By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Published: November 20, 2011
On a stretch of Prospect Park’s main drive, bright orange traffic barrels are the most visible symbols of an urgent and emotional debate over whose rights should have priority in Brooklyn’s largest park: pedestrians’ or cyclists’?
The barrels, which appeared suddenly last Monday, are part of an effort by park officials to slow down bicycle riders, by narrowing the roadway at the bottom of a hill on West Drive, near a main intersection.
They also serve as a grim reminder of the serious collisions between pedestrians and cyclists in the park in recent months.
The accidents, including two that left women with severe brain injuries, have revealed a simmering conflict among the runners, in-line skaters, cyclists and pedestrians who vie each day for a small piece of the increasingly crowded park.
“As the use has grown, we’ve noticed that there’s more and more competition for space on the drive,” said Emily Lloyd, the park’s administrator.
That competition for space has grown more pitched in recent years as the park’s popularity — roughly 10 million people visit each year — has run up against a cycling boom in Brooklyn. As a result, the kinds of fights that have long been seen in Central Park are occurring with increasing regularity in Prospect Park as well. “People are very protective of their space and how they use the park,” Ms. Lloyd said.
After a severe accident involving a pedestrian and a cyclist in June, park officials convened a task force of city agencies and park users to look into proposals for increasing safety on the main drive, including stronger law enforcement, new traffic patterns, better signage and an educational campaign.
Then, in early November, a 55-year-old park volunteer, Linda Cohen, was struck by a cyclist near the same location, on the drive by the Vanderbilt playground, leaving her with injuries so severe that doctors put her in a medically induced coma. That episode led the Department of Transportation to put the orange traffic barrels in place. The police also said they would step up enforcement against cyclists who do not yield to pedestrians.
Those actions came days before a public hearing held by the task force, which drew more than 100 people on Wednesday. At the emotional and occasionally heated meeting, some likened the situation on the park drive to the Wild West, or a bare-knuckle cage fight, while others compared fast-riding cyclists to dogs.
“We have an off-leash time in the park; why don’t we have a speed cyclist time?” asked Susan Fox, the founder of a Park Slope parents group.
Florence Weintraub, a 74-year-old Brooklyn native from Windsor Terrace, suggested clearing bicycle riders out of the park completely. “I waited years to get cars out of the park,” she told the meeting, “and the bikes are much worse.”
Bicycle riders also attended in large numbers, clapping vigorously when speakers suggested banning cars from the park completely. (The park is opened to vehicular traffic for several hours each weekday, during the morning and evening rush.)
Fresh from the acrimonious public battle over the Prospect Park West bicycle lane earlier this year, the cyclists appeared ready to defend their use of the park, but also chastised reckless riders. “They threaten my kids,” said Henry Astor, 42, an amateur bicycle racer who said that irresponsible riders had made him feel unsafe riding in the park with his three young boys.
Forrest Cicogni, 36, whose wife was severely hurt in the June 11 accident that led to the formation of the task force, said that fast-riding cyclists turned crossing the drive into “a game of Frogger.”
Mr. Cicogni and his wife, Dana Jacks, 37, intend to sue the city. They also filed a suit in September against the bicycle rider, David Sonenberg, who remained at the scene after the accident, according to witnesses.
Ms. Lloyd, the park administrator, said in an interview that she hoped the task force would balance the needs of all park users. “We’re looking at a broad array,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet on this one.” She said the task force would make its recommendations early next year.
The orange barrels represent one possible solution, she said, though for the moment they are only a temporary fix.
On Saturday afternoon, some cyclists navigated through them with ease, rarely braking as they rode down the hill and through the intersection. Others appeared confused, weaving into the pedestrian lane rather than continuing through the narrow funnel created by the barrels. One unsteady in-line skater crashed in front of the center row.
The brightly marked new traffic pattern did appear to be raising awareness of the intersection’s dangerous history. Two cyclists could be heard discussing the barrels as they passed through together. “Someone got injured here last week,” one explained.