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A primal New York contest: feet vs. wheels

December 26, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ In this city where people with fast-moving feet hold their own against the automobile, the mayor has created a ruckus by closing some busy crosswalks for the holidays.

Crowds surging around Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Waldorf-Astoria are being channeled by cops and metal barriers.

``It’s a stupid idea, stopping pedestrians and creating another kind of congestion. It really makes no sense,″ Brian Gaffney said Friday as he squeezed through a crowd spilling into the street at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street on one of the year’s busiest shopping days.

The midtown Manhattan intersection was one of 10 in a 15-block area where police barriers kept people from crossing in front of vehicles turning onto one-way streets.

Gaffney guessed that the anti-gridlock plan, being tested through Jan. 4, ``is motivated by motorist panic, drivers scared of running down pedestrians.″

Not so, said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who called his pedestrian critics ``anti-car″ and ``hysterical.″

``Instead of being cynical critics, they should give the plan a chance to work,″ he said. ``It’s a pilot program. Don’t get so frightened of it.″

Officers working in the test zone rode herd on confused, angry pedestrians.

``Please remain on the sidewalk,″ shouted Officer Lisa Dipsingh, keeping tight control of the horde at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Taking a moment to rest her voice, she said, ``It’s coming along, a bit like cow-herding.″ Then she shouted, ``Onto the sidewalk!″ at a man who took a step sideways. ``Where are you going?″

``Onto the sidewalk,″ he echoed with a smirk, staying clear of the traffic turning smoothly onto Fifth.

Vehicular gridlock was replaced by human gridlock in some spots.

``Just look at how many policemen it’s taking to control this,″ said visitor Rick Elly, an American living in Budapest.

At least a dozen officers blew whistles and sometimes yelled at tightly packed pedestrians. Some people sneaked across behind their backs.

``It’s horrible, catering to people in cars, and creating a bigger pollution and parking problem,″ said Elly, adding that traffic in Budapest is worse.

Some visitors, from the more auto-oriented environs of New Jersey, backed Giuliani.

``People will just go wherever. They have to be controlled,″ said Valerie McCabe of Mendham, N.J., caught in a crowd crossing Fifth Avenue.

Giuliani said it was too early to evaluate the new policy. ``Let’s wait for two or three weeks, maybe four weeks, of experience under all different types of conditions.″

Jim Kunstler, who writes about urban planning, said the mayor’s plan ``tends to degrade the pedestrian character of the street, producing a kind of pedestrian rat maze.″

He said New York remains ``far and away the best pedestrian city in America,″ even if it is ``infested with the automobile.″

Giuliani’s idea ``is not a threat,″ Kunstler said. ``It’s just an extreme remedy, a kind of quack medicine in urban design.″

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