Leaving the theater in midtown Manhattan the other evening, I headed toward the Eighth Avenue subway. Stepping absentmindedly into West 50th Street, I came within an inch or two--literally--of my life. An eastbound taxi, careening by at what surely was at least 60 miles an hour, its horn at full blare, its driver swerving this way and that, narrowly missed dispatching me, and surely would have done so had I not been pulled back onto the sidewalk at the last instant.
Ah, you say, yet another tale of pedestrian terror in the Big Apple, another instance of Noo Yawk incivility gone berserk. You're wrong. That unpleasant moment perversely reminded me that New York is in fact a splendid place to walk, indeed far more congenial and hospitable to the walker than, alas, is Washington.
In part this came to mind because I immediately hailed another cab that had been parked nearby when the lunatic Barney Oldfield raced past. As I got in, the first words its driver (who clearly knew a tourist when he saw one) said were, "Please let me apologize to you on behalf of New York City." You may insist that this was a manifestation of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's campaign to make New Yorkers seem more polite than they really are, but it certainly seemed heartfelt and I was happy to accept it as such.
In part, too, it was because I had recently read (and clipped out) a letter to the editor of the New York Times from a gentleman in Albany named Christopher D. Ringwald. "While it may astonish native New Yorkers," he began, "the city's receiving an award for traffic safety would not surprise out-of-towners," and continued:
"Walking in New York City is possible and can even be pleasant because of simple measures [that] have been taken: cars are not allowed to turn right on red, crosswalks are well marked, there are traffic lights at most intersections and drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians are regularly ticketed."
All of which is true, but it misses the larger point: The main reason New York functions so well is that there is a silent social contract among its residents. Motorists in the city may press their every advantage, but they almost always yield to pedestrians at the last moment, even when (as is often the case) pedestrians themselves are in the wrong. By the same token pedestrians, however bustling and rude they may at first glance appear, walk in more or less straight lines, yield to one another as conditions dictate, and only rarely (the Garment District being a major exception) block off the sidewalk by clustering in groups.
Consider by contrast the District of Columbia. I have come to love living here, and find it hard to imagine living in New York (as I did in the early 1960s), but as an inveterate walker who invariably chooses shoes over wheels, I must report that Washington comes close to being Pedestrian Hell. This is not because of the city itself or its topography--the former is in many places scenic and lovely, the latter is comfortable--but because of its drivers.
What Ringwald says of Albany is largely true of Washington: "walking can be hazardous," among other reasons because "police rarely ticket drivers who threaten pedestrians" and "the major goal of traffic policy . . . is to ensure a speedy commute for those traveling by car." In Washington, a pedestrian who jaywalks--even if there isn't a car in view--is more likely to be ticketed than a motorist who bulls through a crowded intersection against a red light, or a tour-bus driver who heaves his lethal weapon through a line of pedestrians crossing the street with "WALK" flashing in their favor.
Right on red may be illegal in New York, but in Washington it is not merely legal but is regarded by motorists as a "right" to plow through an intersection even when pedestrians (who both clearly and legally have the right of way) are in the crosswalk. There is, in fact, a prevailing sense of motorists' entitlements that borders on the pandemic. Not merely do people run red lights with impunity and intimidate pedestrians in intersections, many flaunt an up-yours attitude the essence of which is that all rights accrue to them absolutely: The streets exist solely to serve their needs and desires, and pedestrians had better just get out of their way.
The quintessential Washingtonian anti-pedestrian experience is of course the cavalcade of motorized cops racing through the streets with sirens howling and lights flashing, some tinhorn "dignitary" trailing after them in a stretch limo. Washington cops can be terrific--I had a pleasant encounter with one last week, in fact--but they get power drunk on sirens and lights; they delight in shoving pedestrians aside to deliver the Ambassador of East Trivia on time for her lunch date with the Third Undersecretary of Pointless Affairs.
Of course it's not just a Washington thing, it's an American thing. The exact explanation for it eludes me, but the car culture has gone so berserk and become so deeply entrenched that it is now commonly assumed that people in cars have infinite rights while people on foot have none. This is why, when it comes to going off on a hike, I'll take Manhattan. The Bronx and Staten Island, too.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.