When a car hit John Longo as he crossed Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in December 2013, he was tossed skyward, high and far enough that he had time to contemplate his flight. “I remember thinking, I’ve been in the air too long,” says Longo, whose 230-pound, 47-year-old body landed 20 feet from where it started. He does not remember hitting the asphalt (he landed on his head), but he recalls stumbling to a slender median dividing Atlantic and saying out loud, to no one in particular, “Please let me live, please let me live.” He was bleeding from the back of his head, but he felt little pain, only a numbness in his arm, which was the first clue, paramedics eventually told him, that he probably had spinal damage.
For years, Longo had crossed Atlantic at that spot as many as six times a day — it was the fastest way to get from Clinton Hill, where he lives, to Prospect Heights, where he owns a restaurant called Dean Street. A former high-school linebacker and an entrepreneur, Longo was not a timid man. But he had always been apprehensive about the intersection, a sprawling space where three avenues meet at awkward angles: Atlantic, Washington and Underhill, which he was walking along the evening he was hit. A walk signal gave Longo 32 seconds to cross six lanes of traffic on Atlantic (three running east, three running west), which never felt to him, or just about anyone else who walks there, like enough time. Even still, when he tells the story of the accident, which happened on a rainy night, he partly blames himself for a lapse in his usual vigilance. He says he had reached the median, which is halfway across, “but I wasn’t looking over my right shoulder, and I stepped off.” Longo had the walk signal and the legal right of way, but that was no consolation when, a moment after he stepped into the street, a Lexus making a quick left from Washington Avenue slammed into him. At the hospital, he learned that he had broken three vertebrae in his neck. Nearly a year and a half later, he is almost fully recovered, with the exception of his left arm, which remains numb.
Walking in New York is one of the great empowering privileges of living here — without money, gear or skill, a New Yorker can still get somewhere, autonomous and unencumbered. But along with that freedom comes inevitable risk. Longo was one of around 12,000 New York City pedestrians who were injured in traffic accidents in 2013, a statistic that has stayed fairly constant over the last five years. In 2014, the first year in which Mayor Bill de Blasio implemented Vision Zero, a plan to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero, 138 pedestrians died in traffic accidents. That was down from a five-year high of 182 deaths in 2013.
In pursuing Vision Zero, New York is embracing a relatively new approach to cities, one with a focus on walkers over drivers. Most city planners now see the era of the car’s urban supremacy as a brief, misguided phase in city culture. Rather than competing with suburbs, cities are capitalizing on their own traditional strengths, recognizing pedestrians as arguably their most economically invigorating (not to mention energy-efficient) form of traffic. In New York, the city’s Department of Transportation has been re-examining and redesigning hundreds of intersections like the one where Longo was struck, trying to find the best answers to questions that went unasked for decades: What do pedestrians want? What’s the best way to protect them? And where do they want to go?
For much of the 20th century, when the engineers running urban transit authorities thought about traffic, they thought less about the pedestrian experience and more about saving money, by saving time, by speeding movement, by enabling cars. They analyzed traffic flow, the backup of cars, stoplight times and right- and left-hand turns, all in an effort to keep vehicles moving freely and quickly through the city. They ran the data through a program that would spit out a rating (A to F) for the “level of service.” An A meant that a street was congestion-free, which gave cars the potential to speed; an F meant that it was too congested to be functional. The grade considered ideal for most streets in New York was a C.
The value of speed, for car commuters, was an easy equation for engineers. “The assumption is that all travel time is a waste of time,” says Zhan Guo, a professor of urban planning and transportation at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “But that rationale doesn’t apply to pedestrians.” The worth of the pedestrian experience, so pokey, so subjective, was scarcely considered, partly because it was hard to quantify.
Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy organization, recalls that as recently as the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, he and his colleagues regularly heard top Transportation Department officials make references to “pedestrian interference.” “They saw pedestrians as a nuisance,” he says, “something that had to be dealt with.” No policy better reflected the administration’s regard for pedestrians than the barriers that Giuliani’s police force erected throughout Midtown in 1998 to rein in jaywalkers. The blockades were cumbersome, ugly and pre-emptively punitive. As irritating as they were, or perhaps because they were irritating, pedestrians frequently made a point of finding their way around them.
Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who appointed the innovative Janette Sadik-Khan as his transportation commissioner in 2007, the city’s attitude toward pedestrians changed significantly. Instead of reining in walkers, the city started catering to their needs.
Progressive urban planners — the kind Sadik-Khan sought out — look across cities and try to predict pedestrian desire. Desire manifests itself as a straight, logical path, what is known as the “desire line.” Those lines dash all over the city, creating an imaginary map laid over the real one. Usually, they represent the quickest, easiest connection from one point to another, the path that pedestrians — perhaps especially New York pedestrians — will follow, regardless of markings or traffic lights.
This past winter was ideal for studying pedestrian intent. The places where snow was trampled to slush reflected the will of those who walk. At the south side of Atlantic and Washington Avenues, for example, employees of the Transportation Department noticed the utter absence of snow at the edge of a small triangular patch of grass that divides the right-turn lane of Washington Avenue from its other lanes. One afternoon in March, as Ryan Russo, a deputy commissioner at the agency, stood at that triangle explaining the intersection’s problems to me, he paused to point out a man who stepped into the street and cut across Washington Avenue’s right-turn lane to reach the triangle, rather than veering right along the sidewalk and then veering left to reach a crosswalk that would take him across Atlantic.
