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.