Field notes: The urban obstacle course

West End Avenue and 70th Street on a recent morning. Photo: Alexis Gelber

Walking is a measure of New York’s quality of life — in our recent Senior Living Guide, my colleague Douglas Feiden noted that Manhattanites walk way more than Americans as a whole (5.99 daily walking trips per household in Greenwich Village and 2.43 on the Upper East Side vs. 0.73 in the median U.S. neighborhood). That may contribute to their greater longevity and better health (as Feiden wrote, the obesity rate on the Upper East and Upper West Sides is 17 percent, vs. the U.S. median of 28.9 percent). Walkable streets were one factor that gave the city high marks on the AARP’s Livability Index.

As a longtime New Yorker, I’m used to walking everywhere, at a brisk-but-standard city pace — about one block per New York minute. So I found it quite humbling recently to take my first walk outside when I got home after hip surgery. I moved slowly and nervously, despite a cane and the assistance of a physical therapist.

“When people see you with your cane,” the PT said encouragingly, “they’ll give you room.”

Well, maybe. It’s been a mixed record on that score. New Yorkers are always in a hurry, and some pay more attention than others. But overall, this has been a perception-changing experience, a reminder of how those of us who can take walking for granted experience the city very differently than New Yorkers with disabilities or chronic illness.

My peer group on the city sidewalks has changed: I find unspoken fellowship with people using a variety of canes and walkers, and I admire the chic woman who zips past me on West End Avenue in her motorized wheelchair. I have sympathy as well for parents and babysitters pushing heavily-laden strollers, and for dog-walkers trying to navigate the entropy of the sidewalks.

A few observations about the urban obstacle course:

Treacherous sidewalks: It goes without saying that city sidewalks are uneven, but some are more so than others. The north side of 72nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus seems particularly choppy, for instance, and I walk with caution there. Physical therapists emphasize the importance of “heel-toe” walking, and in NYC that’s partly to avoid having your affected foot drag and get caught in the edge of uneven pavement.

The curb cuts, or ramps, on corners throughout the city are designed to help disabled people access sidewalks, and I welcome them on my walks. But a year ago, reporting by the late DNAInfo found that about 80 percent of the city’s curb cuts were not up to federal standards for the disabled, despite the city spending $243 million over 15 years to build new ramps. And as some of our readers have noted, those corners can turn into small lakes after a summer thunderstorm or a winter ice-melt, almost countering the purpose of the cuts.

Street excavations: I’ve been reading about 2018 political candidates across the country who pledge to boost the economy in their districts and fix potholes. Potholes — if only! How about entire city blocks that are ripped up for weeks on end? The streets near my home have been dug up a couple of times in the past few years, with all the accompanying equipment, barriers and gravel that impede walking.

My regular walks now often take me past West End Avenue and 70th Street, which reporter Michael Garofalo wrote about as a safety concern after a pedestrian was killed on May 3 by a motorist at that intersection. Three pedestrians and one bicyclist were injured in collisions at the same location last year. “Roberta Semer, the chair of Community Board 7, lives nearby and said the intersection has been persistently dangerous.” Garofalo wrote. “Cars traveling south on West End and turning right onto 70th Street create a particularly hazardous situation for walkers, Semer said. ‘They don’t see the pedestrians in the crosswalk,’ she said. ‘I have almost been hit on several occasions.’”

Screen-absorbed pedestrians: As for the physical therapist’s theory about pedestrians making way for people with canes: I’ve found that the most inattentive people on the street are individuals so absorbed in their cellphones that they don’t see who they’re about to collide with. I’m generally not one to make an issue of cellphone users, but I would be curious to know whether there’s an increase in pedestrian accidents caused by screen addiction. It’s illegal to text and drive. Should there be a law about texting and walking? Maybe that would make us New Yorkers more appreciative of an experience we too often take for granted.

Do you have observations or safety concerns about walking in the city? Please contact me at