Central Park an Oasis for Cyclists, As Long as They Get There Safely

The Sixth Ave. protected bike lane provides a safe corridor toward the park, but cuts off after W. 34th St. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

BY SAM BLEIBERG | Cyclists, joggers, walkers, and all manner of rollers earned a sanctuary from danger and stress when the last car rolled out of Central Park.

The move to designate Central Park as a car-free space starting in June was a major victory for safe streets advocates and cyclists of all levels. At last tourists, casual riders, and spandex-clad racers have miles of pavement free from the risks of vehicular traffic. But despite the transformation of the park into a beacon for people-centric urban design, improvements to surrounding streets have lagged, with fatal consequences.

The tragic death of a tourist just outside the park in August made clear the work left to be done. Manhattan’s car-free refuge remains surrounded by streets that have not received safety improvements in years. In the latest installment in our series on biking on the West Side, NYC Community Media takes a look at how riders can travel safely between Chelsea/ Hell’s Kitchen and Central Park.

Cycling is a natural choice for exploring Central Park’s miles of paths in a single day. While visitors are guaranteed safety from vehicles within the park, they will find little accommodation outside the park’s boundaries. Vendors rent bikes within the park, but anyone patronizing a bike rental business outside the park or utilizing the Citi Bike network must contend with traffic on the surrounding streets.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation (DOT), emphasized the importance of safe street infrastructure around the park: “Safe bike infrastructure provides improved access to Central Park and other destinations in the area for both residents of and visitors to New York City, and can be especially important for encouraging less experienced cyclists to get around the city by bike.” Department proposals point to increased ridership and decreased pedestrian and motorist injuries on streets with protected bike lanes.

Yet the slow pace of street safety improvements has continued in a patchwork fashion. Infrastructure is frequently implemented several blocks at a time with years between projects, resulting in “disappearing” bike lanes on almost every avenue. Furthermore, the DOT confirmed that community board presentations for crosstown lanes servicing Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown on W. 55th and 52nd Sts., originally slated for this summer, have been delayed until fall.

Despite Central Park’s recent designation as a car-free loop, the stretch of Sixth Ave. connecting to the park has not received a design update. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Melodie Bryant — Chelsea resident, biker, and safe streets advocate — voiced her frustration with the current cycling infrastructure on the West Side. “I have no typical route to Central Park because there is no good route,” she said. “Frankly, as a cyclist, I am feeling more and more unwelcome in Manhattan.”

A look at the streets in the area below Central Park reveals that safe bike infrastructure essentially disappears as one approaches the park from Chelsea.

Bike infrastructure in Manhattan ranges from areas with no dedicated bike lanes to lanes painted with white outlines or filled in with green, to protected lanes that rely on parked cars or physical dividers to separate cyclists from vehicles. Protected bike lanes are the safest option aside from paths that ban vehicles altogether. Madison Lyden, a 23-year-old tourist from Australia, was riding in an unprotected bike lane on Central Park West when a double-parked car forced her into traffic. A sanitation truck struck her, and she died hours later in the hospital.

This same failed infrastructure factors into every potential route from Chelsea to Central Park.

Sixth and Seventh Aves. connect to the now bike-only streets within the Park, but the avenues have received no design updates to cater to their new purpose. The protected bike lane on Sixth Ave. abruptly cuts off at W. 34th St., forcing cyclists to ride in traffic on the 5-lane stretch or find an alternate route. The protected bike lane on Seventh Ave. also disappears close to the park, starting its downtown route on W. 30th St.

On her way to Central Park, Alba, visiting from Spain, weaved between traffic on Sixth Ave. after the protected bike lane ended. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

A father-daughter duo from Spain, David and Alba, braved the traffic on Sixth Ave. with only “a little bit of fear of the cars and trucks.” Trailing David and Alba as they rode on Sixth yielded several situations where the riders were overtaken by impatient drivers, honked at, or forced to stop and wait for a red light to go around turning vehicles.

