Walking in New York City is essential, but it also has rules or maybe even an etiquette, and is a whole new way of looking at the urban world. New Yorkers walk a lot; it is healthy for sure, but the real reason is that it is either the only way to get somewhere or the quickest or the shortest route. If your doctors are on the other side of town and thus, by definition, blocks away, walking in the morning rush hour is the best option rather than waiting in line for a bus or catching a cab. One always walks for errands to the dry cleaner or grocery or pharmacy. If you are not well or too busy, you can order over the phone from all those places because they all deliver. But they also open early so one may walk over before work to drop off, pick up or order all the items essential for day to day life. Neighborhoods are defined by a reasonable walking radius, about ten blocks in any direction. New Yorkers tend to consider a restaurant more than six or so blocks away much too far for a week day dinner. Nearby friends may suggest their neighborhood restaurant and it is unknown to their friend's only blocks away.
But back to just walking to work, to the subway, to catch a cab. You walk on your right side, fast. You pass on the left those with strollers and canes whenever there isn't another person coming toward you, also very fast. See, it is just like driving and at times one must be just as careful. One day I was passing on the left an elderly woman and she put down her cane at a broad angle to the left and I had to leap over it to avoid a minor collision with the person fast approaching, never mind what would have happened to her if I had tripped! The fast-walking, impatient New Yorkers are often amazed and appalled that their clear path forward may be slowed, hindered or stopped as unsuspecting tourists meander down the sidewalk. Tourists often walk two or more across, looking at a map as they go. The New Yorker occasionally gets stuck fuming behind them, much like the car behind a slow moving truck waiting for the line of traffic on the left to go by so it can pass.
Parents coaxing their children to school are interesting to watch in the mornings, albeit a blur as one speeds past. Mondays seem to be the hardest, as the child often trudges behind head down, slowly, very slowly following the parent, hand in hand. It often appears as if they are being dragged forward as the dressed-for-work parent looks worried about the time this simple event is taking. Other times a deep conversation is going on about why there are cracks in a sidewalk or why they cannot bring Dad's snake to show and tell or why that pedestrian almost knocked them over. Walking to school is much more interesting than school itself. In the old days my son and husband used to guess how many club locks they would see on car steering wheels on their ten-block walk, along Central Park West no less, when cars were sometimes stolen right off the street. Once it was 25. When my son was young, a weekend routine was to walk down a side street with him to do an errand and he would climb the steps of every brownstone; the short block walk often took 40 minutes.
Choosing when to allow your child to walk alone to school is a big question for parents in a city. Moms whose kids are still being accompanied often agree to monitor those walking alone; lessons are given to middle school kids on what to do if someone wants to steal your backpack -- throw it as far as you can or at the very least hand it over quickly and run. But then, in high school, they walk to meet friends on Friday nights. No worries in a city about a teenager in a car. Most New York City kids have to be begged to get a driver's license; many don't learn to drive until in their twenties when they want to drive to visit college friends somewhere outside the city.
Sidewalks in New York are neighborhoods in themselves. Places where you hear family debates, expressions of love or frustration, tales of work or parties, or observe as children you don't even know grow and change year to year. Doormen in the neighborhood buildings know folks from the other buildings. Once I started to absentmindedly enter the door of the more elegant apartment building next door and the doorman, who had said hello for years as I walked by each morning, teasingly said to me, "No, you live across the tracks." Ah, New York.