Philadelphia Metropolis


The Sidewalk Tango

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By Phyllis Mass

"Texters have the right of way," Mr. Oblivious Texter yelled, after I made the conscious decision not to avoid the collision course we were on.

"And that would be why?" I asked.

"Because we can't see where we're going."

 Are you as tired as I am of parting the way like Moses did the Dead Sea every time a texter is about to crash into you on the sidewalk?

 Don't get me wrong, I like texting, dining, cycling, stroller-dodging, rolling suitcases, and sidewalk shopping as much as the next person. I just don't want to encounter them all at once on a busy sidewalk.

 But, in Philadelphia, we all end up having to do with Sidewalk Tango, as we negotiate baby strollers, bikers, texters, runners, skateboarders and sidewalk seating that hogs available space. The fact is we have narrow sidewalks in this city that can barely accommodate walkers, let along the legions that want a piece of pedestrians' turf.

Texters aren't the only ones who make you do the tango. Baby strollers as big as Escalades also presume they own the right of way because, like river barges, they do not have the same maneuverability pedestrians enjoy. Rolling suitcases have been known to knock down anyone not as agile as a 100-meter sprint hurdler.  And Uhuru, a non-profit furniture store on Spruce and 13th streets, spills its massive furniture onto the street, allowing only a small path for walkers who must do the tango to miss errant end tables. I bet they feel their cause justifies their right of way, too. With all this dodging and feinting, it's a wonder that orthopedic wards aren't filled to capacity in this city.

The Tango continues. Curb cuts at each corner make it easier for skateboarders and cyclists to invade the sidewalks. Originally designed for the wheelchair bound, they enable these conveyances to encroach upon space which was once the domain of bipeds - and they sometimes force the wheelchair-bound to use the bike lanes. Presumably there is a $300.00 fine for anyone caught riding a bike on the sidewalk but it is to laugh.  There is no evidence of enforcement.

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With bikers, I wonder what is worse: the ones who peddle up the wrong side of the street, forcing you to dodge them as they approach, or the ones who ride with the traffic and appear out of nowhere, over your shoulder, as they whiz by.    

Sidewalk restaurant sprawl is something I don't understand. Sure it doubles the house's seating capacity, which benefits the restaurateurs, but why would anyone wants to dine on a narrow, dirty street, sucking up carbon monoxide fumes on a day so hot you could cook entrées on the sidewalk? It defies logic. I love to people-watch in Europe where the large buildings are recessed and set up for dining al fresco, but here? Bad enough that Parc's row of outside tables nestled close to the restaurant allows a small path for pedestrians on Rittenhouse Square but it also sets up an additional row of tables and chairs along the street end of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk sideways or in the street. In New York City, some restaurants are so desperate to provide outdoor seating that they arrange tables on the median strip on Broadway. In the Dominican Republic people dine on a beach while their server dodges two lanes of highway traffic in order to bring them their order.

 The last straw for me regarding restaurant sprawl occurred when some people dumped a round table and four chairs near the entrance to my Center City home. All kinds of fun things have been dumped there in the past: Computers, lamps, beds, carpets, upholstered chairs. Don't know who these people are, if they come from other parts of the city, or if they are suburbanites who think any block in the city qualifies as a burial ground for their unnecessary treasures. Furnishings have been known to decorate our street until a neighbor or I call the sanitation police to haul them off.

As I exited my house one day recently, I was surprised to find four people sitting around a table near the side of my house. I was even more surprised when they motioned me to come over, ordered four Bud Lites and asked for menus. When I explained that this was not a restaurant, they asked me if it was a private club. I had joked with my husband about restaurants spreading out so far that pretty soon they would encroach on our living space. Now, the joke was reality.

I do have an idea on how to end the tango. Have the city convert bike lanes into pedestrian-only lanes so those of us who just plain walk can reach our destinations without fear of being slammed and maimed. Surrender the sidewalks to the cyclists, strollers, texters, suitcase rollers and restaurants that have, de facto, already taken possession of them. If that doesn't work out, I suggest a system of chairlifts whereby by pedestrians can be shuttled to and from their destinations high above the madding crowd. But that's a whole other story.


Phyllis Mass does the Sidewalk Tango from her home in Center City.


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