SOS! Save Our Sidewalks: Sanity Overrun by Sidewalk Obstacles (SOSO)?
Hon. Christopher P. Lee
It was my uneasy feeling that an Orwellian overthrow of the very ground under our feet was escalating with the inexorable growth of initially minuscule sidewalk obstacles. In the decades that have elapsed, my dread has matured along with my bald spot and the sidewalks which made New York what it was is now overrun by so many small to humongous objects that the “walk” in “sidewalk” is no longer meaningful. NYCers can’t “walk the walk” like they used (and that’s even if they’re not old and hunched). The “ballet of the good city sidewalk” sociologist Jane Jacobs refers to (Death and Life of Great American Cities) is indeed a thing of the past. Should it— can it—be resuscitated? Nowadays we (urban New Yorkers) can’t get anywhere without treading on sidewalks. Sidewalks begin as soon as we step outside of our apartments and homes (suburbs and countryside excluded from this article), and lead to our destination or the means to get to our destination (cab, car, public transit, bike). Sidewalks probably underlie most of society’s notable achievements except for those accomplished at home or by accident. The sidewalk is literally the first step that begins the path to a monumental discovery or event. The importance of sidewalks can and often is undervalued and underwhelming, but should never be underestimated.
Therein lies the modern sidewalk dilemma. The problem is that this very important sidewalk is unappreciated, being overrun and subverted to multiple insidious mixed uses incompatible with the free open sidewalk that a free and open democratic society literally rests upon. In a nutshell, we can’t just blithely stroll down a sidewalk anymore. For the purposes of this intellectual exercise we will use the average Manhattan sidewalk, not because it happens my experience with sidewalks is mostly in Manhattan, but because anything that could be encountered on a sidewalk anywhere will have most likely been encountered on a Manhattan sidewalk as well.
Let’s look at this issue backwards. What is preventing the free and steady flow of law-abiding tax-paying deity or non-deity fearing pedestrians from the unfettered enjoyment of their sidewalks? Why can’t the average citizen just walk down the sidewalk anymore, assuming with the passing of Justice Scalia that strict Point-Counterpoint is an editorial recently, the New York Times con-feature that discusses both sides of an firmed an ongoing feeling I has been interpretation of the Constitution is no longer so strict that walking down modern sidewalks cannot be construed as a fair extrapolation of what the Founding Fathers intended to fall under a Fourth Amendment right? The obstacles are many and I will try to explicate the pros and cons of each. Put on some comfortable shoes—this will be a long and hazard filled traipse.
One category of sidewalk obstructionists may be dubbed “people.” On an average commercial street (less likely on a residential street, and less likely in the outer boroughs or away from downtown areas), vendors are among the worst offenders in blocking sidewalk access and creating other sidewalk nuisances. Very often laws or ordinances may be violated. Food vendors leave behind much garbage and assorted detritus, in addition to the odors, sidewalk blocking queues and crowds lingering to consume the food in the vicinity of the vendor. No doubt the food is usually tasty and quells a hunger, fairly priced, and convenient.
If, however, you should get sick from the food, you’d have a tough time proving purchase with that vendor as no receipts are ordinarily given and often they change venues. In NYC the permits/licenses are intended to be temporary to give the less well-off an opportunity to start small and grow, and then earn enough to open up a brick and mortar business. The intent of these licenses has been subverted as many vendors (or those who buy up licenses to sell to other new vendors) continue their “temporary” vending for quite many years beyond the intended period. Apparently, this industry is knowledgeable and their lawyers know the bureaucracy well enough to maintain the status quo. Even an ordinary ticket is rarely issued because the vendors know the law better than Precinct Captains and Community Board leaders who have met with failure when trying. So, sidewalkers must live with sellers who sit on beach chairs near tables of their wares, and park their supply vans long hours behind or near those tables. [pic] On the other hand, many pedestrians like to buy shades for $3, faux Polos for $5 or a DVD for the new movie not even in theaters yet for $7. Chances are the buyers are not residents in the area of the vendors.*
Another subset of “people” sidewalk blockers would be the very unfortunate homeless. This sad group presents the sidewalker with a truly conflicted stance. On the one hand, these folks may be sympathetic people but on the other hand, they may be unsightly, malodorous and on occasion, aggressive. They have no lobbyists, no lawyers advocating for their right to live in cardboard mansions and no money or food. Yet, uncharitable as it may be, we may want them off the sidewalks and in shelters. Efforts by law enforcement, welfare agencies, and poverty lawyers have not really solved the myriad of associated problems (e.g., violence in shelters). Where the homeless are generally harmless, motion device users can be harmful. These may be scooter riders, skateboarders, skaters, hoverboarders, rascal riders, wheelchair users, bicyclists and baby carriage pushers. Any time a vehicle or user comes in contact with an unarmed defenseless pedestrian, especially when blindsided, a bruise or more likely much worse will result. Bicyclists, skaters, scooters and skateboarders move at a fair rate of speed, even on sidewalks; these riders will emerge the winner in any sort of collision with a sidewalker. Not to mention, bicycles are not supposed to be ridden on sidewalks—even non-commercial bikes. Of course, these devices give their riders much pleasure, even as they give others bruises. There is a time and place for them; there is no time that the place can be the sidewalk. There are bicycle paths in most streets and parks exist for skaters, skateboarders and hoverboarders. While there might be a tendency for the oft-victimized older generation to blame the youngsters, it would be unbalanced not to point out that older bicyclists and parents are equally blameworthy...maybe even more so as they should know better and are poor role models.
