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Urban Tactics; Where 'Don't Walk' Means 'Jaywalk'


April 18, 2002
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Urban Tactics; Where 'Don't Walk' Means 'Jaywalk'

by Katherine Marsh, New York Times

On a recent Wednesday evening at Columbus Circle, thousands of New Yorkers were engaged in their favorite urban sport, jaywalking. Rush-hour events included the mad dash against the light, the taxi slalom and the always thrilling pedestrian-oncoming driver face-off.

Petros Panayiotou, a student at New York Institute of Technology, sprinted across Central Park South, his knapsack bobbing as he dodged traffic. Arriving safely on the other side of the street, Mr. Panayiotou admitted that the experience made him nervous. He had recently seen a minivan hit a woman at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Still, he had no intention of changing his ways.

"Jaywalking is part of this city," he explained.

The city's Department of Transportation hopes to challenge that attitude in the coming months with a public service campaign aimed at pedestrians. While the number of pedestrian fatalities has remained stable since 1998 at about 200 a year, 11,000 pedestrians are still injured by cars annually. Iris Weinshall, transportation commissioner, believes that these numbers could drop further if New Yorkers stopped jaywalking.

To that end, she is working with City Hall on a public service campaign that will try to change the famously brazen mentality of the New York pedestrian. Although Mayor Bloomberg, a supporter of continuing the post-Sept. 11 weekday driving restrictions, is gaining a reputation as an anti-car mayor, his campaign platform also states that walking should be made "safer, easier and faster."

But in a city in which pedestrians view jaywalking not only as a cultural prerogative, but also as their best weapon in a longstanding battle against motorists for control of the streets, the antijaywalking message is a hard sell.

In 1998, Mayor Giuliani took aim at jaywalkers by increasing enforcement and raising fines from $2 to $50. New Yorkers derided these efforts and kept crossing illegally. This time, the city plans to use a stick instead of a carrot.

"If we can win the hearts and minds of people with advertising," said James McShane, commander of the Police Department's Traffic Control Division, "that's what this country is based on."

Last year, the Department of Transportation asked Bozell, a Manhattan advertising agency, to create awareness about the problem of jaywalking in the city. To show city administrators what they were up against, the Bozell team taped interviews with pedestrians at troublesome intersections like Columbus Circle, Broadway and 23rd Street, Madison Square Park and Queens Boulevard. The answers were not exactly what the city expected.

Asked if jaywalking made him nervous, one pedestrian said, "I feel like a seasoned veteran." Asked who should not jaywalk, another said, "Out-of-towners."

The pedestrians interviewed not only refused to see jaywalking as a problem, they also played any danger for laughs. as a ambulance siren wailed behind him, one New Yorker announced with a grin, "No doubt a pedestrian."

At another point, a pedestrian offered the New York translation of the "don't walk" sign. "It really means `Don't walk, but. . . .' "

"There's city pride associated with jaywalking," said Justin Harrington, a senior partner at Bozell. "We view people who don't do it as rubes."

Not so in other American cities like Los Angeles and Milwaukee, where jaywalking laws are strictly enforced and pedestrians often wait to cross with the signal, even when there's no traffic. An NBC news segment broadcast during the Olympics about street-crossing habits in Salt Lake City showed that pedestrians not only wait for the signal, but also wave orange Day-Glo flags provided at each intersection as they cross. (The New York newscaster who delivered the report found this irresistibly funny and in fact could not help smirking during the broadcast.)

Charles Komanoff, founder of Right of Way, a pedestrian rights group, thinks the city has it backward. He says drivers, not pedestrians, are the culprits. In an analysis of police accident reports from 1997, Mr. Komanoff and his group determined that in 71 percent of the cases, drivers were largely or partly to blame. Mr. Komanoff believes that motorists, not jaywalkers, cause the majority of accidents by blocking the box, running lights and plowing into pedestrians at crossings.

Regardless of who or what is exactly to blame, changing the habits of headphone-wearing, cell-phone-gabbing pedestrians is a considerable challenge.

The same instincts that make New Yorkers lively and independent-minded also make them distrust anyone who tries to tell them how or when to cross the street. There is also a deeply ingrained suspicion of the car that makes New Yorkers want to put it in its place by leaping in front of it.

The aggressive mentality of the New York pedestrian evolved over the last century as a way to compete for limited space, particularly with cars. In the period between the world wars, the new profession of traffic engineers started altering the city for the benefit of drivers, widening streets, narrowing sidewalks and converting right-angle curbs to arcs so cars could turn faster.

Auto worship reached an apex in the late 1950's, when Robert Moses introduced highways into the heart of the city, noticeably the Cross Bronx Expressway, gutting neighborhoods and increasing the volume of traffic.

THE turning point arrived in 1961, when the pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs, who lived on Hudson Street, in the heart of the pedestrian-friendly little streets of Greenwich Village, called on New Yorkers to take back the streets as their primary social space rather than allowing them to be the domain of the automobile.

"Part of being a New Yorker is having authority on the street," said Fred Kent, director of the Project for Public Spaces, a Manhattan organization dedicated to creating community spaces. "The street is more yours than theirs."

Ken Greenberg, an urban designer who has worked on several New York projects, feels that New York has been slower than its European counterparts to use pedestrian-friendly design, like changing the phasing of traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to cross and making curbs more angular to slow down traffic.

"The aggressive behavior of New York pedestrians may be a way of compensating for design that doesn't reflect what's going on in terms of use," Mr. Greenberg said. "Changing some of this, rather than coming down on pedestrians, would take away the sense of combat."

Commissioner Weinshall has been working on ways to declare a cease-fire. The Department of Transportation's pedestrian concessions have included widening sidewalks at Times Square, adding midblock crossings at locations like 57th Street West of Fifth Avenue and changing signal times along Queens Boulevard to give pedestrians more time to cross. Still, Ms. Weinshall believes that pedestrians must take some responsibility for their own safety.

"In any large urban setting, people rush through the streets, but New Yorkers are notorious," she said. "When the light turns green, they play chicken. We need to make them understand the risks."

On Columbus Circle, as pedestrians in business suits and stiletto heels, accompanied by dogs and strollers, and sometimes even romantically in pairs, race willy-nilly into traffic, the prospect of an antijaywalking revolution looks dim.

"Maybe it would work in someplace like Japan or Korea, where people are more disciplined," Mr. Panayiotou said. "But not here."




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