Pretty much anyone who knows what they're talking about will tell you that the best way to get around this city is on foot, without question. You see so much more by walking than you can on the subway. You see so much more interesting things because the more obscure destinations tend to be furthest from busy subway stops. Unlike on buses, you're free to stop and look at things at your own leisure. Unlike buses or taxis, you're traveling at a slow enough speed to really see things and take photographs if you want.
I would never discourage anyone with differing or limited mobility from visiting here. But if, for instance, your mobility is hampered by age or some other condition, keep in mind that this city is ten times more easily navigable on foot than any other method. Your group having the use of chartered buses or the extra money for lots of cab rides will make very little difference. It's still a ton of walking.
For people who don't do much more walking than from their car to their front door, "comfortable shoes" doesn't even come close. As silly as this may sound, I might even go so far as to recommend a brisk walk around the block every morning and evening for about a month before you visit New York. You have no idea how much walking you'll do here. Your shoes should be not only comfortable, but durable as well. For goodness sake, please steer clear of open-toed shoes and flip-flops. You do see people wearing them sometimes, but on these streets? It's disgusting. Athlete's foot is the best thing you'll get out of it. Anyway, flip-flops are for going to the pool, not for grown-ups walking down a city street. Especially if the weather is warmer, it's essential to have a bottle of water on you.
Without proper precautions and preparation, you'll be run down, sore, blistered, and miserable. It's probably the one complaint I hear more than any other from visitors from automobile-centric parts of the world. Even high school students who should have infinite energy, many of whom presumably play extracurricular sports, look like they might collapse in a heap if allowed to stand still. In fact, they're often the worst prepared for it.
One of the problems with getting around on foot is that I suspect it doesn't occur to many people that there even could be a proper way to "use" a sidewalk. There is, however, and at least once a day I encounter a person who doesn't know how. Knowing how to use sidewalks properly means you won't look like an idiot. Some readers won't care about that. But this also means you won't have to deal with angry stares, comments, and fingers from people who live here. Other than that, this section is mostly for those who would choose to be courteous.
The main thing to understand about sidewalks in New York is that they are our primary means of transportation. We have places to go and things to do and we want to get there sooner rather than later. So the best way to think about the sidewalk is that it's very much like a highway. If you suddenly slam on your brakes on the highway, the person behind you is going to destroy the back of your car. While no one would do such a thing under normal circumstances, tourists think nothing of doing it while walking down the street.
Here's where the word "currents" is more literal than figurative. For the most part, the curb line is the "merging lane," the middle of the sidewalk is the "fast lane," and the building line is the "slow lane." People do seem to subconsciously stay to the right somewhat, as they would in a vehicle, but this isn't the case much of the time; it's more about the currents. If you need to stop or slow down, don't just suddenly halt right in the middle of the sidewalk. "Pull over" to the side, out of the fast lane. If you don't live in a walking city, you can pretty much just assume that you walk slower than we do. Stay in the slow lane.
This is even more imperative in larger groups. Don't walk side-by-side in a group of twelve people that spans like a wall across the entire sidewalk. As far as we're concerned, turtles move faster than you and we don't want to have to step out into speeding traffic to get around you to get where we're going. Two or three people across is about the maximum, especially on the smaller side streets which have much narrower sidewalks. Some of those may even demand single-file when passing other people.
If you're a large group of people, dividing up into smaller bunches is generally a lot better anyway: groups of two, three, or four. It's easier to get around, easier to keep track of who's there and who's gone missing. You won't be impeding traffic or other pedestrians or risk getting hit by a bus. You won't make a spectacle of yourselves. Obnoxious behavior that annoys everyone around you is a lot less likely in smaller groups, as well.
Ignore the stoplights. For any law enforcement officers who might be reading, I do not say that to encourage jaywalking. I do believe jaywalking to be a time-honored New York tradition. I also believe police officers (should) have more serious crimes to worry about than someone crossing a street at the wrong time or place. Legally speaking, pedestrians always have the right of way here, no matter where they are, where they're going, what they're doing how fast or how slow. But while that may help in court, it's not going to matter much if you're dead and stuck onto the front of a bus.
That's sort of my point. If the sign says "don't walk," and there is not a vehicle in sight, you may as well just cross. You'll get more stuff done that way. On the flip-side, a sign saying "walk" will in no way prevent some crazy driver from barreling through the intersection and running you over. The best idea, therefore, is to pay attention not to the stoplights, but to the traffic. Never assume a driver is going to stop just because the light is red. If we're in the middle of a blizzard, they may not be able to stop.
Like your mommy always told you, "look both ways before crossing the street." This is especially important for the very reason that most New York streets are one-way. Bicyclists, unlike motorists, are not legally compelled to go the same direction as the motor vehicles. They often don't, and they make practically no noise to warn of their approach. You might not think a bicycle messenger going thirty-five miles per hour on a jacked-up mountain bike could do as much damage as a car. But trust me, you'll wake up in the hospital if you wake up at all. I've come thisclose to be taken down by one of them on many occasions.
©2012, Ryan Witte