Pavement As Lab | NY Times

Battery Park  
“Give me the streets of Manhattan!” Walt Whitman demanded, and he had them—miles and miles of crowded, chaotic alleys and avenues, patchily paved with cobbles, wood blocks, or gravel or simply covered in dirt. Whitman waded joyously into foaming currents of traffic, and maybe the risk of being crushed to death by a wagon or a streetcar was part of the lyric thrill. A century and a half later, the sociologist William Helmreich strolled nearly every block in New York City—6,000 miles—on streets that have been designed and redesigned for the complex choreography of striding, rolling, biking, shuffling, and driving. Helmreich doesn’t focus on the surface beneath his soles in his book The New York Nobody Knows, but his, and everyone’s, experience of getting around the city is inflected by a vast menu of design details.
The next time you cross the street, watch where you’re going. Look closely at the symphony of signs and crosswalks, bollards, lanes, and dotted lines. The sidewalk dips gently to the roadbed to let a wheelchair pass, the transition marked with a panel of bumps that catch a blind person’s cane. A few strategically placed blocks of granite guide traffic around a pedestrian plaza. Sidewalks reach out to meet the crosswalk, shortening the trip from curb to curb. A row of parked cars divides a bike lane from moving traffic. A strategically placed bench gives a parent a place to stop and tie the children’s shoes.