Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein in his chambers. Before he became a judge, Bernstein was hit by a speeding bicyclist in Central Park in 2012 as he limbered up for what would have been his 18th marathon. Without seeking a dime in damages, he sued the city, demanding it make the park safer for the disabled. Several safety enhancements have since been made. Photo: Douglas Elbinger Media Group LLC, via Justice Richard Bernstein
Richard Bernstein is what used to be called a “memorizer” — or more colloquially, a “rememberer.” The attorney, jurist and advocate for the disabled is celebrated in courthouse lore for memorizing legal briefs and case law, affidavits and arguments, pleadings and complaints.
He also memorizes the contours of streetscapes and the topography of landscapes. Most notably, he has memorized the 6.1-mile Central Park Loop and possesses an innate sense and feel for all its twists and turns, peaks and valleys, slopes and crossings, bridges and bike paths.
He doesn’t do this for sport. His brief is not to entertain or amuse. He does this to cope with immeasurably steep hurdles, to function at the highest imaginable levels, to excel in both his personal and professional lives. You see, Richard Bernstein is blind and has been since birth.
Blindness has informed his life. It’s part of his makeup. And it has shaped his world view. But it has never defined him. For Bernstein wears many, many other hats. Among them:
He’s a veteran New York City marathoner. He’s also a triathlete. He’s won numerous federal court cases for vulnerable clients wielding the Americans with Disabilities Act. He’s a national expert on that landmark 1990 civil rights law. Oh, and he’s also a sitting justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, the state’s highest court and its equivalent of the New York State Court of Appeals.
Yes, he’s a Michigander. So it’s fair to ask a question: Why should East Siders, West Siders and downtowners pay attention? Because this is a story about Central Park, our cherished backyard, and a catastrophic accident caused by a speeding bicyclist that took place on its loop drive, and the blind runner who fell victim, and how he battled the city to gain “safe, equal and reasonable access” to the park for the disabled.
What matters is that he became a champion to a whole new class of fragile New Yorkers.
“I’m a very spiritual person, and I believe that everything happens for a purpose, everything happens for a reason,” the 43-year-old Bernstein said in a recent phone interview. “And every now and then in life, you get to do something that can make a difference.”
It wasn’t at all what he set out to do as he walked northbound in the pedestrian lane on the Outer Park Drive Loop, as it is formally named, near the Engineers’ Gate, at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street, at 10 a.m. on August 13, 2012.
Clad in a bright yellow t-shirt and carrying his reflective white cane, he had come from the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in midtown, where he stays when he’s in town, and was limbering up for what was expected to be his ninth New York City Marathon and 18th marathon in total.
“It was a gorgeous August morning in New York, just really beautiful, and as I was out walking, a bicyclist going at a very high rate of speed lost control and came into my lane, the pedestrian lane, and hit me from behind, directly in the back,” Bernstein recalls.
Cops and witnesses estimated that the cyclist had barreled into him at around 35 miles per hour, or roughly 10 mph over what was then the park’s 25 mph speed limit.
His injuries and traumas were catastrophic. He had a shattered pelvis and broken hip, multiple lacerations and lost teeth. Bernstein, then 38, spent the next 10 weeks of his life at Mount Sinai Hospital.
It was two years before Michigan voters would elect him to the bench, and at the time, he was an attorney in private practice with a string of court triumphs: He’d forced the City of Detroit to put wheelchair lifts on its buses, and he’d hammered out a settlement with Detroit Metro Airport in which it upgraded accessibility for disabled passengers under ADA.
Now, he turned his attention to Central Park. Bernstein dispatched an expert ADA compliance witness to assess conditions, and on September 13, 2012, from his hospital bed, he filed a civil lawsuit against the city in U.S. District Court, turning pedestrian safety and equal park access for the disabled into a federal case.
Litigants in such cases typically seek substantial monetary damages. Not Bernstein. “I wasn’t asking for a nickel or a dime from the city,” he says. “I didn’t want a single cent. The sole purpose was making Central Park safer and friendlier for people with disabilities.”
Bernstein says he wanted to see traffic patterns modified, separation of pedestrians from cyclists with barriers, well-marked lanes, a resurfacing of the loop, replacement of crosswalks and curb ramps at several locations, new traffic control signals and a lower speed limit.
The city fought Bernstein in court, mostly on procedural grounds, for three years. At one point, in February 2015, it won a ruling from a U.S. district court judge dismissing the case because the plaintiff “lacked standing” to pursue his claim.
But in October 2015, a federal appeals court reversed that dismissal, ruling that — as an injured party who alleges he “cannot safely enter Central Park on his own” and has been forced to “rely on the kindness of strangers” to navigate the park — Bernstein makes a strong case that he indeed has standing.
Meanwhile, as the case worked its way through the courts, the city’s Department of Transportation, starting in 2012, began enhancing park safety. And lo and behold, much of what it did was what Bernstein had been demanding.
DOT doesn’t address what role if any Bernstein played in its upgrades. But it does say the agency, working with Department of Parks, NYPD and the Central Park Conservancy, “began implementing safety treatments” in the park in 2012 as a result of the “increased use of the park and the rise in pedestrian and bicycle conflicts.”
Its first redesign “consisted of separating the lanes for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, as well as creating shorter crossing distances for pedestrians,” a DOT official said.
Then tragedy struck twice in 2014. In August, a cyclist fatally struck 75-year-old jogger Irving Schacter on the Loop off East 72nd Street, and in September, another cyclist hit and killed Connecticut resident Jill Tarlov on West Drive at 63rd Street.
Shortly after, DOT lowered the speed limit for cars and bikes in the park to 20 mph from 25 mph and installed numerous “pedestrian crossing” warning signs at several key locations.
Over the next couple of years, the agency created a new jogging lane, shortened pedestrian crossings, refurbished crosswalks or installed new ones and began electrical upgrades to traffic signals and street lights.
“During the litigation, they resurfaced, changed the speed limit and did a lot of what we were asking for, and the case became moot,” said Bernstein. In the meantime, he began his eight-year term as a justice in 2015 and withdrew the case about a year later.
“He’s plucky and dedicated, and he succeeded in helping make a safer, more equitable park for everyone,” said Jack Brown, the former owner of Hi-Ho Cyclery in the East Village and an activist with a group called the Coalition against Rogue Riding. “The improvements were modest, but they were constructive and commendable.”
Bernstein isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s calling on the NYPD to step up enforcement efforts fulltime — and not just after the latest calamity: “You’re either serious about it or you’re not. You either have a law or you don’t. And if you have a law, you have to enforce it,” he says.
“We’re talking about Central Park,” the judge adds. “It’s not a velodrome, and it’s not the Tour de France.”