Currently, the walking man — that glowing white stick figure striding ever so confidently — appears for at least six seconds and as much as 75 seconds, depending on the length of the light’s cycle. (A very minor side street meeting a very major road, for example, would get a very short green cycle.) Then comes the flashing orange hand (the city’s Department of Transportation calls it red, but we beg to differ), which appears for between 7 seconds and 22 seconds, depending on the distance from curb to curb, before finally turning solid. So how long does the hand flash at different locations? A DOT spokesman was stumped when we asked for examples, but he provided the formula for the blinking hand: You divide the width of the street by an average walking speed of four feet per second. (According to our checking-the-second-hand math, that makes Madison Avenue in front of the office about 48 feet wide. Now you know.)
What no one can answer, though, is whether these things do any good. (The same flummoxed DOT spokesman doesn’t think anyone has ever formally studied what percentage of New Yorkers observe walk–don’t-walk signals.) Considering a comment from DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall in announcing these new signals — “Even though we’re not supposed to, we’ve all crossed the street after the pedestrian signal begins flashing a red hand,” and we’d bet nearly all New Yorkers who aren’t the transportation commissioner had no idea it’s even illegal to do that, not that they’d care — we’d have to guess that no, they won’t do any good at all. Why would they? We’re New Yorkers. We’ll cross when we damned well please.
— Hope Reeves