Please Pick a Side

Sonya Xu reflects on pavement/sidewalk space from across the pond.


Space is a luxury in New York, especially sidewalk space. Fifty million people visit Times Square each year. Almost every New Yorker you encounter (including me) will tell you that Midtown is one of the worst neighborhoods in New York because of all the tourists and finance bros with their Patagonia vests and overpriced salads walking at eight different paces in five different directions.

To cope with the copious number of tourists, you learn to weave in and out of slow walkers. You learn to dodge the strollers. You learn to jump past the dog walkers. You even learn to avoid the hand holding couples. You not only learn to weave, you learn to decrease the amount of time required in the same amount of space. In other cities, the average human walking speed is 3.1 miles per hour. In New York, it’s 3.4 miles per hour, or 17.5 minutes per mile. On my RAG blind date form, under the section “patient fears,” the first thing that came to mind was slow walkers. You may not be able to control traffic or public transportation delays, but you can surely control how fast you walk. If you are walking slowly, I will roll my eyes at you, but you probably won’t see because I’m already so far ahead of you.

To my surprise, in the time that I’ve been here, I’ve not missed New York. I thank the over-crowded and half-paved sidewalks, smooth from centuries of trekking.

The first time I walked to Sidgwick from Pembroke, I stopped three times: once in front of Ede & Ravenscroft, once in front of alley on Queen’s Lane and Silver Street, and finally once on the bridge because of tourists that would suddenly stop in front of me on this two person side-walk – cameras out, whispers of “Newton” and “Mathematical Bridge”. With all the punters and their clipboards soliciting the whisperers, it may as well have been people scalping out last minute theater ticket flyers. Did I really ever leave New York?

Crowds, cameras, chaos. What more could a girl ask for on her way to class?

Either my weaving skills have greatly deteriorated, or perhaps the sidewalks themselves have shrunk. For instance, right outside Pembroke, on Trumpington street, you can fit no more than three people. When multiple people are walking slowly, my instinct isn’t to say “excuse me” but to weave but, since space is so limited, I step off the sidewalk onto the road to walk around them. But then that instinct also leads to trouble, as there is the added element of bikers zooming past that I fortunately had not yet had to tackle in New York.

In New York, there is an obvious hierarchy of the roads. Walkers rule the street. No one apologizes for weaving. Are you in my way? Seems like a you problem. People will get mad at you if you don’t j-walk. I will get mad at you if you don’t j-walk. I will get even madder at you if you wait for the walk symbol to turn green when there are clearly no cars. There is only so much waiting space on the sidewalk. Why waste it? In that split second after you look both ways, you decide if the car is close enough or not and more often than not, it probably is too close. But why not take the risk? You’re probably late already.

Here, the hierarchy seems to favor of bikers. Today, I saw a woman with a stroller crossing the street, a biker turned without slowing down whatsoever and almost hit the child, and the woman is the one profusely apologizing to the biker. Is this proper British etiquette or just the superiority complex of bikers?

It doesn’t make sense to me because I constantly see bikers yelling at walkers, but people are so polite in every other context. In a place where manners are necessary, why is there such poor road etiquette?

Poor road etiquette also extends to which side of the road to walk on. I assumed we walk on the left because you drive on the left. If this is true, then why do people still walk on the right? I constantly make awkward eye contact with the opposite person trying to decide which side we are going to yield to. And to the couples that walk in the middle can’t you at least choose a side? How is this any different than a constantly moving queue (but just on one side)?

You’re so good at queuing already! Just extend that skill. I believe in you. Cyclists are moving so confidently in their bike lanes because perhaps they are all going in the same direction. Walkers, we need to decide on a side. Only then, will we be able to stand up to the bullies.

Recently, I’ve invested in a bike (has the bullied turned into the bully?); however, I am still gathering the courage to ride it, as I really don’t want to run over a woman and her stroller. On the handlebars of my bike, I’ve also taped a hot pink sticky note with a reminder: “BIKE ON LEFT SIDE OF ROAD, RIGHT TURN = BIG TURN.” Perhaps it is time to leave my weaving and pick up a new skill.

Despite the perceived difficulty I’ve had with sidewalks, I’ve learned to appreciate them. Sidewalks are a space for spontaneous chats and accidental hugs and awkward hellos. Sidewalks are shared. And I love that about sidewalks. Just please, all I ask is that you pick a side to walk on and stop apologizing.