A primal New York contest: feet vs. wheels
Dec. 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.''