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Sidewalk congestion is now a maddening crowd for midtown

Sidewalks in midtown are

Sidewalks in midtown are Credit: Photo by Charlie Eckert

Forget the traffic-choked streets: Now Manhattan sidewalks are being clogged by too much of just about everything.

New Yorkers are used to moving in slow motion when they're on four wheels but now they have to on foot, as well, as the sidewalks are filled with outdoor cafes, food vendors, people handing out flyers, texting-distracted pedestrians, long lines for buses, tourists and, well, people everywhere.

While only 1.6 million people live in Manhattan, the borough absorbs a weekday population of 3.94 million, according to a recent study released in May by the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.

Sidewalk obstructions and masses of people -- all with varying ideas about sidewalk etiquette and the role of personal responsibility not to slow the flow -- can turn major avenues into obstacle courses.

At peak times, 9,624 people an hour pass the Conway store at 450 Seventh Ave., according to recent data collected by The 34th St. Partnership.

"Seventh Avenue is by far the worst," for pedestrian congestion, near the entrance to Penn Station, said Dan Biederman, the Partnership’s president. A whopping 11,952 people per hour pass through the exit on 34th St. at peak times, according to his organization’s June count.

Biederman is particularly peeved by vendors taking up sidewalk space, but also concedes that too-narrow sidewalks, and long lines of passengers waiting to board inter-city buses add to the frustration of residents eager to get out of the madding crowd. Add to those obstacles hand-holding and luggage-toting tourists, human billboards, flyer people, texting-and-calling distracted pedestrians, news stands and, further uptown, overflowing garbage bags.

While the number of news stands has remained static since 2003, (there are 267 now) sidewalk cafes have jumped from 722 to 1,153 in the nine year period, most of them in Manhattan, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.

The density of pedestrians resembles “herds of wildebeests,” said voice teacher Gregory Lamar, 55, who lives in Washington Heights. It’s not just the density that has increased pedestrian stress, observed Lamar, but a “decrease in civility and manners and awareness” to keep the flow of humanity moving smoothly along. Recently, Lamar saw one woman refuse to yield her curb space while another woman who was listening to music and absorbed in texting, plowed into her head on.

“Of course it’s a problem!” Wally Rubin, the district manager of Community Board 5 exclaimed when asked about sidewalk contretemps resulting from the density. “We see a street intrusion policy that needs to be evaluated and the need in certain cases for the sidewalks to be widened,” he added.

Residents kvetch endlessly about the pokey, obstructive herd-like habits of the 50 million tourists who flood NYC each year – sometimes venting directly to the sources of their ire. While walking in midtown recently with eight other students to inspect college graduate programs, “Someone yelled ‘oh - tourists!’ at us,” and not by way of friendly greeting, marveled Kelley Mason, 21, a student from Baltimore, Md.

That man would no doubt score poorly on Dr. Leon James’s “pedestrian aggressiveness syndrome scale” – a set of 15 characteristics developed by the psychology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa that includes muttering or making insulting gestures at other walkers, not yielding, bumping into others, feeling enraged and having thoughts of violence toward other pedestrians.

At least tourists tend to be looking around, unlike the human speed bumps engrossed in texting and cell phone conversations who abdicate their duty not to impede the paths of others.

In a 2006 Department of Transportation study of pedestrians in lower Manhattan, 13.5% were engaged in an alternate activity such as using a cell phone, smoking or eating. While people wearing headphones tended to have faster walking speeds (4.64 feet a second) on average than those with unplugged ears (4.27 feet a second), cell phone users were slightly slower (4.20 feet a second). While the seven-year-old study confirmed that high pedestrian volume yielded lower pedestrian speeds, it did not assess the distractive impact of the PDA devices – which have exploded in popularity since the study – or how users disrupt pedestrian traffic flow.

“I’m totally part of the problem,” admitted Kawohi Aspelund, 31, who lives in Sheepshead Bay but works as a sales associate in Midtown. “Yesterday I was walking down the street walking and texting and realized I was pissing people off. I looked up and saw people making faces at me – but I also saw other people on their phones as well.”

Aspelund said he is in self-imposed pedestrian etiquette recovery. “It’s not their job to veer off and avoid me,” he sighed.

"I walk in the street to avoid pedestrian traffic," like Aspelund, said Michael Popielarz, 20, a theater management intern who lives in the East Village. “It’s easier to walk and avoid cars than dodge people.”

While increased density can increase stress, developing empathy for strangers can help you curb the urge you have to pick them up and toss them out of your way, said Dr. Shamir Khan, a mid-town psychologist. Your perspective on how fast people should move and accommodate others is not the only valid perspective, counseled Khan. Yes, we all share a collective responsibility for polite sidewalk behavior, confirmed Khan. But it helps to remember that many of us are also under “increasing demands” from employers and loved ones while trying to take advantage of limited “service” areas. If you can’t imagine that the oblivious pedestrian obstructing your path may be texting her boss so as not to lose her job, try imagining her “as your mother or someone else you love,” Khan urged.

You can also console yourself with Khan’s prediction that it’s only a matter of time before there is some kind of legislation to curb walking while otherwise engaged. “It’s not just rude, it’s not safe! Not only can you injure yourself, you can injure other people,” he said.

Or you can take solace that frustration you feel is the price you pay for being in one of the most popular places in the world. Our teeming sidewalks prove that Manhattan is a successful “activity center,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center and co-author of the study that showed almost four million people a day. “No one feels good walking on an empty street. Empty streets are a sign of failure,” he said.

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