Monday, December 20, 2010

Don't Walk? Fuhgettaboutit!

Remember when your parents taught you how to cross the street on your own? What were the rules? Stop, look, and listen? I'm not sure if it's the pace of life in New York City, or a feeling that pedestrians have the advantage of numbers, but I'm often struck by the way pedestrian traffic in New York City is more aggressive than motor vehicle traffic. If you're looking for a free activity to do when you're in the city, find a corner Starbucks (THAT won't be hard at all), grab a caffeinated beverage or a snack, find a window seat, and then watch.

There is a palpable sense of impatience apparent during rush hour and in areas with high foot traffic. And a curious pattern emerges at crosswalks where pedestrians are waiting for the signal:  As the wait for the light wears on, pedestrians tend to stack up in rows, but after the third row forms anyone who approaches the waiting group bypasses the waiting lines and joins the first row. Then the stack grows in the front. I've watched this happen on the intersection of Water and Wall Streets many times. I've also participated in the stacking—as a smaller person, I tend to get through the crowd to the front fairly easily. And there are advantages to being out front: I don't have to wait for the people in front of me to start moving and I don't have to deal with impatient drivers who try to cut through the swarm of pedestrians. I also get to bypass any confused tourists who will stop in middle of the crosswalk to get their bearings. Sure there's a chance that I'll encounter a driver who's trying to beat the light, but there's no way the driver will hit me. The driver will stop short, and the other pedestrians will give him dirty looks, and flood into the intersection, stranding him in the box. If there's a cop handy, the driver may even get a ticket. (Yes, the hive mind can be that calculating.)

But is it any surprise that we cross the streets this way? New Yorkers don't do waiting well. That's one of the reasons we have so many types of 24-hour businesses. The mind-set here is constant motion, and it manifests in all aspects of our behavior.


  1. When I spent a month in Manila, I noticed a certain art to crossing the street.

    You see, Filipino drivers do not as a general rule obey signs, lights, or lane markings. They obey direct police direction, and there are certain very particular locations where they obey the traffic signals and markings for reasons which are inscrutable to an outsider.

    Obviously, this makes it a bit difficult to be a pedestrian; neither car, nor jeepney, nor bicycle-cab, will stop at a sign or light, and crosswalks are meaningless.

    But! Cars, and even lesser vehicles, are expensive. And humans make awfully big dents, especially crowds of them.

    This results in a certain understanding. Filipino pedestrians will step out in front of moving vehicles, but they do so in a certain way. They wait for a break in traffic which is long enough for the next driver to see the pedestrian and thus slow down or stop. If possible there will be eye contact with the driver, but this is not necessary. The pedestrian will then block the lane and perform the same process for the next lane, in a fashion reminiscent of both frogger and chicken games. The pedestrians prefer to do this as a group, but a single pedestrian can perform it as well.

  2. Hasufin, your comment really made me laugh. (Which I sort of needed!) I wonder how they teach young children to use that method. How many lanes of traffic are we talking about here?

    Definitely an interesting adaptation to social norms.

  3. You learn by imitation, I think. At least, it didn't take me but a few minutes to catch on. Realize that if you *didn't* figure out what was going on you'd be basically stuck on one city block unless someone drove you.

    As to how many lanes... well, do you mean marked lanes? I never crossed more than 8. As for how many actual cars one would need to step in front of, I think about 14 or so?

    I am intrigued by both street-crossing strategies, as they illustrate how we adapt to our conditions, and how we develop Evolutionarily Stable Strategies - which, incidentally, are why most traffic laws are doomed to failure.

  4. "As to how many lanes... well, do you mean marked lanes? I never crossed more than 8. As for how many actual cars one would need to step in front of, I think about 14 or so?"

    I think this perfectly captures the sense of disorder that must reign in Manilan traffic patterns. This sort of experience would demand creative solutions.

    Traffic patterns and responses really seem to be regional. When I was down in North Carolina, I caught a lot of flack for not crossing at the crosswalks or waiting for traffic to come to a complete stop. The Southerners in my cohort felt that was typical New York behavior ... and I guess it was!

    I had a link to an article about a neighborhood that had to adapt to a roundabout. Will try to track it down - you may find it interesting.

  5. Well, I think "disorder" might be the wrong word. There was order, but it was an organic, evolutionary order rather than an imposed order. The commutes never seemed particularly worse than what I experience in DC. If anything, better in a way inasmuch as there was constant motion; I don't recall ever observing an actual jam as such. But as a non-Filipino, I don't think I'd be willing to try driving in such conditions. They operated under rules which I'm sure made perfect sense, but which I simply did not know.