Walk This Way

The reviews of Mayor Bloomberg’s no-turn rules at certain midtown intersections are in, and they are predictably grumpy. But Bloomberg said the rules would stay in effect through the holidays, adding that “if it doesn’t work, you try something else.”

That “something else” should be a massive reeducation campaign for New York’s real offenders: its pedestrians. They are the rudest in America.

If you drive in this city, you know exactly what I mean. You’re trying to get across town; you’ve navigated the usual obstacle course of screeching taxis and double-parked trucks and idling Lincoln Town Cars. Then, at last – a clear path to a green light, just twenty feet ahead!

And sure enough: Here they come; two, or four, or fourteen, pedestrians. They may be strolling, chatting, blithely unaware of the don’t walk sign; or more likely they see it, in which case they are challenging you, making eye contact with you, charging across the street as if the last ‘copter out of Saigon awaits them on the other side. You tap your horn, in an attempt to suggest politely that you have the light. And they glower at you.

Anywhere else, crossing the street is, like driving itself, an act of civic compromise that depends on that combination of self-preservation and respect for the other’s sphere that keeps a society sane. Rousseau did not have the corner of Fifth and 57th in mind when he described the need for the social contract, but he might have.

In New York, though, street-crossing is a game of psychological chicken. Partly it’s the hypercompetitive nature of the place – we carry the rage of the workplace and the adrenaline of the gym out to the street. Partly it’s the sheer number of pedestrians: The power of the crowd makes them cocksure. But mostly, it’s because so many New Yorkers don’t drive, so they have no sense that it too is hard in this town. Driving is one of those few topics about which New Yorkers are ignorant and proud of it.

Drivers have no political clout, and false starts like Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated jaywalking crackdown – which he introduced with his usual off-putting and melodramatic bluster – only made the “pedestrian community” even more intoxicated with its power. It has muscle. It even has a martyr: Henry Bliss, who, on September 13, 1899, at Central Park West and 74th Street, became the city’s first pedestrian traffic fatality.

My bet is he was crossing against traffic.

Walk This Way