traffic on a busy street, using handheld ‘Stop’ batons. We worked in pairs, one on either side of the street.

        Flawless safety record.

        The modern version would, of course be uniformed adults with two way radios doing the same task.

        Further evidence needed to capture scofflaws would be well, photographic I guess: ‘always on’ video.

        The problem would only be in capturing scofflaws. I suppose that too could be managed by arresting agents a bit further down the road.

        One thing is that this could be tried almost immediately, and at no great cost, at least not as much as any type of permanent installation.

        A good way to begin, in my opinion.

    2. Linda says:

      It would be great to get rid of the antiquated red, yellow, and green round signals and instead install the bicycle icon and the pedestrian walking icon in the signals on more visible posts. Combine this with the extended yellow caution signal for bikes and good signage for peds.

    3. Christina says:

      I like the flashing yellow lights idea, as well as the “etiquette” idea.

      Too many people are unaware of what the actual order of right of way is. To refresh:

      Horses (ridden or driven)
      Cars (the NYPD and PEP need to be reminded of this!)

    4. ben says:

      No amount of changing the traffic signals would have any impact if cyclists and pedestrians just collectively ignore them anyway. For better or worse, New Yorkers are conditioned to ignore traffic signals on a daily basis just being about the city.

    5. Marci says:

      I get that the bikers don’t want to stop when they’re cruising, but unfortunately they’re sharing a park with a lot of other people who aren’t on bikes. There are plenty of stupid pedestrians and bikers, to go around, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen all bikers stop at a red light at any given time. A few will, then a bunch will go sailing around them. I don’t know what the answer is. I just know that crossing those roadways on foot isn’t for the faint hearted.

    6. UWS pedestrian says:

      Speed bumps.

    7. UWSer says:

      What’s the point? Pedestrians and bicyclists ignore the lights anyway.

    8. CP Pedestrian says:

      Speed bumps at heavily used pedestrian crosswalks. Cheap to install, effective, no patrols needed.

    9. gothamist212 says:

      Certainly pedestrians need to be more mindful of oncoming traffic. However, I have too often witnessed cyclists treating CP and Riverside parks,as well as the Hudson River Park as a their private velodrome, demanding that peds “watch it” and get out of the way. I’m not aware of any injuries sustained by two pedestrians colliding. Cyclists are in command of a deadly weapon and they need to take that responsibility seriously. Perhaps a law that says peds always have the right of way and that cyclists are liable for any/all injuries will slow them down. The parks are there for ALL to enjoy and playing life-size Frogger is not my idea of enjoyment.

    10. Paul says:

      Depending on how long a pedestrian who activates a crossing button is asked to wait it’s very possible that creating a pedestrian activated system will result in more, not less red lights for bike riders.

      The yield to pedestrian idea floated by Coughlin is in place along the Greenway. Well over half the time I do that the pedestrian stays still because the spandex wearing wannabe Speeding behind me (who I can’t see) is going to yield like trump’s going to stop lying.

      Another non-starter.

      Olmsted designed the park for recreation and not exercise. The loop is not a velodrome.

      • Eyeroll says:

        Is it really that hard for you to not bring up Trump in things that have nothing to do with him?

    11. TomF says:

      Flashing yellow lights (= “slow down, yield to pedestrians”) seem like a reasonable alternative to the obsolete autocentric signals. Certainly more reasonable than expecting cyclists to wait out a red light when nary a pedestrian is in sight. People are more likely to comply with rules when they’re reasonable. The generally high level of compliance we’ve been seeing with the reasonable rules about face coverings and social distancing makes me optimistic in this regard.

    12. AB says:

      After reading this article it is clear nothing will be done before the cows come home. Or the sheep to the meadow.

      So. Speed bumps. Can put them in immediately.

      • EdNY says:

        Speed bumps assign all blame to cyclists, which is unfair. The converse would be crossing guards for pedestrians. And speed bumps do not guarantee that cyclists won’t continue to cruise through (either more slowly, or, dangerously “jumping” the speed bumps – think about that).

        • CJ says:

          Bikers going through lights more slowly would be a vast improvement! Jumping would also slow them down. Crossing guards for pedestrians would be great, too. No problem.

        • Phoebe says:

          The bumps would discourage the bikers—and yes, it’s biased against the bikers, because they are the more dangerous mover in an accident or incident.

    13. It time to start considering creating dedicated overpasses or viaducts at the major crossings in Central Park for bikes. Separating bikes from pedestrians with barriers should be a priority for increased safety. The Central Park Conservancy has the funds to do this.