This next group may be small but there are many squeaky wheels among them and they do get greased. Wheelchair users and rascal riders are not in their devices by choice, and the users’ conditions require these devices. I am not unfamiliar with the laws relating to disability (see bio in March/April issue). The gripe here is not so much that these devices take up sidewalk real estate, but that they do so for more than the appropriate length of time. If a wheelchair rolls out of the one accessible entry way, that is fine, but if it should simply stop there, blocking ingress or egress for an inordinate time such as for a chat with someone, or cellphone use then that would be plainly rude. The same obstructive behavior can occur in the middle of the sidewalk. Riders of rascals sometimes like to rev up their engines and scoot in between pedestrians at a speed that could hurt most anyone except a soccer player with shinguards. These sidewalk hazards don’t occur often and minimal space is obstructed--still sidewalk etiquette has not yet been banned and remains applicable to all.
Baby carriages and strollers are another matter. These kid transporters tend to travel in packs and not in a line but in a row across. The parents/nannies are often oblivious and too busy chatting, and moving very slowly or even stopping. While better than kids running loose all around sidewalks, carriages offer no options for the sidewalkers; you must yield when they’re coming head-on. The problem is worse when you’re behind the strollers; there is no hope of passing right or left, like being behind a garbage truck on a narrow Manhattan one-way street with the usual row of double parked cars and you’re at the beginning of the block! These obstacles are fairly common but very brief.
Slow walkers are still another complex matter. Walkers can be slow and obstructionist because of many reasons, e.g. disability, sightseeing, cellphone use or being lost. Disability is a valid reason and even if a group, the sidewalker just must go around the disabled. That there is this unavoidable obstacle highlights the truisms that “that’s life” and “life is not perfect.” Sightseers are on a lower plane but another consequence of living in a sightseeable place. That’s enough of c’est la vie. Cellphone users and those lost should step aside and let sidewalkers pass; common courtesy. Stop in a vestibule and gab, duck into a foyer and get directions on the cellphone GPS— just get out of the way. Oh, yes, there are some who walk slowly for no particular reason—they just do.
Fortunately, these folks don’t congregate in large groups so they can be passed. Cellphone users are legion and move en masse; if caught in such a morass you move at their speed, fast or slow. The lost sometimes make sudden stops and reverse course 180 degrees when they realize they are walking in the wrong direction—that’s what makes them as dangerous as a bus driver slamming the door in your face an inch out of the bus stop. Joggers are a short-term obstacle, but they can be disconcerting. They appear out of nowhere and cannot hear your yelps of surprise, and if coming head on, you never know whether to go right or left to avoid a collision. Dog walkers [see pic] can literally take up the entire sidewalk—if not with dogs, with the even more dangerous leashes. The only solution is the other side of the street or go in the street and face the traffic. Queues are mostly orderly and kept in a confined area, but not always. Complaining to the establishment requiring a queue is usually useless; just squeeze on by in the street. Similarly solution-less is dealing with a smoking bar crowd; the sidewalk outside a bar is a no walk zone and no one can do much about it (unless you like bar fights over when and where one should smoke).
For the “people” category, I’d like to end on a high note. These final obstructionists are not frequently encountered and if they are, it would at a certain location. First, there are the leafleters, those individuals who hand out advertisements, flyers, etc. usually near where the advertiser is located. Harmless enough unless your 10 year old is handed a flyer for Ms. Bazonga with her basketball-sized bosom and Kardashian booty as you walk through Times Square (or Mr. Yard Long as you navigate Christopher Street). Then, there are protesters whose numbers can be significant and their actions potentially violent. It might be a group at a political rally. Lastly, there could be street performers or celebrity characters like Mickey Mouse or Wonder Woman. Very recently, the City agreed that they should be penned in a certain designated area, but my personal inspection showed that was not followed and not enforced, since no one seemed to have complained.
People aren’t the only things impeding sidewalkers. Even when not violations, more permanent obstacles can block people from using the sidewalk. Construction is obvious; the detours visited on innocent sidewalkers is long, circuitous, dusty, bumpy, narrow, dark, smelly and generally a nuisance. The construction detours are only appreciated in a rainstorm, and serve as de-facto urinals for those uninhibited types.
Stores display their wares on tables and other unsightly stands that infringe on walking space, and these come out every day and remain all day. Outdoor cafes are enjoyed by many, but they nonetheless block walking space. It is my guess if measurements were taken, they’d very often exceed space limitation regulations. If storeowners are lazy, snow can remain unshoveled for an illegal time. Vending machines block corners where pedestrian traffic congregates. News-stands are handy but take up space often right by subway or bus stops where there is increased pedestrian flow. No doubt the obstacles mentioned have some positive aspects and many are necessary. Bicycles help the environment. Delivery people serve a useful purpose. Food vendors are convenient. Other items sold by street vendors tend to be less expensive although they might be counterfeit; still, there are those would do buy them.
This, of course, takes tax money away from the city and sales away from brick and mortar stores which is a bad thing. Skaters, skateboarders, hoverboarders, et al do enjoy their sport. Baby strollers, rascals, wheelchairs and other assistive contraptions are necessities and are part of the cost of living in an urban setting. The homeless and celebrity costumed characters are also part of the landscape. Queues, smoking bar crowds, joggers, tourists and cell users will always be present and controlling them in some small way is the most that can be hoped for.
Cafes and constructions are regulated but the forces favoring and the forces against seem equally matched so no progress can be made toward changing the status quo. If you don’t think there is any change needed, do nothing and continue blocking the sidewalk; if you think otherwise, consider signing up with SSS—Stop Sidewalk Shrinkage. We plan to block the sidewalks in a mass protest and pass out SSS propaganda leaflets. We will take back what is and always has been rightfully ours. We will let our feet do the talking!