Pedestrian Anxiety on NYC's Summer Streets

This past Saturday's postcard-perfect weather provided just the right conditions for a leisurely stroll up Park Avenue, and the ability to wander up lanes usually designated for cars but closed for a few morning hours as part of NYC's Summer Streets event gave me a thrill. As I walked from 4th St. to 51st St, via Lafayette and then 4th Avenue, past Union Square and up Park Avenue South, up through Park Avenue proper, and circumambulating (thanks, Herman Melville, for knowledge of that word) Grand Central Terminal, I reveled in discovering unknown stores to me and Manhattan architecture from a whole new point of view.

If only I didn't think I was going to end up face down on the street as a result of an accident with a cyclist. In an event that promoted itself with the possibilities to "Play. Run. Walk. Bike. Breathe," the majority chose to "Bike," and so I found myself for an hour or so feeling like I had wandered into the final Paris stretches of the Tour de France. The cyclists, to their credit, seemed skilled enough to not run over me, and indeed, I felt sorry for them having to steer around a distracted flâneuse who couldn't walk in a straight line. Adding to the walkers and cyclists, the in-line skaters, runners, and skateboarders also did their best to negotiate the non-motorized traffic.

I would have had more fun, I think, if I didn't feel like I needed to look over my shoulder every minute just to be sure I wasn't going to get slammed by a person on two wheels. My ongoing anxiety prompted thoughts about the differing needs and desires of walkers and cyclists. As a walker, well, make that flâneuse (she who strolls), I'm most interested in savoring sights of the visual landscape - the buildings along the street, the store windows, and the people around me, and thinking about what I see. I like to do this slowly. I'm not interested so much in my pulse, heart rate, or physical conditioning, although walking five miles probably helped on that score.

Riding a bike doesn't preclude these enjoyments at all, but in addition, for the cyclist, there's the rush of speed and the simple fact that biking provides a speedy freedom from the lowly pedestrianism inherent in walking. As a once-avid cyclist myself, I always loved the rush, the speed, the experience of seeing familiar sights as I whooshed by them, and the ability to arrive at a destination faster than anyone else. Walking up Park Avenue on Saturday, I wished I had a bike myself.

Anticipating the city's Summer Streets, I must have harbored a fantasy of like-minded walkers sauntering up these newly liberated avenues, an army of anarchist pedestrians proudly indifferent of the notion of right of way. For the Saturdays remaining in Summer Streets (August 16 and 23), however, I think I'll find another street to wander and to stick to the usual sidewalk. If I want to walk once again down the center lane of a broad avenue, I'll just wait for an opportunity to march in a parade.

Image: Summer Streets, Park Avenue. Saturday, August 9, 2008 by Walking Off the Big Apple. More images from the event at Flickr WOTBA.

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