    14. EdNY says:

      I’ve long thought the flashing yellow / solid red setup would be the best compromise. I assume there would be an interval limit, so that there would be a way to maintain the yellow flashing light for at least a minute, say, before it would change to red again. This could all be worked out in practice. Equally or more important is that there would have to be some level of enforcement, for both cyclists and pedestrians. (For example, would it be OK for someone to walk across when the light is red for pedestrians but there are no cyclists? You’d have to enforce this both ways.) It would never be perfect but could help.

    15. PRB says:

      A certain type of (mostly male) bicyclists will never “yield to pedestrians” or stop for red lights. I would put concrete jersey barriers along each crosswalk, leaving a gap the width of a single car on one side of the street. That way, a pedestrian would only have to safely cross one car-width of the drive. There should be yellow warning lights atop to barriers to protect night cyclists.

    16. sabrevni says:

      Horse driven carriages, for hire tri-cycles, Central Park vehicles don’t respect and follow the red lights so how can we expect bike riders to do the same?

    17. JB says:

      Why not build an actual velodrome around the Great Lawn like the running track around the Reservoir? That should curtail off-leash dogs in that area as well. Two birds one stone.

    18. William K Johnson says:

      You will never have bike safety on the UWS. MArk Gorton funds Streets Blog, Transportation Alternatives, Streetopia and donates heavily to the elected officials who supposedly represent us. In addition, you have Community Board Members that are ridiculously conflicted.

      Your article fails to mention that pretty much every person’s opinion or suggestion that you quote comes from Mark Gorton through his minions:

      Howard Yaruss – Transportation Alternatives Board

      Lisa Orman/Sladkus – Streets Blog Board member under her maiden name and contributor and interview subject under her maiden name. STreetopia board member as well as the figurehead of a number of anti-car pro-bike groups on the UWS that seem to sprout up on a regular basis.

      Ken Coughlin – Transportation Alternatives Board Member.

      • Nevets K says:

        Thank you for bringing these obvious conflicts of interest among CB 7 “Transportation Committee” members to light. I had suspected these conflicts as they make perfect sense, but I had never done the research.
        And now it’s time to find out if these big bold pro-bicycle anti-car people, including Helen Rosenthal, own second homes in the country where they keep their private cars in their driveways or a garage!

    19. your_neighbor says:

      Its New York City, pedestrians, cyclists, folks in motorized wheelchairs don’t care about the color of the light, they just go when they feel it is safe.

      On the streets people look in both directions before crossing but unfortunately people seem to have a false sense of security in the park and often cross at the red without looking.

      Should definitely build a velodrome from the spandex crowd and not allow the electric bikes in the park. Both are a menace.

    20. MikeDNYC says:

      If you know you cannot ride a bike without hitting pedestrians and if you feel incapable of crossing a roadway without getting hit by a bike … stay out of the park.

    21. UWS Voter says:

      Need to elect new people who reflect the majority of the UWS voters. These current car-hating bike-lane obsessed cabal are relentless and yes have the money. So. No. They’ll never go. But. One can hope.

    22. Pam Ella Chock says:

      It doesn’t matter what is done with the lights. Most bicyclists ignore them anyway.

    23. Ardith says:

      How about rumble strips instead of speed bumps. I think they would be safer for the bikes and they would compel the bikes to slow down rather than jumping speed bumps, which might be a fun game for some and pose a danger to others.

    24. Miriam Fisher says:

      It is concerning that this thoughtful dialogue had to be sparked by an accident. I have not read of any investigation of how the jogger who was hit is faring. The park is a sliver of the city. How to address the new numbers of bikers, emboldened by clearer streets, who are running red lights,on sidewalks, wrong way, endangering disabled, seniors, pedestrians. Do we need an accident to start a dialogue? 14% increase in bikers hitting pedestrians,2019 over 2018,169 hits. And that’s before profound changes of 2020

    25. Steven Barall says:

      Red means stop and green means go. I just saved the taxpayers about ten million dollars. You’re welcome New York. This is all about finding excuses for cyclists and nothing to do with the safety of pedestrians.

    26. Peter says:

      The present traffic lights are not really in the line of sight of cyclists or pedestrians.Perhaps lights strung across the roads might help.Also the lights should flash red for the cyclists when a pedestrian has pressed the crossing button and should otherwise flash yellow indicating proceed with caution.Some of these bikes move at high speed.
      For pedestrians maybe paint warning signs on the paths leading to crossings alerting pedestrians to be on the look out and the need to press a crossing button.

    27. Stu says:

      Speed bumps?? You all do realize that the roads are used by numerous groups to have sanctioned and permitted races and fundraisers – both running and cycling. Tell my friend who participates in the NYC Marathon in a wheelchair that he has to contend with speed bumps!