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Walking Wars in Big Apple As Jaywalkers Face Prosecution

Mayor wants to crack down on pedestrians with bigger fines, while critics say it's the cars that need restricting.

By New York City standards, pedestrians in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Boulder, Colo., must be an odd lot. They don't jaywalk.

These folks from America's hinterlands are known to amble to an intersection, wait for the light to change, and then cross the street. Jaywalking is just not done.

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But in New York City? Forget about it.

"As long as there is a lot of traffic, everyone is going to jaywalk," says Jennifer Uri, an investment banker who scurried across 48th Street. "People are in too much of a hurry."

Hurried or not, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants New Yorkers to act more like Milwaukeans.

But this is a city where residents consider "Don't Walk" signs as optional and Wall Street's law-of-the-jungle mentality often produces brawls over taxi cabs. Some New Yorkers see Mayor Giuliani's attempt to bring Midwestern civility to street corners here as an ill-fated attempt to span a cultural divide far wider than the Brooklyn Bridge.

Giuliani recently floated the idea of jacking up the $2 jaywalking fine and having police enforce it. In Milwaukee, for example, those who step off the curb too soon get slapped with a $32 fine.

And like many Western and Midwestern cities, Milwaukee enforces a jaywalking ordinance. Jeff Fleming, a city spokesman, says people often wait at a corner for a light to change even when there's no traffic.

"There's just a long tradition of jaywalking laws," explains Mr. Fleming. "So people [here] mostly don't do it."

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For many Big Apple natives, the idea of not jaywalking is laughable. But Giuliani, a Republican and former federal prosecutor, counters that it's never too late to change.

Arguing that steps must be taken to increase public safety and move traffic, the mayor defends his proposal, asserting that curtailing jaywalking is part of his wider "quality of life" campaign. He says that includes cracking down on vehicles running red lights and those who double park.

"The whole purpose of this is to increase public safety, and no one should focus on just one aspect of it," says Giuliani.

Local papers and talk shows have had a field day with the proposal. Even David Letterman jokes about it. He told his audience last week he saw "a New York City rat, one of those brazen New York City rats ... tearing up a jaywalking ticket."

The jokes, though, have worn thin on pedestrian advocate John Kaehny. Rather than seeing New York as filled with egocentric jaywalkers, Mr. Kaehny observes thousands of inconvenienced pedestrians made to wait as vehicles dominate space.

In a city where 78 percent of households don't have a car, Kaehny argues that it is wrong to tailor urban policies to vehicles.

"It makes zero sense to inconvenience the vast bulk of travelers," says Kaehny, who directs the nonprofit group Transportation Alternatives. "These pedestrians should be encouraged because they are taking up much less space than vehicles, and besides they are in the great majority."

So Kaehny calls for banning private cars from selected avenues, restricting major thoroughfares to commercial vehicles. Blaming pedestrians, he says, does not solve the problems of traffic or safety.

Giuliani's critics charge that the jaywalking proposal - still not officially introduced as legislation - reflects a windshield culture in which motorists sit behind their steering wheel and become angry because there are too many people around.

"There's always been a tense working peace between pedestrians and motorists," says Anthony Weiner, a city councilor from Brooklyn. "The reason this has touched such a nerve is that the mayor has come down so hard as being anti-pedestrian."

Seeking middle ground, Mr. Weiner met Kaehny on Friday at the corner of 57th Street and Ninth Avenue to announce legislation that would change the timing on New York's 10,000 traffic lights to allow pedestrians more time to cross the street.

Called a "walkers first" signal, Weiner says the delay would help eliminate anxiety caused when cars waiting to turn down a side street face a pack of pedestrians.

But New Yorkers like John Rojak doubt an increased fine will stop jaywalking.

"There are times when it's dangerous and there are times when it makes sense," Rojak explains as he crosses 78th Street. "If you need to cross a street and there's no traffic, it's absurd to walk to the corner. Common sense should prevail."

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