Crossing guards save NYC adults
Elaine Vespermann waited on the corner for his lead.
Only when Preston Martin charged across six lanes of rush-hour traffic did she follow behind him. He waved at cars to keep them at bay. He watched over her until she reached the other side of the street.
After too many close calls, Vespermann, 38, a baby sitter, does not like to cross by herself anymore. “He helps, always,” she said. “It’s very hard every day. There are too many cars and the people are crazy sometimes.”
New York City’s increasingly frenetic streetscape has become a gantlet for pedestrians forced to traverse multiple traffic lanes, weave around blocked intersections and sidestep bicycles and scooters whizzing by – all before the light turns from green to red. It is Martin’s job to make sure no one gets run over.
While school crossing guards have long shepherded children across the street, the city’s traffic has become so perilous that now even grown-ups need crossing guards. Officially known as pedestrian safety managers, they are vigilant escorts across some of the city’s busiest intersections.
They are not the traffic police; they cannot hand out tickets and their focus is not on keeping cars moving. Instead, they are bodyguards for pedestrians. As soon as the walk sign flashes, they are the first ones into the crosswalk. They shadow the elderly, the young and anyone needing extra time or care. They watch over everyone – especially those too distracted by texting or talking to watch out for themselves.
So far, they are a fixture in just one Manhattan neighborhood – Hudson Square, a fast-growing commercial hub that is about to become even more crowded with Google planning a $1 billion campus for up to 7,000 workers.
“The traffic is overwhelming,” said Doris Garcia, 44, a mother of four from Brooklyn who supervises the pedestrian safety managers in heat, rain and snow. “Pedestrians yell at drivers. If drivers don’t listen, sometimes we have to put our whole body in the intersection just to stop the cars.”
Across the city, 106 pedestrians were killed in crashes with motor vehicles last year and more than 10,700 other pedestrians were injured, according to traffic data.
The pedestrian managers stand guard over one of the city’s worst choke points: where Varick Street feeds into the Holland Tunnel. An average of 40,742 vehicles go through the tunnel every weekday to New Jersey and beyond, often backing up onto Varick.
Ellen Baer, president of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District, came up with the idea for pedestrian managers in 2011, after seeing traffic managers expertly move people around a construction site at the World Trade Center. “What we’re trying to do is change the focus from cars to people, and put people first,” Baer said.
Now, the business district has expanded the operation from three weeknights to every weeknight, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., when outbound tunnel traffic jams the streets. (Incoming tunnel traffic enters Manhattan elsewhere.)
Up to nine pedestrian managers are on duty, often with two at a time in the busiest intersections. It costs $300,000 a year, or as much as other neighborhoods spend on street cleaning and trash pickups. The pedestrian managers are paid $22 to $25 an hour.
Baer calls them “pedestrian safety and sanity managers” because they improve the quality of life. They unblock crosswalks and intersections, deter jaywalking and even help to lessen honking. And they keep people safe; no injuries have been reported while they have been on duty, she added.
Preston Martin works as a pedestrian safety manager – a crossing guard for grown-ups – on Varick Street, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in New York.