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The Pedestrian Prerogative

 

By Carter B. Horsley

The business, and glory, of New York is people, not cars!

One of the greatest pleasures in life and birthright of New Yorkers is the pedestrian prerogative, universally recognized by everyone except suburbanites!

The proverbial man in the street rules.

Jaywalking, of course, is dangerous and should only be undertaken by true New Yorkers, constantly alert to all threats and agile. Not fully acclimated tourists should proceed with caution.

New York thrives on its concentration of people, its inter- and hyperactive commotion, its astounding congregation, its complex jostling, its curious cacophony, its courageous chaos and its curbside criticism, if not civility.

Therefore, it is shocking, indeed outrageous, that the Guiliani Administration should attempt to abrogate this inalienable right by blocking off major street intersections in midtown from pedestrian traffic for the convenience of vehicular traffic.

The Mayor and his colleagues have it backwards. Ban the vehicular traffic, except for the disabled, taxis, the Fire, Police and Sanitation departments, and the mayor's, President's and heads-of-state limousines!

The notion of no-walking zones instituted by the mayor's minions during Christmas week, 1997, is a modern-day version of Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake!" and should be similarly treated.

This plan could lead to civil strife and it is the administration that is putting up the barricades, literally.

Ten such barricades were placed along 50th and 49th Streets between the Avenue of the Americas and Lexington Avenue - the center of the world!

The administration has argued that the "pilot" plan, which officials indicated may be extended to other parts of the city, was designed to ease the city's gridlock.

Hey, stupid, get rid of the cars, not the people!

Fancy folk who ride in limousines should know better!

An excellent front-page article by David W. Chen in the Christmas Day edition of The New York Times on the fiasco contained a good quote critical of the plan from Charles Komanoff, a transportation consultant: "Why don't they just eliminate the sidewalks and run the West Side Highway down Fifth Avenue?"

"In a city where most people don't own cars and disdain those who do, the issue is about the unfettered ability to walk anywhere, anytime, anyhow, as if walking were one's birthright, as if walking were an activity that made New York New York and the rest of the world, well, not," Chen succinctly and accurately, wrote.

The city, Chen noted, claims that vehicular traffic on midtown streets is crawling at an average of 6.2 miles an hour this year, the slowest it has even been. So what, it is also crawling with more tourists than ever.

The plan was concocted by Captain Allan Hoehl of the Police Department's Midtown South Precinct who felt that barricades diverting walkers to the side of street intersections away from turning traffic would improve the flow of vehicular traffic.

A follow-up article the next day in The Times by David Firestone reported that Mayor Rudolph W. Guiliani lashed out at critics of the plan as "anti-car" and "hysterical," adding:

"Although drivers like the new restrictions, pedestrians have assailed them as a surrender to the dark forces of petroleum. Advocates of mass transit and foot power have been particularly upset about the move, laced as it is with symbolic implications about who is winning a primal New York contest."

Firestone's story said that the Mayor felt that people should get used to the idea that cars are here to stay and that the "new spirit of New York" is to try something innovative and see if it works: "If it doesn't work, we quietly slip away from it, and try something else."

Openness to experimentation and innovation is, indeed, laudable, as is humility and the courage to admit mistakes. This is a mistake. A big mistake.

Try something else, like banning private cars!

Incredibly, the mayor added more fuel to this fire by declaring war on what Robert Hardt Jr. described in an January 13, 1998 article in The New York Post as "the most widely fluted law in the city: jaywalking."

The mayor indicated that he wanted to raise the jaywalking fine of $2, which was instituted in 1958, and said that the New York tradition of not paying attention to traffic signals was "just wrong," adding that while jaywalking "may be cute...sometimes being cute is being irresponsible."

Norimitsu Onishi noted in a January 13, 1998 article in The New York Times that the mayor might order police officers to give summonses for jaywalking and wrote that "the mayor described the efforts to reshape into a city similar to to other cities, where pedestrians actually stop at red lights and 'don't walk' sign, and tangos with cars are not considered part of street theater."

Well!

New York ain't similar to other cities.  It don't want to be.  It shouldn't be.  It wont be!

On January 12, Sage Realty, one of the city's leading and most innovative real estate developers, filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court against the city, charged that the city had improperly blocked the crosswalk near one of its buildings, 437 Madison Avenue, by installing the pedestrian barricades without holding a public hearing.

Let'em drive cars?  Is that what the mayor is saying.  Perhaps he might be more at home in New Jersey.  Doesn't he know his French history.

To the barricades, indeed! (1/13/98)

In his January 14, 1998, "About New York" column in The New York Times, David Gonzalez wrote that "...in a city where cabbies honk and hurtle down streets oblivious to people or impatiently nudge into crosswalks while turning, jaywalking is a chance to share in the defiant joy of Ratso Rizzo's cri de coeur from 'Midnight Cowboy': I'm walking here!"

Gonzalez also quoted Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, as saying that "People shop, not cars."

Another Times article the same day by Glenn Collins noted that Philadelphia has reduced pedestrian fatalities with a crackdown on jaywalking and that in San Francisco pedestrians stand "patiently, waiting for the red lights to change." (1/14/98)

On April 10, the city installed midblock traffic lights and new pedestrian crosswalks at two locations along with permanent wrought-iron barricades at the controversial corners.  A New York Times article April 11, 1998, said that "one anti-car transportation expert, Charles Komanoff, came up with a model showing that even if the city was right in asserting that traffic was moving 30 percent faster with the barricades installed, pedestrians, as a whole, were still losing eight times as much time as motorists were saving."

The new wrought-iron barricades, reportedly copied after some in Vienna, are a major improvement over the the city's regular wooden ones, but the city and the Guiliani Administration are still wrong-headed on this issue.  People and pedestrians are more important than cars and it is the cars that should be banned, not the people.

It is interesting to note that the same week New Jersey announced it would crack down on motorists who drive while using cell phones.  New York should adopt the same policy and perhaps, given the Giuliani Administration's anti-pedestrian philosophy, New York should ban the use of cell phones by pedestrians in motion as well.  If the city is going to permit these pompous, self-indulgent, myopic mimics of moguls to persist, then it has no choice but to ban cars to protect the true, non-cellular New York pedestrian, who is alert to everything.  (4/11/98)

See Passion column in The City Review on "A Pedestrian's Love of Cars"

See Letter from Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response to Illegal State Tactics)

See excellent links at "Perils for Pedestrians" website

See "American Walks" website with good list of local organizations

See Transportation Alternatives website

See Christian Science Monitor article on the "windshield culture"

 

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