48-Hours on Foot: A Transportation Planner's Journey

I live on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and during the hurricane and its aftermath, the power never went out. Our greatest challenge was not overindulging on television and snacks.

That didn't seem right somehow, so in a fit of adventure, I decided to walk to my sister's home in Park Slope and, on the way, drop by my office in Union Square. I would end up making what turned into a two-day trek from the Upper East Side through the "dark zone" of Manhattan below 34th Street, over to Park Slope in Brooklyn, up to Sunnyside in Queens. I traveled more than 20 miles, mostly on foot.

Walking south on Second Avenue, I entered the enormous chunk of Manhattan where all power was out. The change was startling. Car traffic was swift because stoplights weren't working. But with cars unimpeded, it became too dangerous for pedestrians to cross major avenues. As I headed further south, I began to see makeshift signs made from paper plates posted on store windows. They advertised that they had cold water, or were accepting "cash only," their credit-card machines useless without electricity. Neighbors huddled together on stoops, and some places gave away free hot food that was cooked on sterno cans. I had no phone service.

At Union Square, I saw some colleagues who live in the no-power zone, and I could sense how vulnerable they felt. They suggested that I leave before dark. I ended up walking through Lower Manhattan as the sun set. It was an eerie experience. Without the subway rumbling by and with few motorists or pedestrians, the city was atypically quiet. There were candles in some windows. As I crossed the Manhattan Bridge, I stopped to take a snapshot of the dark skyline of the financial district, the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground. Just then my phone sprang back to life and I received dozens of messages that had piled up over the hours in the dark zone, a sign that I was now entering Brooklyn and returning to the modern, electrified world.

Brooklyn was, well, normal. I walked through bustling downtown, even stopped by Junior's on Fulton to grab a cheesecake for my sister and brother-in-law. The restaurant accepted credit cards. If you didn't leave the neighborhood, you would never realize how miserable parts of the city were, just a few miles away. The contrast was stark and disturbing. That night I went with my sister and her husband to a French restaurant on their block. I had the duck.

The next day I got up early and decided to travel to Queens. In normal circumstances, I would have used the G train to travel to Queens, but its tunnel under Newtown Creek was flooded. So I decided to take buses, which the MTA had largely restored. It was a good opportunity, since I am analyzing the bus service for RPA as part of a larger study of mobility issues in the outer boroughs. But the buses were so packed, with long lines and high tempers, that I ended up walking most of the way to Sunnyside. I discovered how deficient service was in some areas even in the best of times. The B24 bus on Metropolitan Ave., for example, is scheduled to come only every 45 minutes at midday, despite being an important route that connects Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Sunnyside. After a long day, I ended up at Queensboro Plaza, ready to take N train home, which had been restored to service.

When the subway train pulled up, I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy. I actually patted its stainless steel body as if to say, "It's good to see you, old friend." As it swiftly carried me under the East River, I realized why. The city is a collection of neighborhoods and districts that essentially function independently. The subway connects us to each other. Yes, the city is designed in a way that allows us to walk, but only for limited distances.

I thought about this, after getting off the No 6 train, on my final walk home on the Upper East Side.