Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Art of Walking (in Manhattan)

When visitors from non-pedestrian cities hear that New York – especially the borough of Manhattan – is a “pedestrian city”, they frequently assume that it means people walk a lot in Manhattan.  While this may be true, there is so much more to Manhattan pedestrianism and how we utilize our feet.  I am not talking about “strolling” which is more of a comfortable means deployed for window shopping or sight-seeing.  Nor am I referring to walking (or running) with the intent to exercise – people go to a gym or Central Park for that.  I am referring to walking as a preferred mode of commuter transportation in the manner that people from non-pedestrian cities drive their cars to work in the morning.

Sometimes, the distance to be traveled is so great that it requires walking to be supplemented with the use of the subway or bus system, but the first choice for the majority of the 9-to-5 workers in Manhattan is to walk. The desire to
walk to and from work played a major role in driving the financial companies from downtown to midtown, and the convenience of being able to walk to work in Manhattan without ever stepping on/in a subway, bus or car is considered a special amenity for the average 9-to-5 Manhattan workers.  They have perfected it to an art form.

They first ensure that they have proper “tires” for their daily walking commute.   During the subway strike of 1980, businesswomen adopted the wear of sneakers for their daily commute, keeping a pair of high heels in the office drawer.  The walking population has their usual “route” to work, as well as an alternative “Plan B” route in the event of obstacles (construction or a gaggle of tourists) blocking the usual path.  The commuters walk with purpose – their stride is swift and powerful and their eyes remain on the road.  After all, if they glanced at a passerby, they might actually recognize the person and feel obligated to stop and speak, knowing in their hearts that the person recognized no more wants to speak to them than they do the passerby.  Neither does this typically occur between two people driving cars - where the drivers might pull their cars alongside one another, block the road, then roll down the windows for a little chat.  

Commuting pedestrians in Manhattan tend to follow road etiquette originally designed for cars.  The commuter attempts to walk on the right side of the sidewalk, speeds up to pass slower commuters and even honks a "horn" when appropriate with a loud “PARDON!” or “EXCUSE ME!”  At intersections, often the decision must be made on whether to wait for the light or 
break into a run and dart in and out of the oncoming traffic.  Should the commuter elect to wait for the light, he/she stands aside in order to avoid blocking the path of the traffic-dodger, who is generally a skilled professional commuter/walker – one who actually enjoys the adrenaline rush of avoiding the speeding cars, taxis and MTA buses while attempting to cross the street.  Plus, they reap the rewards of their bravery by arriving to their respective offices at least 15 seconds earlier than they would otherwise had the decision been made to wait on the traffic light.

And what exactly is the message in those traffic lights for pedestrians?  Instead of the old “Walk”/“Don’t Walk” signs, the “Walk” lettering has been replaced with an icon of a white stick figure slightly hunched forward in what appears to be a walking position. The “Don’t Walk” has been replaced with the image of a red blinking palm of a hand.  This icon is saying: “Are you feeling lucky today?  If you proceed, you need to
be really careful and go really fast!” Meanwhile, the white stick figure informs you that “You are at a slightly less risk of getting hit by a car or bus if you cross the street now.  However, you are actually at a greater risk of being run down by a bicycle messenger.”
Walking commuters avoid known construction areas where sidewalks are blocked, and they especially avoid high tourist areas if at all possible.  Most tourists are from non-pedestrian cities and do not fully understand walking as a highly specialized form of transportation.  Usually, the intent of the Manhattan walking commuter is completely misunderstood by the average tourist, leaving them with the impression that we are rude.  On the other hand, the walking commuter believes that it is the tourist who is rude for blocking the path.  After all, I doubt that the visiting tourists would appreciate car commuters back in their hometowns driving the wrong way during the morning commute or even worse – blocking an entire intersection (which is unfortunately where most tourist grievances occur).  

So you see, the walking commuters in Manhattan have an undeserved bad reputation for their behavior.  They are not intentionally rude to visitors and tourists (unless it is a matter of “road rage,” which I have elected not to discuss).  The walking commuters are simply and methodically going to work in the same manner
as what the drivers of cars do in the non-pedestrian cities.  They just happen to be driving their feet.


Katie Bennett said...

I loved this blog, and it was especially pertinent to me as I just moved to NYC from a small town in Vermont, where being a pedestrian is nearly impossible.
I found the fast pace of the city to be intimidating at first, but once I started needing to go places, completely necessary and almost unavoidable.
In response to this blog today, someone brought up the difference between the white "walk" signal, the blinking orange hand, and the stationary orange hand, and how these three things have different meanings for different types of pedestrians. For many of the New Yorkers I've seen, these things all mean the same thing: look both ways, and if there's no traffic, go ahead and cross. If there is traffic, cross, but maybe consider running and be OK with getting honked at (when a cab first honked at me I felt so ashamed that I wanted to turn around and run home!). For those more timid (generally tourists), the blinking orange hand means "slow down and stop", and the stationary orange hand means stop (and block all the crazy people behind you who are trying to cross the street). I've found, on a daily basis, that these meanings change for me. If I'm feeling particularly vulnerable, or lazy, I'll stop at every blinking orange hand I see. If I'm late, or just hyped up from finishing a coffee, I'm a daredevil, and each signal means the same thing. I thought this was interesting to think about in light of "meaning" and "signifiers" in terms of Saussure and Barthes; neither really addressed how meaning and symbols/signals can change due to the individual, on a day to day basis. We have these socially constructed (and literal) signals, but they are often ignored or disregarded, or changed, even though everyone in the society understands what they mean.

Gabrielle Borenstein said...

One week later and I am still thinking about this post. As a native New Yorker, I cannot help but think the vast degree to which this scenario has become completely and totally naturalized. When traveling from Point 'A' to Point 'B' nothing else matters, all sights are set on the destination. Small talk is not welcome, obstacles are to be dealt with as efficiently as possible -- whether that means taking an alternate route or walking straight through a crowd of tourists gazing up at the skyline -- when New Yorkers walk, they tend to walk with a purpose. What I found most striking about this phenomenon was the extent to which I couldn't recognize it from the inside. Surely I learned from an early age how to spot an "outsider" by the way they walked and prudently waited for traffic lights to change, but I was too close to invisible grammars behind pedestrianism to recognize it. This made me wonder if there is a degree of removal necessary to recognize "myths" or cultural symbols. Does the French individual recognize the unique role played by wine? Can meaning only be recognized retroactively (historically) or by outsiders (or anthropologists)? If we look to classic examples, for instance, are the Nuer aware of the Bovine idiom? Or are they simply so entrenched in their daily preoccupations to recognize that the cattle play a unique role in their society, just as wine does for the French and traffic lights do for New Yorkers?