NY's new traffic jam: Sidewalk gridlock

With 8.5 million residents and almost 60 million visitors expected this year, the situation is made worse by those who text or read newspapers while walking, as well as clueless tourists who stop mid-stride.
With 8.5 million residents and almost 60 million visitors expected this year, the situation is made worse by those who text or read newspapers while walking, as well as clueless tourists who stop mid-stride.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Growing population, tourist numbers behind the congestion, leading also to sidewalk rage

NEW YORK • Many pedestrians are experiencing a growing phenomenon in New York City: sidewalk gridlock.

While crowding is hardly a new problem in the city, the sidewalks that cemented New York's reputation as a world-class walking city have become obstacle courses as more people than ever live and work in the city and tourism surges.

The problem is particularly acute in Manhattan. Transportation officials are taking measures to alleviate the congestion. To help accommodate foot traffic, they are adding more pedestrian plazas around the city, expanding the presence of a streetscape feature first embraced by the Bloomberg administration.

One New Yorker, Ms Ivette Singh, said she walks on the road instead, preferring to dodge yellow cabs and cyclists to navigating sidewalks teeming with commuters, tourists and cart-pushing vendors, all jostling for elbow room.

"I don't mind the walk, it's just the people," Ms Singh, an account coordinator for a television network, said. "Sometimes, they're rude. They're on top of you, no personal space. They're smoking. It's tough."

Foot traffic has slowed to a shuffle on some of the city's most famous corridors. On Fifth Avenue, between 54th and 55th streets, 26,831 pedestrians - enough to fill Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall combined - passed through in three hours on a weekday in May last year, up from 20,639 the year before.

PUSHY PEDESTRIANS

I don't mind the walk, it's just the people. Sometimes, they're rude. They're on top of you, no personal space. They're smoking. It's tough.

MS IVETTE SINGH, an account coordinator for a television network.

PUBLIC PLACES

Sidewalks are the unifying glue of the city. It's the one part of the city everyone has to use.

DR MITCHELL MOSS, director of the Rudin Centre for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University

  • A problem in other US cities too

  • Crowded sidewalks are not just a New York problem.

    They have created bottlenecks and logistical hurdles and have raised safety concerns across the country.

    Since 2013, public works officials in San Francisco have widened two sidewalks in Fisherman's Wharf and the Castro, popular tourist areas with a lot of foot traffic.

    A third project is planned for Second Street, one of the main routes to AT&T Park, the baseball stadium where baseball team the Giants play.

    In Seattle, a busy stretch of East Pike Street in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood that is lined with restaurants, bars and clubs was closed to cars on three Saturday nights last summer to make room for pedestrians.

    The problem was aggravated in some areas by sidewalk clutter such as construction scaffolding, garbage bags, vendors and fixtures like lights, signs, newsstands, benches, planters and recycling bins.

    If there is an epicentre of crowded sidewalks in New York, it is near Penn Station, where pedestrians, food carts and newsstands all vie for space. Only London and Tokyo have sidewalks as congested, said Mr Daniel Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership, which oversees the business district in the area.

    NEW YORK TIMES

While a crowded sidewalk is simply a symptom of a crowded city, it resonates deeply because it affects almost everyone.

Sidewalks are to New York what freeways are to Los Angeles: an essential part of the infrastructure. Sidewalks not only get people from Point A to Point B, but also serve as a shared public space for rich and poor, native and tourist alike.

"Sidewalks are the unifying glue of the city," said Dr Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Centre for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. "It's the one part of the city everyone has to use."

Space on New York's sidewalks is at a premium at a time when the city's population of 8.5 million is higher than ever. Add the record 59.7 million visitors who are expected to descend on the city this year, up from 48.8 million in 2010, and it's a recipe for packed pavements .

In Lower Manhattan, overcrowded sidewalks topped the list of residents' concerns in a survey conducted last year for the local community board.

Veteran pedestrians have tried to adapt. They shoulder their way into bike lanes or walk purposefully on the street alongside cars. The risk: Accountant Michael D'Angelo said that in the past year, he had seen a half-dozen pedestrians walking in the street struck by cyclists.

There are also inattentive walkers - those who text on their phones or read newspapers while moving - and the meandering tourists, who seem oblivious to the ways of the street. They stop mid-stride, step on people's feet or cut off people without warning.

The result? Sidewalk rage.

Ms Virginia Garcia said she had been on the receiving end of such outbursts. "They push you, they hit you and they don't care."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'NY's new traffic jam: Sidewalk gridlock'. Print Edition | Subscribe