Saturday, September 01, 2007

Simple Rules for Jaywalking in Manhattan

This week, New York City launched a new tourism campaign called Just Ask the Locals. The campaign is devoted to making tourists feel in-the-know about the city. The program provides them with helpful tips and encourages visitors to, as you might have guessed, ask local New Yorkers if they need help.

Though the thought of a Bermuda-shorts-wearing tourist asking Johnny New York for directions sounds at once dangerous and amusing, I think the campaign is a winner. I've found the average New Yorker to be shockingly friendly, bordering on chatty. A New Yorker's friendliness is borne of necessity: We're all in this together, living right on top of one another — we might as well make it livable.

In the spirit of Just Ask a Local, I thought I'd provide visitors to Gotham with some simple guidance that will help them navigate the city and avoid calamity. I'm going to help you jaywalk.

Jaywalking is ubiquitous in New York City, especially Manhattan. However, crossing at the crosswalk in the face of a DON'T WALK sign is not due some lawless impulse lurking deep in the hearts of all New Yorkers, it's due to the layout of the city.

In Manhattan, the roads running roughly north/south (or uptown/downtown) are avenues. At Central Park, Manhattan Island is 15 avenues wide. Generally, these are 4 lane boulevards, sometimes with a median. Crossing 15 avenues on foot would mean walking nearly 3 miles.

Conversely, streets in Manhattan run roughly east/west. There are almost 300 streets from the southern tip of Manhattan to its northern end. (Although highest numerical street in Manhattan is 220th Street, 1st Street is not even close to the bottom of the island.) Most streets in Manhattan are one-way, one-lane affairs. Crossing 15 streets translates into walking a little over a half mile.

So let's say you're a New Yorker walking south down 10th Avenue between 46th and 45th. It took you a little over a minute to traverse this block, and now you're facing an illuminated DON'T WALK sign, even though you can clearly see there are no cars coming down this one-way, one-lane, 30-foot-wide street. Like everyone else, you're going to jaywalk. Here's how you're going to do it.

Sauntering's Simple Rules for Jaywalking in Manhattan

  1. At an intersection, if you can cross the street at a casual pace, you may jaywalk.

    This is really the only rule. If you are able to casually cross the street, walk signal or no, you may do so. Naturally, the rule has a number of caveats:

    • So you want to jaywalk across an avenue or a through street.
      Manhattan jaywalking is an art developed for the one-way, one-lane streets, not the broad avenues. However, the same rules apply. If you can see clearly and walk casually across multiple lanes of traffic, feel free. If you run, we will secretly believe that you have robbed a store.

    • So you want to jaywalk with your infant, your luggage, or your dog.
      You still may jaywalk while encumbered with cumbersome, precious, or cumbersome & precious cargo, but please do so only when you can still obey the casual pace rule. Watching a person hurriedly jaywalk with a stroller makes even the most thick-skinned New Yorker wince.
      • Note: You will occasionally see people in this category engage in Principled Non-Jaywalking. These are the conscientious objectors of the New York City streets. You look at them and you know that they know the deal, yet they choose not to jaywalk. Maybe they're teaching a child to obey the traffic signals (a useful skill elsewhere in the world, if not in Manhattan) or maybe they're a nanny, eager to appear concerned with their charge's welfare, should a friend of the family be about.

    • So you want to jaywalk in the presence of other tourists or the elderly.
      Jaywalking in Times Square or near Rockefeller Center means jaywalking in the presence of people who have never been exposed to Manhattanite jaywalking. They will follow you into the intersection, oblivious to the signals and the traffic. Unawares, they will take terrible risks and tempt death. Look out for them a little bit.
      • Note: When walking in one of these touristy areas, you will be able to discern local New Yorkers from the rest of the throng because locals will walk in the gutter/parking lane.

        Tourists walk umpteen abreast, choking foot traffic on even the broadest sidewalks. Staying near the gutter guarantees locals that their pace will not be impaired by the skyward-looking mob.

      One of the joys of New York is that the elderly live among the rest of society, not sequestered away in their suburban homes or care centers. Yet, one of these senior Gothamites might follow your example without your locomotive ability, jaywalking dangerously. Please keep an eye out for them.
What does the NYPD think about jaywalking? In 1998, then mayor Rudy Guliani announced a crackdown on jaywalking. A year and a half later, the New York Times reported that a "spokesman for the Police Department wavered between saying the anti-jaywalking initiative was over and that there never was an anti-jaywalking initiative."

So there, New York visitor. Jaywalk to your heart's content, but please jaywalk correctly.


Anonymous said...


RaquiGirl said...

I might also add to the "casual pace" rule the extra information for west coasters that cars WILL NOT stop for them and allow them continue a casual pace if they are jaywalking in NYC.