“Technically, he should stay on the sidewalk,” Russo said. Not that Russo judged the man; he understood. The triangle was goofy. Walking all the way around it was inefficient. That tiny patch of grass was too small for a pedestrian who wanted to continue heading in a straight line up Washington. Having crossed onto the triangle, the man was now quickly walking north in the street that ran alongside it, millimeters from the cars whizzing past.
Russo has respect for walkers and their desire lines. He wishes that the path they wanted was always the safest one, but what can you do? You cannot fight desire. Standing by that grassy triangle, we turned to look at the corner of Washington and Underhill and watched as three elderly people, leaning on one another, one of them limping, defied two crisp white crosswalks forming a right angle, instead making a more direct, but more dangerous, diagonal line across all six lanes of Atlantic Avenue to reach a small park.
“The old design paradigm was, ‘Let’s just make the pedestrians do it — just have them walk on the sidewalk, because it’s safer,’ ” Russo said. “But then they don’t do it.” New thinking about the placement of crosswalks in New York reflects a kind of détente between city planners and city walkers: Better to mark clearly some new crosswalks than fight a losing battle to change New Yorkers’ view of their relationship to the streets — territorial, headstrong, entitled, efficient. (The approach is increasingly in favor outside New York as well.)
Russo, who started at the department in the first Bloomberg administration, has been there long enough to know how much of an internal cultural shift was required before the various units grew comfortable with the idea of deferring to pedestrian desire lines. “It’s not an easy thing to do, because once we’re saying you can cross here, we own it,” Russo said. “And if someone gets hit, it’s our responsibility, it’s our liability. It’s easier not to do it.”
But a crosswalk in a less safe location is probably more protective than one that walkers ignore altogether in favor of their own unmarked path. “The crosswalk makes it clear that the pedestrian has the right of way,” Russo said. “And a turning vehicle encountering a pedestrian not only has to exhibit due care to avoid injuring the pedestrian, they have to stop and let the pedestrian complete the crossing.” The car, not the pedestrian, is interfering in the space.
When we walk on the sidewalk, we follow a fluid, mutually understood choreography, unknowingly angling a shoulder here, dipping a foot off the curb there, avoiding eye contact as we maneuver through the hordes between us and our next destination. In the street, by contrast, there is a surprising amount of eye contact between pedestrians and drivers. Sometimes the driver gives that benevolent, royal flutter of the hand — Go ahead, pedestrian, I grant you the right. But as often as not, that gaze is more complicated, imbued with subtle indications of territorialism or outright hostility.
That day at the Brooklyn intersection with Russo, I walked several times through a long crosswalk stretching from Underhill to Washington. On one trip, I was about halfway to my destination when a white van tried to make a right-hand turn onto Washington, stopping only inches from me. I could feel the driver’s impatience in the proximity of the van; I could see it in the face of the man on the passenger side. He was staring me down, irritated. I stared back, not changing my gait, glaring, as if I, with my bristling body language, could take on his 5,000-pound metal exoskeleton. There is something distinctly New York about the combination of bravado and wariness that the city’s pedestrians carry with them — it is as if the way New Yorkers walk has influenced who we are, rather than the other way around.
“In a lot of other cities, pedestrians are people who think of themselves as drivers who happen to be walking,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia who studies the rise of the car in urban areas. “And therefore, they’re considerate of the concerns of the driver. But most people in New York think of themselves as pedestrians and are not so sympathetic to the driver’s perspective.”
Studies bear out the distinctiveness of the New York pedestrian. Last year, research conducted by Diniece Peters, a project manager at the Transportation Department, analyzed what is known as pedestrian reaction time, the amount of time it takes for a pedestrian to step off the curb and start moving once a walk signal has flashed. When cities determine crosswalk times, national guidelines recommend that they build in three seconds for people to leave the curb. But Peters, who studied crosswalks in only New York, found that that was six seconds too many — she found reaction times of negative three seconds. New Yorkers, whether they waited patiently on the sidewalk or had already maneuvered their way into the crosswalk, were moving before the walk signal even flashed; they looked instead at the traffic light and charged out as soon as it turned in their favor (which is usually moments before the walk signal flashes).
Peters, who presented her findings this year at a national conference, had a hard time persuading the audience, composed of transportation professionals from cities around the country, about the validity of her findings. “They were incredulous,” Russo said. “They were like, ‘There’s no such thing as a negative reaction time!’ ” Another study, conducted by Sam Schwartz Engineering, looked at a sample of 52,000 street crossings by pedestrians in Times Square. It found that 42 percent of the people there disregarded the “don’t walk” sign altogether.
If walking New Yorkers often ignore traffic laws, that may be because they sometimes know better than to follow them. Sightlines can be clearer in the middle of the street. And at intersections with traffic lights, according to the Transportation Department, a majority of the pedestrians who were killed or severely injured were crossing with the signal. “Every New Yorker has the experience of being in a crosswalk and being bullied,” says Paul Steely White, the pedestrian advocate. “And if the crosswalk is meaningless, then you’re going to take your space where you can grab it. You’re going to cross where it’s convenient, and not where it’s necessarily lawful.”