A Tourist's Guide to Walking in New York City
A middle-age man in cowboy boots and a Stetson sauntered with his wife past Radio City Music Hall. He turned to her and drawled, “You know, hon, we done walked six blocks from our hotel and ain’t one person said howdy!” True story. I know so, because I was walking behind them at the time, trying without much success to squeeze past them on that crowded sidewalk. And he wasn’t wrong. New Yorkers do behave differently than people from other places—especially when it comes to getting around on foot.
Most people learn to walk before they’re two years old—and then forget as soon as they arrive in New York. At least, that’s how it seems to those of us who must dodge, drift, and dart down the sidewalks daily as we try not to bump into the millions of tourists who visit each year. We also, in the interest of being good ambassadors for our city, must stifle our scatological outbursts when you step on our toes or cause us to leap into the street to pass you by. So if you want to fit in and avoid dirty looks, do us, and yourself, a favor and follow a few simple rules.
And please don’t take any of this the wrong way. We want you to visit New York, see the shows, eat at the restaurants, support the museums and galleries. Sometimes your smiles and awestruck skyward gazes help us remember the magic of the city that we’re lucky to call home. So go ahead and walk. Walk a lot. But after you’ve spent your money, checked the famous sights off your list, and walked so much you have blisters, do just one more thing: visit us again. But only after you’ve learned the basic rules of how to walk in New York.
Do it two-by-two.
We’ve got great sidewalks, but few of them are wide enough for more than four people abreast. That means when your family walks shoulder-to-shoulder en route to Times Square or Chinatown, pedestrians walking toward you are forced to either step into the street or press themselves against the nearest building to avoid colliding with you. Some of them will decide to just plow through you, and it’s hard to blame them. So keep to your half of the sidewalk, no matter how many are in your group—unless the sidewalk is completely empty.
Don’t stop short.
You might not notice at first, but New York pedestrians walk thisclose to one another, including the people directly ahead of them. We even match strides at times so we can get as near to the person ahead of us without actually stepping on his or her heel. So when it occurs to you that you’re walking in the wrong direction from where you want to go, or you see something you like in a shop window, don’t come to a sudden halt and risk being smashed from behind. Instead, slow down and move gradually to the curb or the shop window, allowing other walkers to proceed apace.
Understand the need for speed.
Einstein measured space and time in terms of a four-dimensional continuum. In Manhattan, we measure time and distance in terms of city blocks. We know that we can walk one north-south block per minute, which means we can get to our next appointment in exactly 10 minutes if we’re 10 blocks away. But we can’t do that if you are sashaying, daydreaming, or trying to text your BFF about the play you saw last night. Pick up the pace, people!
Don’t be wrong about the right of way.
Even New Yorkers sometimes screw this one up. Here’s the idea: You don’t walk into me, I won’t walk into you. That’s as opposed to, “You were in my way so I crashed into you.” Doesn’t work like that. If we all did nothing but get out of the way of other people, there would be pedestrian paralysis. We’d never make it to our respective destinations. Instead, the majority of walkers in NYC realize that as long as you don’t bump into another person, even if they “cut you off,” the world will be a better place and we’ll all get to where we’re going. Eventually.
Don’t corner us.
There’s a lot happening on the street corners of New York—mainly, lots and lots of people coming and going, attempting to cross the avenue in four different directions, all at once, often in a hurry to beat the coming red light. This is without a doubt the worst place for you to spread out your map, to check your texts, or to have a debate about the restaurant you’ll choose tonight. Step to the side, please.
Follow the rule of right.
This is America, right? We drive on the right. We walk on the right. The easiest way to avoid doing the Sidewalk Tango or Crosswalk Can-can with an oncoming stranger? Just go to the right.
It applies to escalators, too.
You walk enough in New York, you will sooner or later end up on an escalator. In Grand Central Terminal. In Rockefeller Center. In the Bowling Green subway station. In Macy’s. The “rule of right” applies here too. Stand to the right so that those in a hurry can walk on the left side. And if you hear someone behind you shout, “Stand to the right, please,” they probably mean you.
Selfies are selfish.
We get it. If it didn’t happen on camera, it didn’t happen. But when you stop to take a picture of yourself—or if you’re kicking it old school and someone else is taking a picture of you—get the heck out of the flow of foot traffic. You’ll get a better picture, and you’re less like to have a bunch of locals frowning at you in the background and giving you the one-finger salute. That’s a photo bomb you won’t be sharing on Facebook.
Be prepared for people to cross on a red.
In New York, we take don’t-walk signals more as a suggestion than a requirement. Hey, we have places to be, and we’re not going to stand around waiting for some stupid light to change when no cars are coming. You, however, don’t need to be that assertive. In fact, you should never walk anywhere in New York that’s not safe. If you don’t feel comfortable crossing against the red, don’t do it. Way too many pedestrians have been killed by cars lately. But remember that there are people on foot behind you, ready to cross, who are much more experienced at this than you are. Let ’em pass!