Adventures in Walking

At least four times a day, my dog and I cross on foot the intersection of Prospect Park Southwest and 11th Avenue here in Brooklyn. It’s dangerous, even though there’s a light. Prospect Park Southwest bends sharply just to the east of the intersection, along a stretch that a neighbor of ours calls Dead Man’s Curve. Our car was totaled while parked there soon after we moved in. To the west, Prospect Park Southwest is straight, and many of the cars approaching from that direction accelerate a bit wildly, giddy, perhaps, with a sense of liberation, as this is just about the geographic point where the bourgeois aura of Park Slope, and any attendant behavioral constraints, fall away. Buildings and parked cars, meanwhile, obstruct the sightlines of any vehicles approaching from the south along 11th Avenue. Fortunately, there’s a stop light. Unfortunately, quite a few drivers consider it optional.

I’m moved to write about the intersection because last week my dog and I were nearly run over while crossing it, and I read yesterday an article by the science journalist Annie Murphy Paul about near-misses. Don’t think of near-misses as lucky escapes, Paul writes; think of them as warnings. A near-miss means that next time could be a catastophe.

Our near-miss happened thus: The dog and I were crossing Prospect Park Southwest from south to north with the Walk sign in our favor. When we were about halfway across, a van barreled into the intersection at high speed and turned left across the crosswalk, missing us by an inch or two. Because it was cold, I had the hood of my coat up (a big mistake), and I wasn’t able to see him coming out of the corner of my eye, as I might otherwise have done. All I saw was a van suddenly almost kill my dog, who was spared only because he happened to be walking in heel. After a moment or two of shock, I hollered something unprintable. The driver either didn’t hear or didn’t care. In any case he didn’t stop. I didn’t have the presence of mind to notice his license plate number, but what would I have done with it? A bike messenger who saw the near-miss said to me, as he passed, “I can’t believe he did that. I saw him coming, and I was like, He’s not really going to do that, is he. But he did. He did. Man.” For the next hour or so I felt the uncanny elation that comes from being aware of luck in the matter of not being dead. The whole day, in fact, was to have a sort of optative flavor.

Turning vehicles are supposed to yield to pedestrians, whose right of way, thanks to a flaw in most intersections’ design, generally occurs at the same time as that of turning vehicles. This van had a green light, in other words, and perhaps he didn’t want to bother with details. Or perhaps he was texting. Or adjusting his playlist. Though he nearly killed me, he wasn’t the most egregiously reckless driver I’ve seen in the intersection. Just this morning, I watched a driver proceed through the intersection with an Ipad raised above his steering wheel. My guess is that he was taking a photograph of the heavy snow that lay like icing on the bare arms of the trees along the avenue. The trees under the snow were pretty, but it amazed me to see a car in motion whose driver was blocking his own sight.

Even more impressive: Last week, as I was driving toward the intersection from the west, a car behind me was tailgating angrily. How adept humans are at conveying the emotion of rage through their handling of an automobile. As we approached the intersection, the light was red. Two cars were already stopped waiting for it to change, and I slowed down to become the third in line. The car behind me, however, accelerated. He veered to the left, into the oncoming traffic lane, and sped past the three of us waiting cars, through the red light, and through the intersection. Keep in mind that he had no visibility of 11th Avenue and only a dozen yards or so of visibility of Prospect Park Southwest beyond the intersection. I wondered if I was going to see poetic justice abruptly rendered.

Can the intersection be made safer? It’s unlikely to win one of the city’s 20 allotted speeding cameras or 150 allotted red-light cameras, whose numbers the State of New York has taken it upon itself to ration, to the city’s detriment. A quick improvement would be to remove a few parking spaces near the corners of the intersection, in order to improve visibility. Even better would be to build in the sort of pedestrian islands that have recently made it safer to cross Prospect Park West. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my hood down and my eyes peeled, whatever the weather.

Pedestrianism in novelists

I thought I had blogged about the prodigious walking of Wilkie Collins back when I wrote about him for the LRB, but I don't seem to have.

