In the aftermath of a 23-year-old cyclist's death on Central Park West last summer, some Upper West Side residents came together to propose a radical change for the notoriously dangerous thoroughfare. Led by Councilmember Helen Rosenthal and the local community board, the coalition petitioned the city for a two-way protected bike lane along the entire 50-block stretch of Central Park West. On Tuesday, city officials told them it wasn't possible.
"If we changed things along this corridor drastically, you'd have backups that would go onto other streets," explained DOT Bicycle and Greenway Program Director Ted Wright during a packed Community Board 7 meeting last night. "We've basically tried to keep traffic almost as it is—maybe a bit worse at some locations, but basically the same."
Instead of a bidirectional lane on Central Park West, transportation officials presented their plans for a northbound bike lane, separated from traffic by plastic bollards and a seven foot buffer. That proposal would involve eliminating 400 parking spaces along the east side of the street, banning left turns into the park at 96th Street, and adding signal timers to give pedestrians a ten-second head start at intersections.
The board's transportation committee voted unanimously to approve the plans, even as some members wondered why the DOT hadn't offered a more ambitious design option.
Asked by a community member if the agency had considered replacing parking spaces on the west side of the street with a southbound protected lane, Wright explained that would involve "a lot more parking loss," and thus wouldn't be feasible. "We have to work incrementally. We're not building out concrete here. We can adjust it over time, and that is the way we work."
While some in attendance, including Rosenthal, celebrated the resolution as a thoughtful first step, others characterized the DOT's incrementalism as unwarranted restraint, a missed opportunity for a major overhaul that had the rare backing of the broader neighborhood.
"It was disappointing, given the outpouring of support from both the community and the board for a two-way protected bike lane, that the DOT wouldn't present that as an option," Nevona Friedman, a 25-year-old cyclist who lives on Central Park West, told Gothamist following the meeting. "The idea that there would be more rioting over lost parking spots than lost cyclist lives is truly baffling."
A signal phase for drivers would solve the turning conflict, but DOT found that it could also create "severe back ups" (DOT)
Members of CB7 have recently supported safe cycling infrastructure in the neighborhood, and though the standard anti-bike sentiment wasn't entirely absent during Tuesday's meeting, the majority of the board leaders seemed to welcome the idea of trading vehicle priority for street safety. According to city data, at least a dozen cyclists and pedestrians were killed or severely injured on the corridor between 2013 and 2018. Most recently, Madison Lyden, an Australian tourist, was fatally struck by a drunk driver, after she was forced out of the current unprotected bike lane by an illegally parked livery cab.
The tragedy galvanized local residents and advocates, who’d been kicking around plans for a protected bike lane for years. They initially called for a wider bidirectional bike lane along the east side of the park, in the mold of Prospect Park West. But DOT officials offered a range of justifications on Tuesday for why that wasn't possible, including the street's bus stops and the necessity of maintaining four lanes for vehicle traffic (they admitted that their modeling had not factored in congestion pricing, which will go into effect at the end of next year).
Moreover, Wright argued, it would be "psychologically unrealistic" to expect drivers turning left into the park's remaining motor vehicle transverses—at 86th, 79th, and 65th Streets—to contend with southbound cyclists.
Of course a two way lane would be better but removing a full side of parking and a protected lane is a huge step. Just have to do the other side next. #bikenyc
— John Goulah (@johngoulah) June 12, 2019
No matter the borough, no matter the project, no matter the safety crisi, the motto of @NYCMayor & @Pollytrott’s @NYC_DOT has been the same: “We’ve basically tried to keep traffic as it is.” https://t.co/GA95baP3Bk
— macartney (@macartney) June 12, 2019
Chelsea Yamada, an organizer with Transportation Alternatives, said the one-way plan should be seen as a victory, while at the same time underscoring the "shortcomings of citywide mayoral leadership...that at the end of the day is more interested in maintaining vehicle flow."
Ian Dutton, a commercial pilot who lives in Brooklyn but often bikes along the park, added that such self-imposed limitations would never fly in a city that was serious about shifting the paradigm away from drivers. "It's like the current administration is terrified of creating too big of a wave," he told Gothamist. "They're using Vision Zero as a rallying cry, but not actually as a real direction for DOT's progress."
Following the presentation, Community Board member Willow Stelzer delivered a statement from Lyden's family, calling on the city to implement major street reforms without further delay. "Hard as it might be, we will travel from Australia to spend August 11 at the site our beautiful baby left this life," they wrote. "Please, we beg of you, don't let us see Central Park West in the same dangerous condition that led to Madison's death."
City officials said the installation of the one-way protected lane could begin as early as late summer, but would not be completed until at least next year.
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