New York City has the nation’s highest rate of commuters who walk or use public transit. A whopping 56% of households in the five boroughs don’t own a car, tops in the country.
In the East Villiage, where I live, It’s tempting to envision the city as a symphony, with millions of people weaving around each other in choreographed harmony. But then some guy with a yoga mat cuts in front of me, stopping me short and sending coffee down the front of my coat.
In this city, where battle lines have increasingly been drawn between walkers, bicyclists and cars, we take it for granted that cars don’t respect pedestrians. Should we also take it for granted that pedestrians don’t respect each other? I grew up driving my grandfather’s Ford LTD upstate and, ironically, I’ve noticed a few big things we pedestrians can learn from car culture.
Stay on the right. The most basic rule of the road applies to sidewalks as well. Whenever I see someone strolling down the left side of a sidewalk, I can’t help thinking, “I hope to God that maniac is British.”
Don’t drift out of your lane. Walking diagonally is inconsiderate. Straight lines and 90-degree turns mean fewer hassles for you and everyone else. Definitely don’t veer to one side, then overcorrect and veer to the other. Your unpredictability makes you difficult to maneuver around.
Don’t pop out into the middle of a busy street. It’s amazing how often people coming out of stores walk straight into the middle of the sidewalk, as if they take precedence over everyone else on the street. Would you exit a parking lot that way — zooming into the middle of the road without regard for oncoming traffic?
Don’t turn a corner into the “oncoming” lane. If you’ve ever walked around a corner and nearly bumped into someone coming the other direction, one of you was doing it wrong. When rounding a corner to the right, stay inside, close to the corner. When turning left, stick to the outside and give the people turning right the inside track.
Don’t walk and text. This is a big one. There’s no ban yet, as there is on texting and driving, but there should be. If you have your phone out — even to track where you are on a map — you’re walking too slow. And definitely don’t “multitask” on the subway stairs. There’s a whole crowd glaring at your backside, wishing you would briskly get to street level, then find an out-of-the-way spot to talk, text or tweet.
Don’t stop abruptly or reverse course without warning. People in cars know this leads to getting rear-ended, but many pedestrians remain oblivious. Not just tourists who are gawking at tall buildings, but also those who have lived here for years. Don’t stop suddenly when you get an important text message or have a sudden idea about what to cook for dinner.
Don’t try to avoid head-on collisions by stutter-stepping. You wouldn’t spin the wheel of a car wildly left, then right, then left again, trying to guess which direction an oncoming driver might choose. You would simply stop and pass on the right. The same thing works with walking. Try it.
Don’t “tailgate” slow walkers. One major advantage pedestrians have over drivers is we can actually speak to each other (crazy, but true!). If you’re trapped behind a slow-moving couple on a narrow street in the West Village, rather than stepping on their heels until they move, say “Excuse me” in an audible (yet friendly) voice, and chances are that they’ll let you pass. Treat larger thoroughfares the same way that you would a road: Overtake slowpokes on the left, but don’t careen into oncoming traffic in the process.
Don’t cut in front of other pedestrians. Whether you’re changing directions or intersecting other pedestrian traffic at an angle, it’s always better to cross behind nearby people, not in front of them. You wouldn’t turn left at a busy intersection without signaling. As a pedestrian in New York, you’re essentially at a busy intersection all the time, but without a turn signal. No one but you knows when you’re going to change directions.