In The Woman in White, Collins's hero Walter Hartright is eternally walking. His first vision of the Woman in White, in fact, comes during a walk from Hampstead to his apartment in the Inns of Court, a distance of slightly more than four miles. But even though Walter begins his walk after dark, he takes the long way home:

I determined to stroll home in the purer air, by the most round-about way I could take; to follow the white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to approach London through its most open suburb by striking into the Finchley-road, and so getting back, in the cool of the new morning, by the western side of the Regent's Park.

According to Google, if in your walk from Hampstead to the Inns of Court you insist on going by Finchley Road and the west side of Regent's Park, you nearly double your trip, to slightly more than seven miles long. No wonder that Walter later, in a high frenzy of sleuthing, scoffs at fear of distance:

"How far is it to Knowlesbury from this place?" [Walter asks.]

"A long stretch, sir," said the clerk, with that exaggerated idea of distances and that vivid perception of difficulties in getting from place to place, which is peculiar to all country people. "Nigh on five mile, I can tell you!"

It was still early in the forenoon. There was plenty of time for a walk to Knowlesbury, and back again to Welmingham. . . .

Though hobbled by something he called gout, and addicted to opiates, Collins himself walked vigorously. Biographer Catherine Peters reports that during an 1873 book tour of America, Collins was dismayed to discover that Americans did not carry walking-sticks and did not like to go on walks. From New York, Collins wrote home to a friend of his chagrin:

I . . . thought nothing of a daily constitutional from my hotel in Union-square to Central Park and back. Half a dozen times on my way, friends in carriages would stop and beg me to jump in. I always declined, and I really believe that they regarded my walking exploits as a piece of English eccentricity.

Collins's constitutional measured about five miles.

Pedestrianism in novels

I am perennially curious about the distances that characters in nineteenth-century novels are happy to walk. Turgenev's Torrents of Spring happens to offer some geographic clues. The hero, Dimitri Pavlovitch Sanin, stays at the White Swan Hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1840, when there was as yet no railroads to carry him home to Russia. The novella fails to locate Sanin's hotel precisely, and Google doesn't yet index fictional travel accommodations as far back as 1840, but on his first night in town, Sanin takes a stroll.

He went in to look at Danneker's Ariadne, which he did not much care for, visited the house of Goethe, of whose works he had, however, only read Werter, and that in the French translation. He walked along the bank of the Maine, and was bored as a well-conducted tourist should be.

Johann Heinrich von Dannecker's statue Ariadne on the Panther is lodged in a museum known as the Liebieghaus, and the house where Goethe was born is also easy to locate, so it's safe to say that Sanin was staying in what is today downtown Frankfurt.

Later in the novel, after Sanin has fallen in love, his beloved orders him to stay away from her for a day. He passes the time with her brother:

After drinking coffee, the two friends set off together—on foot, of course—to Hausen, a little village lying a short distance from Frankfort, and surrounded by woods. The whole chain of the Taunus mountains could be seen clearly from there. The weather was lovely; the sunshine was bright and warm, but not blazing hot . . . The two young people soon got out of the town, and stepped out boldly and gaily along the well-kept road.

The family dog accompanies them; they play leap-frog, run races, sing songs; and they space out the walk by drinking and eating at three inns. They're not, in other words, in any hurry. How far did they go? If you ask Google Maps for walking directions from the Liebieghaus to Goethe's house, and thence to the district of Hausen (which is now part of Frankfurt, and no longer a separate village), the trip is about 4 miles one way, and should take about an hour and twenty minutes on foot. An eight-mile, three-hour round trip is not a terribly taxing walk, though few today would take it uncomplainingly. An equivalent walk would take me from my neighborhood, Park Slope, Brooklyn, to the Soho shopping district in downtown Manhattan.

Step into my landau, baby

There’s a consensus that sometime this century, the flow of oil out of the ground will peak. Some think it has already peaked; others that the peak is yet to come. What will happen when supplies of oil start to dwindle? People have started to wonder, including a writer named James Howard Kunstler in a book titled The Long Emergency. I haven’t read it, but his prognosis appears to be dire and includes something called a “die-off,” which doesn’t sound pleasant. Yesterday, in a bid for reassurance, I read a dismissive review of Kunstler’s book that I found through Arts and Letters Daily. I wasn’t reassured, however. The reviewer claimed that Kunstler’s “concern with oil depletion is overblown” because

the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) recent assessment in the World Energy Outlook 2005 finds that the world has sufficient oil to carry on at its present rate of growth at least out until 2030 (although the agency believes that this would be unsustainable on other environmental grounds).

