Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Is There Still a Place for Bike Racing in Central Park?

On March 4, the bike racing season opens again on early weekend mornings in Central Park. I truly hope it is the last. Why? Because as a runner who uses the recreation lane adjacent to these races, I find it increasingly dangerous and untenable. And there is nothing anyone can do to make the situation any safer.

So if you want to keep yourself safe as a runner this upcoming year in Central Park and you run in the mornings, here is a list of the majority of bike races this year and some times you might want to be extra cautious and find your way off the park drive and onto the bridle path or reservoir:

March 4: 6:30 AM
March 26: 6:50 AM
April 8: 6:30 AM
April 22: 6:10 AM
May 20: 5:35 AM
June 3: 5:40 AM
June 18: 5:30 AM
June 24: 5:30 AM
July 1: 5:30 AM
July 9: 5:35 AM
July 23: 5:45 AM
August 12: 6:05 AM
August 26: 6:20 AM
September 2: 6:25 AM
November 11: 6:40 AM

Before this goes any further, let me make clear that this not an anti-cyclist rant from a runner involved in some constant battle over using the park. A lot of people think that many of the competitive and fast moving cyclists in the park are oblivious jerks. I do not agree. Maybe that stereotype fits some, but as a general matter that assertion could not be farther from the truth.

The fastest moving cyclists are likely more aware of their surroundings than almost anyone else using the park drive. The reason is quite simple: self preservation. An unleashed dog running across the road, a clueless dog walker, tourist, or pedestrian stepping unannounced and cluelessly onto the roadway, runners with headphones blaring music as they reach their exit in the park and with no warning dart out of the running lane and into the bike lane, could all land a fast moving cyclist on the ground and in the hospital. Quite simply, the faster someone is biking the faster they have to react to a possible threat and the harder they will fall if they don't.

So, I just don't buy the stereotype that the cyclists in the park in their fancy jerseys are oblivious to their surroundings. And to the extent that they come off as jerks to other users of the park, it might be because we put them at such risk with our seemingly simple but oblivious actions all the time and that they have to warn us all so quickly of impending danger of which we are not aware. Slower moving tourists on Citi Bikes in the afternoon might be completely oblivious, but the men and women are out there training and pushing themselves on a daily basis and racing on the weekends are not the clueless and oblivious ones.

Still, there is no longer a place for bike racing in Central Park, if there ever was. It is not for lack of effort or kindness on the part of most cyclists (even if some are not kind) and their organizations. It is because, simply put, race organizers have done everything they can to make bike racing safer in Central Park and it is still increasingly dangerous for the ever growing number of users of Central Park.

Bike racing has existed in Central Park for years. Or if you want to go back over a century you could compare bike racing, to the informal chariot racing that used to take place on the Park Drive and infuriate Central Park's designers, who created the park back in the 1850s with a slower paced gentle mind-clearing passive recreation and relaxation in mind.

In recent years, biking in Central Park has come under greater scrutiny in the wake of a few high-profile accidents between cyclists and pedestrians, often tourists. The result has been the placement of a couple traffic signs reminding cyclists of the 20 MPH speed limit and the requirement to stop at red lights, and at times some visible NYPD and Parks Department enforcement ticketing cyclists. These high-profile incidents and subsequent enforcement have occurred in the middle of the day when the park is rife with tourists and other pedestrians crossing the Park Drive with little concern for looking both ways to cross a street closed to vehicular (car) traffic.

This scene, however, has little to do with the early morning in Central Park and certainly not the weekend bike races. Obviously speed limits and traffic lights do not apply to the races with permits. It would also seem at least tacitly that the speed limit and traffic light laws do not apply and are certainly not enforced early in the morning.

The concern here though is not whether the same rules should apply at all times of day. For Central Park to best serve all of its users needs, it is probably just as well that regulations are enforced differently at different times of day. Fast biking during the middle of the day in Central Park when it's filled with thousands more people who are not paying attention is just too dangerous and incongruous with the activities of the majority of park users at that time. Most competitive and serious cyclists want nothing to do with this time of day anyway because all of the other users make it too dangerous and disruptive to bike as they would wish. It's sort of like how I make use of the Central Park Reservoir track between 5-8 most mornings, but would never think to go there later in the day when it's filled with tourists, walkers, photographers, and school groups. I'd never be able to run properly and safely and I, as a faster runner would be the one posing a danger of sorts by using the Reservoir in an incompatible way with other uses of that space.

