According to Transportation Alternatives, a New Yorker is killed in a traffic accident every 35 hours. About half of these are pedestrians. Many of the solutions, including those proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio as part of Vision Zero, a Swedish model designed to reduce traffic fatalities, emphasize drivers and motor vehicles. Ideas mentioned by the de Blasio team included narrowing streets, widening sidewalks, creating slow zones and enforcing traffic laws. Count me in. I would also like to see more bike lanes, expansion of Citi Bikes, public plazas and congestion pricing.
But what is often not talked about is the role that pedestrians play in New York’s car-cyclist-pedestrian dynamic. I cannot help but think that much of the traffic accident data would implicate pedestrians as well as drivers. New Yorkers are famous for their complete disregard for pedestrian traffic signals. Jaywalking and other reckless pedestrian crossings are commonplace. Thousands of people perpetually meander through the cities intersections, texting, Tweeting and Facebooking, barely noticing the oncoming traffic. It is not unusual to see people weaving and rushing their way through traffic across Broadway, barely avoiding the onslaught of yellow cabs.
The problem is that people rush and disobey pedestrian traffic laws because everyone around them is also in a rush. Whether people are early, late or on time, a rush mentality persists. It is a psychological crowd phenomenon affecting thousands of people and which generates unnecessary stress and anxiety. That multitasking, social media and career pressures have created an entire high-strung and anxiety prone generation only makes matters worse. Entire industries have developed to alleviate stress. Yoga studios have popped up all over the city. Meditation classes, mental health appointments, squishy stress balls, you name it- someone has tried it. People are in a perpetual search for calm in a world of stress that is at least in part, artificially created.
And rightfully so. Increased stress levels have been linked with numerous illnesses including asthma, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s. Stress elevates your blood pressure and pulse, constricts your blood vessels and floods your bloodstream with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Feeling at ease and relaxed throughout the day is thus likely to have tremendous health benefits. Unfortunately, many New Yorkers are stressed the second they leave the door. The perpetual rush of traffic, cyclists and pedestrians is palpable.
I do, however, believe that there exists the potential for both calmer streets and pedestrians by enforcing pedestrian traffic laws. An intervention as simple as pedestrian traffic law enforcement could slow the pace of foot traffic and ameliorate the frenetic psychological pace New Yorkers subject themselves to on a daily basis. It could also save lives. Here is to hoping that slowing our pace, even for just a few moments a day, will create a safer and more livable city, and healthier and more relaxed New Yorkers.