I don’t feel altogether certain that I’ll be dead by 2030, so this wasn’t quite the warm blanket of denial that I was craving. Also, I wasn’t confident that the reviewer understood thermodynamics any better than I did, which is not very well, especially when he insisted that “total entropy on the Earth is not increasing . . . [b]ecause excess entropy is carried off by radiation into outer space.” Outer space? What about the greenhouse effect—does it trap entropy as well as heat? Don’t systems gain in entropy as heat is added to them, and isn’t that the net effect of the greenhouse gases, in preventing the release from Earth of heat?

Best to march quickly past the real physics, and get to the heart of the matter: dollars per gallon. Naturally, as my anxious mind contemplated the fate of a world in which fuel increased indefinitely in price, I wondered: How expensive would gas have to be for people to decide they’d rather take a horse-and-buggy than an automobile?

At first I thought that I would do this by adding up all the costs associated with keeping a horse—hay, blacksmithing, saddles, stableboys, much higher frequency of street cleaning—and compare them to those of keeping a car. In the former Soviet Union, there used to be whole academic departments devoted to making an inventory of all the society-wide costs and benefits of an item, in order to set, by fiat, its price. We are all Hayekians now, though, and believe that the best way to process all the raw data of abundance, scarcity, damage, benefit, consumer whim, and real convenience is by seeing what people actually pay.

As it happens, in New York today, it is possible to hire for a brief trip either a horse and buggy or an automobile. They aren’t exactly comparable; the buggy is a luxury item, and I suspect that it dawdles to seem more leisurely. Nonetheless both the buggy-owners and the cabbies must take the measure of a much wider range of expenses than I ever could, even with the assistance of the internet. I thought I’d start with their numbers, making a few adjustments along the way.

If you want to take a horse and buggy ride in Central Park today, it costs $34, and in twenty minutes you go one mile. Three miles an hour seems awfully slow—improbably slow. The websites of various companies that cart brides and grooms to and from church promise speeds no higher than four to seven miles per hour, and they seem to be offering their slowness as a selling point. In today’s world, the hirer of a buggy is probably paying mostly for the twenty minutes—for a share of the horse and buggy’s day—rather than the one mile. In a post-gasoline world, buggies would presumably go as fast as was financially and legally prudent. I’m guessing that I can safely double the speed advertised and say that a horse and buggy in Central Park could go six miles an hour without increasing its underlying costs. So I’m jiggering with the data, and guessing that for the same $34, you could get a horse and buggy to go two miles in twenty minutes.

To go two miles in Manhattan by taxi costs you $2.50 plus 40 cents for every one-fifth of a mile—in total, $6.50. (For ease of math, I’m leaving tips out of both sides of the equation.) Let’s estimate that cabbies get about 24 miles per gallon, and that they go about 20 miles an hour in the city. That means the trip consumes about one-twelfth of a gallon of gasoline and takes about six minutes.

Horse & buggy Car
$34 $6.50
20 min. 6 min.
Hay 0.0833 gal. gasoline

There’s one more arbitrary number to come up with. How valuable are the fourteen minutes you’d lose by taking the buggy? That’s hard to figure; it probably depends on how valuable your time is. People with a low hourly wage will probably walk rather than hire either vehicle, so let’s say $20/hour. The value of those 14 minutes will therefore be 14 min./60 min. times $20/hour, or $4.66.

Let x equal an increase in price per gallon of gasoline. Then as gas becomes more expensive, the price of the automobile taxi will be $6.50 + 0.0833 x. The price of the buggy will be $34 plus the loss of time, valued at $4.66. A person would just as soon hire a hire a cab powered by a horse as one powered by an internal combustion engine when the total prices are equal, i.e.,

$6.50 + x/12 = $34 + $4.66

x = (34 + 4.66 – 6.5) 12

x = 385.92

When gas costs $385.93 more per gallon than it does today, then, you’ll probably start taking the curricle.