Wednesday, January 29, 2014
NEW YORK (AP) — For many New Yorkers, crossing the street in the middle of the block or against the light is a way of life, part of an attitude that tells everybody, "I'm walkin' here!"
"Of course I jaywalk!" says 70-year-old Peter Standish, a retired corporate attorney and lifelong New Yorker, adding that he occasionally texts, reads and even does crossword puzzles while crossing. "I do look up often," he noted.
But with 12 pedestrians deaths so far this year, new Mayor Bill de Blasio is taking aim at that defiant attitude with steps that include increased awareness of the dangers and, in some places, a crackdown on an offense that has been long ignored. Police are actually handing out tickets to jaywalkers.
"We need to be sensitive to the fact that we do have a way of life, and many of us who've been here know that," de Blasio said. "But we have to educate people to the dangers. There's a lot more vehicles in this town than there used to be."
A total of 172 pedestrians were killed in traffic last year in New York City, according to preliminary figures. While such deaths have declined by more than a quarter since 2001, de Blasio says there are persistently too many, and he wants to attack them in the same way the city reduced murders to a record low of 333 last year.
The recent dozen deaths (police say it is too early to say how many involved jaywalking) have included a 9-year-old boy hit by a taxi as he walked across a street with his father, a young doctor clipped by an ambulance when she crossed in front of her apartment building, and a 73-year-old man hit by a tour bus.
At the Upper West Side intersection of Broadway and 96th Street, near where three of the deaths occurred, a newly installed electronic sign warns pedestrians to "USE CROSSWALK" while police with a bullhorn make the same announcement. On a recent weekday morning, one officer directed traffic while others wrote tickets to both drivers and pedestrians — from $40 to $100 — depending on the violation.
The effort took a public relations hit last week when an 84-year-old man ended up bloodied after police tried to ticket him for jaywalking along Broadway.
Kang Wong has filed notice he intends to sue the police and the city for $5 million, alleging officers pushed him against a wall, beat him and threw him to the ground, knocking him out and causing injuries to his head, his face, an elbow and his ribs. Wong, who speaks only limited English, contends officers roughed him up after he asked for his ID back in Chinese and made a hand gesture.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said witnesses gave the impression Wong was hurt in a fall, not as a result of excessive police force.
Some neighborhood activists have complained that the focus on jaywalking is too abrupt, especially since police issued only 630 jaywalking tickets last year — not even two a day in a city of 8 million people and more than 6,000 miles of streets.
"To go from no enforcement to this aggressive action is overkill," said Mark Levine, an Upper West Side member of the City Council.
Mayoral spokesman Wiley Norvell said it was the neighborhood police precinct's decision to respond to the recent deaths with tickets. In the rest of the city, police, transportation and health officials are working to prevent deaths through educational efforts, including distributing fliers warning people to look when they cross.
In addition, the mayor wants police to take a harder line against speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians. He also wants speed cameras installed at the most dangerous spots — an action that requires state approval. And traffic lights could change more quickly in places where pedestrians get impatient and just walk.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University history professor who is an authority on New York and often gives walking tours of the metropolis, said that because of its vast public transportation system, scarcity of parking and overall density, the city lends itself to walking — and jaywalking.
"It's harder to not jaywalk in New York because there are so many streets," he said, noting that with 20 blocks to every mile, waiting to cross at every light would be impractical, especially for long schleps. "I don't know anyone who doesn't jaywalk in New York."
At the Crossroads of the World, as Times Square is known, the jaywalking is brazen. Several mothers pushing strollers zigzagged through slow-moving traffic Tuesday, ignoring a "Don't Walk" light. A police cruiser slowed down to allow a horde of jaywalkers to pass.
"I don't care! As long as no car is coming, I go," said Made Nury, a cruise ship steward from Indonesia.
Farther uptown, Tizli Abdelazez, a vendor who sells hats and scarves at 96th and Broadway, needs no lessons after watching vehicles careen around that corner.
"I wait because I'm scared," the Moroccan immigrant said in his native French. "The cars go so fast here, especially taxis. And so many people rush on."
Good luck changing New York's urban habits.
"What New Yorker hasn't jaywalked?" Levine asked. "But I've caught myself this past week — and I'm waiting for the walk sign."
Standish agreed it's a good idea to curb jaywalking. He added with a sly smile: "At 70, I really should stop playing in traffic."
Associated Press reporter Jake Pearson contributed to this report.