You might think this would be understood, but on the west coast, no matter the signage indicating right of way, cars are required by law to stop for pedestrians who step into the street (crazy, I know!!). I believe that many tourists to NYC (or even Philly) from the west coast believe that if they step onto the street, cars will slow or stop to allow them to casually walk along as they do at home.

I have had LOCAL friends who have been hit by oncoming vehicles (subsequently bouncing off the hoods and onto the street while the cars - mostly cabs - sped off) because they were not paying attention.

Shortly after I moved to Oregon, I took a walk in my neighborhood in Portland. As I stepped off the curb to get a better look at the oncoming traffic, a vehicle stopped at the intersection (which had no stop sign or light). My first thought was that it was a tourist looking for directions, so as the driver watched me from the open window, I shouted that I didn't know the neighborhood so I couldn't give him directions, at which point he told me that he was waiting for me to cross (I was really confused). The west coast is soooo different that what seems to be common sense in your NYC jaywalking guidelines, is not necessarily so. LOL

Love it!

Unknown said...

I quoted your article in my blog ( last year, and just discovered that it was also referenced in a recent Village Voice article too! Thanks for your expertise.

Anonymous said...

Well done! I'm a NYC'er, and I visited San Diego once. It was quite the culture shock to see how they treated jay-walking.

It seems that people don't jay-walk in San Diego. You can be at a beautifully flat intersection, with clear visibility for miles in all four directions and people will patiently wait for the walk signal.

I was mildly offended at this, and found myself stepping-up my jay-walking. Your point about the elderly and tourists is well taken. I found that people definitely follow the herd and that if you start crossing against the light, people will come with you. But in San Diego, when they realized they were crossing against the light, they would TURN AROUND! Even if they were already halfway across the street. It was hilarious.

Although, I later learned that they may have good reasons to be cautious. The above-ground trains out there are DEATHLY QUIET, and they don't run on tracks per-se, but grooves embedded in flat pavement, so you really have to pay attention if you are in the path of a train.

Scroatlump said...

Yeah, haha jaywalking is definitely legal in Manhattan. I jaywalk in front of traffic cops on my way to work everyday and they don't blink an eye.

Jason said...

I think there's really only one rule to keep in mind about jaywalking: don't bother with the traffic lights (both pedestrian and car), just look at the cars. If there are no cars coming, walk. If a car is approaching slowly enough that I can beat it, walk. If I'm trying to cross Park Avenue and there is a a single car going down the middle lane, I'll step into the street, wait for the car to pass, and move on.

Safe jaywalking is really just about paying attention.

Concerned Citizen said...

I want to call attention to an uncalled for form of jaywalking, and that is when the light has changed from walk to don't walk, but people continue crossing in mad waves tagging onto the backs of people already in the crosswalk in order to stretch the light for as long as possible. A few people in the first second or so after red can get away with this, provided that they demonstrate haste by speedwalking or running to show respect for impatiently waiting drivers. But every new person who jumps into the intersection after this keeps the angry, revving, boiling cars at a green light they can't pass through, increasing unnecessary honking, road rage, and the deadly pressures inside people's skulls that lead them to recklessness, accidents, and uncontrolled violence against their fellow New Yorkers. Let us all agree that NYC drivers are dangerously prone to frustration and anger, and like the rest of us, are proud risk-takers. As pedestrians, let's all do our part to take care of them, keeping them calm and sane, by respecting the changing light and waiting our turn. And if you absolutely must cross in front of a car who is looking at green, at least nod a thank you to the driver, who has kindly opted not to run you down.

Of course, if there are no cars at said light, regular jaywalking rules apply ;)

Anonymous said...

When I first moved to The City, I not only took my cues from the locals, but also from the police themselves. The first time I followed a police officer casually jaywalking across 46th at Park Ave., my mind was made up.

I for one appreciate the leeway to get where I'm going as quickly as possible, when it's safe to do so.

Anonymous said...

When I first moved to The City, I too did as the locals did, and crossed when they did. I was thoroughly convinced, however, when I began jaywalking right behind the cops. If it's legal enough for the police, it's legal enough for me, right? :)

Anonymous said...

I live in San Diego and I think the main reason that there is very little jaywalking is the fact that the cops will ticket you. I've known several people who got jaywalking tickets in the city. You've got to look for the cars, then the cops and then you can cross. It's tough to justify a $50.00 ticket just to save a few minutes on your walk.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article - so true! One thing that most NYC'ers probably already know is that cars, while the most obvious, aren't the only thing to watch out for. It's way too easy to quickly glance to the side, step into the street, and get hit by a.... bicycle! Saw it happen the other day - this guy got hit by a messenger, wasn't pretty.

Jaywalk safe new york!

Anonymous said...

The first time I went to NYC, I had just been in St. Louis, where people respect crossing signs and lights, at least in the suburbs. So, when I saw people jaywalking, me being a native of Mexico City, I felt right at home.

Great city.