Central Park Becomes Center Stage for NYC Bike Crackdown

Cyclists running a red light in Central Park. (Alex Goldmark)

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation)  Cyclist Derrick Lewis used to train every day in  Central Park. On a cold February morning he had just put new brakes on his bike. “I took a short test ride on my bicycle and very slowly rolled through a red light and a police officer in a small three wheeled vehicle pulled me over and gave me a $270 ticket.” He felt singled out as a cyclist because, he says, pedestrians aren't ticketed for jaywalking, nor are the horse-drawn carriages he points out.

This kind of comparison has been common on the NYC bike blogs and local papers since rumors of a crackdown began to surface in mid-January. One notable video made the rounds showing what it is like to stop at various lights on the 6.1 mile loop.

But it's been prompted by an equally fierce reaction from pedestrians, many of whom feel threatened by fast cyclists. “Quite honestly sometimes I wanna knock them off the bike, honest that's how I feel, 'cause they whiz right by you even though I have the light," pedestrian Jeanne Vodak said on a recent sunny morning.

"Sometimes I feel that if I wasn't watching he would have hit me, or the dog, that's the other thing I was concerned about, hitting the dog.”

The commander of the Central Park Precinct, Captain Philip Wishnia, told a crowded community meeting on Monday that in Central Park alone, the NYPD has issued 230 tickets to cyclists since the beginning of the year.

“I do understand that for the last 15, 20, 30 years," Wishnia told the group Monday. "You guys and gals were cycling in the park and nothing like this was enforced.” He said the NYPD started Operation Safe Cycle in January city-wide, and officers have to enforce the law in the parks just like anywhere else.

Bikes are treated as vehicles on city streets and are legally obligated to obey traffic laws. According to the figures Wishnia cited at the meeting, his officers have given more tickets to cyclists this year than to speeding cars in all of 2010. Some cyclists are upset at the prospect of having to stop at the nearly 50 lights in the Central Park loop.

And biking advocacy groups, like Transportation Alternatives, say bikers should follow the rules -- but they disagree with the police strategy of ticketing all red-light violators equally. Instead, TA's head of Bicycle Advocacy Caroline Samponaro says, they should focus on the most dangerous intersections.

Capt. Wishnia made it clear that he'd support a change in the signals on the Central Park loop, or another solution if one arises. Local politicians like City Council members Gail Brewer and Ydanis Rodriguez are planning to introduce a bill that would alter the lights to a flashing yellow for cyclists when cars aren't in the park. The City Department of Transportation however, tells WNYC that the plan would cause confusion for pedestrians about when it's safe to cross.

Their message to cyclists -- you're on a vehicle, obey vehicular traffic rules. If you're out today, the warmest day of the year so far, you've been forewarned.

Follow Transportation Nation on Twitter.