Walk the Walk

What makes New York City streets so vibrant, so interesting and so indefinably New York? Is it the layout of the city? Is it the 24-hour subway system and the 24-hour bagel stores? Is it the people themselves? Various studies in various fields have tried to quantify that special something that makes the streets of New York feel so different from the streets of Tokyo, or Jakarta, or Paris.

A New York Minute
Turns out that the larger a city, the faster its inhabitants walk. And that time-worn trope about the differences between stressed-out New York and laid-back Los Angeles? Looks like science has actually backed that one up: According to psychologist Robert Levine, residents of the Northeast talked faster, walked faster and worked faster than their West Coast counterparts. It seems then that walking is not just an element of urban life, but an essential element of what it means to be a certain sort of city dweller.

You Hound Dog, You
Everone has heard of a “fast woman,” but few know that the phrase found its origin on New York City’s streets. According to historian Clay McShane, the term came into use to describe the women who, in the cultural opinion of 1950s New York, enjoyed speeding around newly-cleared streets a little too much. Big, bright cars with red leather seats. Men in dark suits and dark hats. Women in floral dresses and pearl earrings. Elvis Presley on the radio. Fast cars, fast women and fast-forming gender norms.


So Say the Experts
Opinions on jaywalking here in New York City seem to tie in pretty well with public personalities. “Jaywalking is a very dangerous thing!” said Mayor Giuliani when he was in office. “Pedestrians as well as people who drive automobiles have to respect each other.” Giuliani also supported raising fines for jaywalking, which even some police resisted. What does the current mayor have to say about the pedestrian situation? Mayor Bloomberg concentrates not on the walkers but on the speeding drivers who threaten them. “We’ll put up their names and pictures someplace,” he said. “Maybe we can shame them.” Jane Jacobs wasn’t a mayor, so perhaps she could be a little more brutal with her opinions. “Automobiles,” she wrote, “are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effect of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building.” Don’t sugarcoat it for us, Jane.


So Say the Experts
Take a quiz on cultural stereotypes that hold up under pressure! Match the country or city to its fine for jaywalking:

1) Sweden
2) Singapore
3) Salt Lake City

A) Up to $750, under “Operation Friendly Reminder”
B) Cars must always yield to pedestrians!
C) Up to three months in jail

(Answers: 1B, 2C, 3A)

Jaywalk This Way
Over the course of the 20th century, the car attempted to remake American cities in its image—and it succeeded. But before the car companies could pave over parks for parking lots, they had to vilify the obstacles standing in the way of increased auto dominance: pedestrians. No longer were walkers free to navigate cities as they saw fit. Instead, they were arrested, menaced and labeled “jaywalker.” The term itself (a “jay” was an inexperienced rube, fresh in from the county) was one of the most effective tools in delegitimizing pedestrians while legitimizing cars.