On Being a Pedestrian from California in Manhattan

California natives need a leap of faith to survive as pedestrians in New York. The first challenge we face is distance. People in Manhattan – normal people just like you and me – might walk a full mile to get from Point A to Point B, where neither Point A nor Point B is on a nature trail, or on a treadmill at the gym, or the spot in the mall where we forgot our car was parked. In fact, Point A might very well be home, and Point B might very well be work, and the A-to-B-to-A-again journey might happen every weekday. Yes, my fellow Californians, I’ve witnessed it myself: New Yorkers walk that far, on purpose.

The next challenge is accepting the change in personal space. In California, invisible bubbles surround us, extending eighteen inches in all directions. It’s understood that we stay out of each other’s bubbles; we’ve written screenplays about violations of our safe zones. But in New York, if it doesn’t bruise you, then it’s not too close. If you sit on a bench, someone might very well sit right next to you. On the subway, two or more people will grab the same handle to steady themselves, their hands possibly touching. On the sidewalk, even a slight hesitation in your gait could trigger multi-person collisions; that’s how closely and precisely New Yorkers navigate through crowds of themselves. If you’re going to be visiting Manhattan for the first time, you can simulate the experience before your trip begins: just go to your nearest shopping mall and spend six hours walking the wrong way on the escalators.

The final challenge is understanding the balance of power between cars and pedestrians. In California, cars win. In fact, they win with a vengeance. They’re speeding metal blocks of death that won’t slow down even after they mow down you and your family. This is actually codified in the California Vehicle Code:

21949. (a) The Legislature hereby finds and declares that it is the policy of the State of California that vehicle travel shall supersede pedestrian travel, whether by foot, wheelchair, walker, or stroller. The Legislature hereby further finds and declares that any such vehicle shall divert, impede, pummel, squash, or splay pedestrians as necessary for said vehicle to reach said vehicle’s destination with comfort and convenience.

OK, maybe that last part is an exaggeration. But truthfully, it’s no surprise that California pedestrians follow the rules: we wait when we see the red hand, we go when the little person appears, and we quicken our pace when he turns back into the blinking red hand. Jaywalking has been reported in our great state, but only in hit-and-run newspaper articles where the subtext screams loud and clear that it was the pedestrian’s fault for veering out of the crosswalk. This is why we always drive rather than walk in California. It’s no fun playing on the losing side of a game.

In New York, it’s no contest: pedestrians win. The red hand ranks second-to- last in the Signs That We Respect category, barely ahead of mattress tags. Here are the rules, as far as I can tell:

  • Walk symbol: Walk. Feel free to kick or slap any vehicle within reaching distance.
  • Blinking don’t-walk symbol (with green light): Walk. Begin crossing the street if needed.
  • Blinking don’t-walk symbol (with yellow light): Keep walking. Pick up the pace if you’re still half a block or more away from the crosswalk and intend to make the light.
  • Don’t walk symbol (with fresh opposing green light): Run. Increase speed if cars honk.
  • Don’t walk symbol (with stale opposing green light): This is soon to become a walk symbol, so go ahead and walk now. Look or listen briefly for oncoming traffic unless everyone around you is already walking.

Note: I mentioned that cars honk their horns. This happens a lot in Manhattan. I recommend wearing an iPod. Most New York pedestrians wear iPods to eliminate the annoying sound of drivers attempting to warn them of approaching danger.

If you do survive your stay in New York, you’ll have a new respect for the power of walking. You’ll have visions of waking up half an hour early everyday and strolling to the coffee shop down the street. You’ll think about investing in a new pair of walking shoes. Then you’ll remember that the coffee shop is two exits down the freeway, and that California doesn’t have any sidewalks. But you can still buy the new shoes.