The early mornings, however, are another matter for both running on the Reservoir and cycling on the Park Drive, because both can find a safe place that is compatible with other uses of that space at that time of day. It doesn't mean it's always safe and that people don't cross each other's path, but as a whole there is room for cyclists, runners, walkers, birdwatchers, dog walkers, and whoever else uses the park at that time to coexist.

So what does this mean for the bike races that take place in Central Park on weekend mornings? For starters, as with running races (mostly put on by NYRR), they pose some inconvenience for other users of the park, particularly on the Park Drive. Whether it's the race setup or the race itself, organized events shut off part of the Park Drive and force detours and/or possibly slight dangers for other users of the park. This is inevitable, but it doesn't mean that bike races don't have a place in Central Park at that time.

Organizers of the weekend bike races in Central Park have already done most of what they can to make their events as compatible as possible with other park uses. That is because bike races really aren't' that compatible to begin with general park use so it takes effort and compromise to gain permits for bike races. That is why races only take place early on weekend mornings: starting earlier than 6 AM when the hours of light allow for it and almost always finishing before 9 AM. Race officials also station marshals with whistles at each crosswalk in an effort to keep other users of the park safer.

Unfortunately, as the park has become more crowded over the years, these efforts are simply not enough. The most obvious problem is how the impact of the bike races extends into the rec lane that is intended for other users of the Park Drive. While, typically this is a no bike zone or moving vehicle zone, on race days the lane is shared between its normal users (runners, pedestrians, dog walkers etc.) and cyclists who are not part of the race. In recent years, non-racing cyclists have been directed into the running lane by race officials to prevent accidents and interference with the races. Unfortunately, this just creates a more dangerous situation in the rec lane for all users of the park.

Furthermore, while it is against the race rules for a biker competing in the race to cross into the recreation lane, the race itself still spills into the rec lane because race marshals frequently use the"rec lane" as part of race setup, cleanup, and oversight by biking the opposite way against the normal flow of traffic while in the lane typically designated for pedestrians.

In other words on the morning of a bike race the rec lane typically looks like this: race marshals are biking against the flow of traffic in the designated running lane, non-racing cyclists who have been directed out of the cycling lanes to stay clear of the race are cycling with the normal flow of traffic and runners generally unaware that they are sharing their lane with cyclists are headed in both directions with the possibility of bikes coming at them or from behind them.

This situation exists because the alternative of having non-racing cyclists and race marshals somehow sharing the rest of the road with the race is unfeasible and even more dangerous. Pushing everyone not racing into the running lanes prevents a major accident in the bike lanes where the race is ongoing, but it creates an environment ready for a series of minor accidents in the running lanes.

Of course, moving all non-race activity into the rec lanes does not remove the threat of a more major accident it just makes it rare. Nonetheless, there is the constant threat that a racing cyclist might veer into the running lane to avoid a crash or because he judged his space in the peloton incorrectly, or worse that a more major crash in the pack of cyclists could domino into other users of the park in the recreation lane.

This is a worse case scenario, but also one that is increasingly likely as early morning users of Central Park seem to increase, particularly in the hottest days of summer.

I am a competitive athlete too. I respect the competitive cyclists in Central Park and their desire to race, but I also do not believe that bike racing can co-exist with other users of Central Park. Perhaps having only a couple of races a year and closing the park drive to other uses as is done for the NYC Half and NYC Marathon would allow for at least a few races year.

Yes, that would unfortunately undermine the cyclists' racing calendar and would probably prove unrealistic given the costs associated with taking over the park drive for a race with only a couple of hundred or so paying competitors/members. But, on the other hand, a bike race in Central Park by its nature can never be as low key and unobtrusive as it might want to be or its organizers envision it to be in theory.

I will never forget a couple of years ago when I was running on the park drive during a bike race (forced there for a longer stretch of my run because the reservoir and bridle path were both under construction in various forms that year) and the peloton of cyclists came rushing up behind me with no warning from the race marshals armed with whistles. I inquired as to why the whistles had not been used. The answer?

They had been discouraged by race organizers from using their whistles because of complaints from residents of Central Park West and 5th Avenue who were woken up by the whistles in the early weekend mornings, thus threatening the continued issuance of race permits for bike races in the park.

If the whistles are too much of a nuisance for nearby residents of Central Park such that they cannot be used to keep users of the park safe, perhaps it is a sign that no matter how hard the race organizers try that the races themselves are simply not compatible with how the majority of people use Central Park and the surrounding area.





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