Zoe and her family, from Belgium, opted to walk their bicycles on Seventh Ave. rather than ride in traffic. “We don’t want to ride them on the street. It’s a bit crazy. There’s no path for bicycles on the road,” she said.

New Yorker Paul McGeever, finishing up a ride in the park, offered justification for the tourists’ concerns. “I try to avoid the craziness on the avenues because I’ve had too many near-death experiences.”

Eighth Ave., another bicycle artery through Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, also suffers from gaps in its protected bike lane close to the park — once at the Port Authority bus terminal, and again at W. 56th St. This will be the first street to receive a safety update from the DOT, with a protected bike lane starting at W. 56th and continuing through Columbus Circle, scheduled for implementation this fall.

Moving westward, Ninth Ave. offers the most consistent protected bike lane from the park to Chelsea. Enduring construction, however, compromises the efficacy of the lane.

“I use Ninth Avenue, but it is harrowing,” said Tim Frasca, who used to ride between the park and Chelsea at least twice a week before being hit by a car for the second time. “The bike lane is torn up and full of nasty potholes, and there is so much foot traffic that one has to be very cautious and alert not to hit people wandering into the lane.”

Tenth and 11th Aves. lack bike infrastructure, but afford more experienced cyclists a fast-moving path free from pedestrian sidewalk overflow. “Even though the road on 10th isn’t ideal, biking on Eighth is too difficult with so many commuters walking in the bike lane,” said Oliver Demonicis, who rides from Chelsea to Central Park for a weekly running club. “I have to deal with trucks and potholes, but it’s better than risking bumping into somebody.”

This brings us to the most westward path, and our recommended route for traveling between Chelsea and Central Park: the Hudson Greenway. As a car-free space, this path accommodates cyclists of all levels. Riders can enjoy views of the river and the closest thing to clean air. Unfortunately, the journey along the Hudson is not without obstacles, literally.

“I used to take the Greenway but now the Jersey barriers are scary pinch points,” Bryant said, referring to metal dividers erected in the middle of the path to keep vehicles out at intersections. “Even riding vigilantly, I’ve had people come up from behind and just miss me as they rode through.” Erected in response to the Greenway truck attack in 2017, the dividers, called bollards in infrastructure jargon, have come under fire for tight spacing that falls short of recommendations from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, creating choke points at intersections. Critics such as Bryant have called for the city to investigate alternative, less-intrusive methods to keep vehicles off the path.

Then there is the issue of getting to and from the Greenway. Protected bike lanes on 26th and 29th Sts. became mid-Manhattan’s first crosstown lanes when they were installed earlier this summer, but the original proposal included protected lanes on 52nd and 55th as well. These crosstown lanes would provide a safe connection from the Hudson Greenway to the park. They also serve an area marred by tragedy: Last June, a truck hit and killed 17-year-old Corbin Carr at the intersection of 10th Ave. and W. 55th St.

As mentioned, the process on the proposal has already been delayed beyond the DOT’s original timeline.

While the West Side has made significant progress, safe bike infrastructure in the area falls short of a cohesive network. None of the avenues except Ninth have complete protected lanes between Central Park and Chelsea. A single crosstown corridor serves the entire area from the West Village to Hell’s Kitchen. The gaps leave cyclists confused and forced into unsafe situations when protected lanes disappear.

Zoe, visiting from Belgium, did express hope for improvements in the future. “There’re a lot of countries that have paths,” she noted, “so I’m sure they’re going to come some time.” Until then, many cyclists will opt to walk their bikes to Central Park.

Cyclists leaving Central Park face a stretch of Seventh Ave. without a protected bike lane. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

West 55th St. has been set to receive a protected bike lane, but presentations from the Department of Transportation to community boards have been delayed until the fall. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Broadway sets a gold standard for a combination of pedestrian and safe bike infrastructure.

Ninth Ave. is the most consistent bike lane on the West Side, but construction and tight quarters with pedestrians on the sidewalk create less than ideal conditions or cyclists. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

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