Sic transit

New York, NY, USA -- 20 December 2005 | Permalink

I confess that I had expected that the city-wide transit strike might be a rather more dramatic affair. Perhaps it was my memory of the first day of the blackout in 2003, when the streets of Manhattan filled up suddenly with disoriented office workers all trying to work out what had happened and how to get home. Perhaps it was the minor sense of urgency created by being kept awake by police and news helicopters most of last night. Perhaps it was a permanent lingering desire for some occasional not-too-major interruption in the daily routine to provide a topic for conversation and material for photographs.

What I hadn't expected was that - at least in the part of the city that I walked through on my way to work - there would be so little visible sign of anything out of the ordinary. There were no vast packs of commuters plodding stolidly along the avenues. No snarling masses of grid-locked traffic. No vicious brawls over taxis. No long lines of shuttered stores. No whirring phalanxes of bicycles.

There were, if you looked for them, a few indicators. Some of the car drivers seemed a little more hesitant and skittish than usual, as if they weren't accustomed to driving in Manhattan. A few of the bicyclists were a little wobbly, as if it was the first time they'd been out on two wheels in a very long time. But there was nothing to compare with the one-day transit strike I witnessed once in Milan, where unsteady cyclists seemed to be cascading left and right, including one man who wedged the front wheel of his bike in a tram track, causing both him and the toddler in the child seat behind him to fly over the handlebars in a neat arc (luckily without lasting damage to either).

In Lower Manhattan, you could have been forgiven for not noticing anything out of the ordinary. Not everyone was so lucky: my colleague J., unaware that the strike was going ahead, picked the wrong day to drive into the city and was shunted from tunnel to tunnel and bridge to bridge by cops enforcing the 'four people to a car' rule. It took him four hours to reach the office. I hope my friend S., who had to trudge from the Bronx to Brooklyn on the first day of the 2003 blackout, was able to work from home today. But my little world was remarkably unaffected by the worst that the Transport Workers' Union can do.

It took me fifteen seconds short of an hour to walk the five-and-a-bit kilometres to my job this morning, but I dawdled on the way and took pictures (the day was bright and cold, and the morning light lit some of the buildings flatteringly). Coming home in the dark was a little faster: about fifty-two minutes. I took the shortest route both ways, taking advantage of the fact that Broadway cuts diagonally across the island over most of my route between Houston and 42nd St. Compared with my normal half-hour commute by subway, the difference isn't huge. Overall, I was quite glad of the exercise and the chance to take my camera for a walk.

If this goes on, however, I may start to feel a little differently about it. And it would only take a change in the weather to turn the experience into something very different indeed. Maybe I should start crossing my fingers that the TWU and the mayor will have come to some kind of agreement before next Wednesday, when the forecast is for rain and snow.